Hamas-Israel tensions rise but no one is in the mood for war
London - Tensions between Hamas and Israel increased following the assassination of an official from the Palestinian movement in Gaza but it appeared unlikely that the incident would trigger a full-blown confrontation between the two sides.
Mazen Faqha, 38, was killed by unknown gunmen on March 24th in Gaza. Hamas blamed Israel’s intelligence services, acting with the help of Palestinian collaborators, for the assassination.
Israel did not officially comment on the assassination.
Faqha was struck by four bullets from a pistol equipped with a silencer. Reports said the assailant had entered Gaza by sea.
“By killing Faqha, the enemy told us: I’ve scored a point against you and I can take away one of your heroes even in the heart of Gaza,” Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal told supporters in Gaza via video link from Qatar.
“It’s a new blood debt that adds itself to all those before. The conflict with the occupier (Israel) remains open… [and] the military and political leadership of Hamas is ready to meet the occupier’s challenge,” he added.
Hamas closed the Beit Hanoun (Erez) crossing between Gaza and Israel for one day. Travel to Israel was then restricted to senior politicians, the sick and families of prisoners.
The motive for the assassination remains unclear, although one reason could be Faqha’s involvement in the West Bank, which has witnessed an increase in the number of attacks against Israelis there.
It was not known if Faqha, who was based in Gaza, continued to play a role in the West Bank following his release from an Israeli jail in 2011 as part of a prisoner swap.
Hamas praised most of the recent attacks in the West Bank and observers noted that the Palestinian movement is more involved in orchestrating some of them than it was willing to announce publicly to avoid inviting Israeli retaliation against Gaza.
At the same time, Hamas would benefit from the public anger about the security coordination between the Palestinian Authority and Israel in the occupied West Bank.
Tensions are high in the West Bank, where the number of Israeli settlers has increased nearly 25% in five years to more than 420,000, numbers presented by prominent settler leader Yaakov Katz indicated.
The figures, which Katz said were based on unreleased data from the Israeli Interior Ministry, did not include settlements in East Jerusalem, where more than 200,000 settlers live.
The head of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service, Nadav Argaman, warned Israeli lawmakers not to be fooled by the “current relative calm” in the West Bank, which he branded as “misleading” because Hamas militants “are constantly trying to carry out attacks” against Israel.
Israeli officials also appear wary of another full-blown war in Gaza, which would mean resumed rocket attacks against Israel. Hamas has not only stopped firing rockets into Israel but it has reportedly sought to prevent rival groups from doing so.
Israeli Ministry of Intelligence Director-General Chagai Tzuriel said the economic hardship in Gaza was making the situation in the besieged strip unpredictable.
Gaza political analyst Akram Atallah told Reuters: “The situation is on the edge of collapse. Hamas and Israel are in a dilemma over how things can proceed.”
Other Palestinian observers said Israel’s alleged assassination of Faqha was meant to provoke a reaction from Hamas to justify an Israeli military response that would divert attention from Tel Aviv’s unwillingness to make progress in the peace process.
Hamas, however, will most likely avoid a direct military response against Israel.
“Hamas is at the height of a reorganisation, with both internal elections and the establishment of a new system of control in the Gaza Strip,” wrote Jack Khoury in the Israeli daily Haaretz.
“The organisation is also in the midst of talks with Egypt and preparing the political platform that it intends to present in the coming weeks,” he added. “In this atmosphere, launching renewed hostilities against Israel would only make things more difficult for Hamas and disrupt its plans.”
For now, the priority for Hamas appears to be tightening its grip on security in the Gaza Strip.
“What is required is the improvement of [Hamas’s] intelligence apparatus,” wrote Sari Urabi in the Gaza-based website Alaqsa Voice.
This could translate to less tolerance of dissent in Gaza.
“Before the assassination, many were complaining about Hamas’s policies. Now, the general mood is of solidarity with the resistance,” said one Palestinian from Gaza on condition of anonymity. “It’s not a suitable time to criticise Hamas.”