Hamas must choose between war or peace 

Source: Hamas must choose between war or peace ‎ – Israel Hayom

Yoav Limor

This week’s mortar fire on southern Israel is the ‎gravest security escalation on the Israel-Gaza Strip ‎border since Operation Protective Edge in ‎the summer of 2014, but Israeli defense officials ‎believe Israel and Gaza can still avoid a ‎full-fledged ‎military conflict, saying the choice of ‎what happens next is in Hamas’ hands. ‎

This escalation did not happen overnight. It began ‎with the failure of the so-called “million-man march” ‎Hamas planned to unleash on the border two weeks ago ‎to mark Nakba Day, which commemorates the ‎‎”catastrophe” of Palestinian displacement during ‎Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The “million men” ended up being only several thousand. Since then, ‎Hamas’ border riot campaign has also been dwindling.‎

To try to maintain friction with Israeli security ‎forces, Hamas has spared no effort to turn the ‎border area into a terrorist zone, and has ‎given its operatives – and Palestinian protesters – ‎a free hand to carry out terrorist attacks, including ‎hurling firebombs, sending incendiary kites and ‎balloons over the border, and placing explosives on ‎the security fence. ‎

Israeli shelling in response to one of these attacks killed ‎three Islamic Jihad operatives. The terrorist group ‎claimed responsibility for Tuesday morning’s salvo, ‎citing retaliation, but there is no doubt Hamas gave it the green light. ‎

Hamas, which rules Gaza, gambled that Israel would ‎mount the obligatory measured response and that this would end the current round. This is why Hamas ‎operatives were not involved in any rocket fire then.‎

But Israel mounted a large response instead, striking ‎dozens of terror hubs and destroying a Hamas ‎terror tunnel in southern Gaza. Hamas was pressured ‎to respond, both by its own members and the other ‎terrorist groups in Gaza, and, in a bid to maintain ‎control, it decided to join the ‎fire spree.‎

One defense official called it the “Fatah syndrome,” ‎saying that Hamas’ biggest fear is being ‎perceived – like rival faction Fatah – as doing ‎nothing to take part in the Palestinian struggle.‎

Still, Hamas made it clear to its operatives that ‎their fire must be limited to the Israeli communities near the border and that they must avoid a wider range that could ‎compromise larger cities such as Ashdod, Beersheba ‎and even Tel Aviv. ‎

Israeli defense officials debated the intensity of ‎Israel’s response, but it was widely believed that ‎decisive action was needed to make it clear to Hamas ‎that a red line had been crossed. ‎

From a public diplomacy standpoint, Israel placed ‎responsibility for the escalation in the south on ‎Hamas, which controls Gaza, and on Iran, ‎which sponsors it and spurs it into action. ‎Islamic Jihad was also condemned to a lesser ‎degree, despite its direct involvement. Israel was careful and sought to avoid Palestinian ‎casualties as much as possible. ‎

The Israeli response was meant mostly to give Hamas the necessary ‎leeway to contain the situation before it spirals ‎out of control. Naturally, the IDF is ready for ‎that to happen, but it still prefers to avoid a ‎wide-ranging military campaign if possible.‎

Egypt and Qatar played roles as brokers Tuesday, to little effect. The decision of where to go ‎from here remains in Hamas’ hands. If it mounts a ‎minor response to the IAF’s strikes in Gaza, Israel will be able to pull back. But if the mortar ‎and rocket salvos continue, the IDF will retaliate ‎forcibly and things could easily deteriorate from ‎there. ‎

The prevailing view in Israel is that Hamas has no ‎interest in such escalation, but its conduct ‎currently is confused and erratic, which is a recipe for ‎mistakes. ‎

Even if an escalation is avoided, this ‎is hardly the end of the story. Gaza is on the ‎brink of eruption for a variety of reasons, most ‎notably the dire economic and humanitarian ‎situation, coupled with growing political and ‎political frustration. Given Hamas’ failure to ‎provide Gazans with any solutions, it can go on one ‎of two paths: a cease-fire or war. Both options are still on the table.‎

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