With situation deteriorating, Palestinian territories could erupt ahead of Israeli elections

Netanyahu is in favour of managing the conflict, not resolving it, said Menachem Klein, professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University.
Saturday 24/08/2019
Palestinians demonstrate near the fence along the border with Israel in the eastern Gaza Strip, August 16. (AFP)
Volatile border. Palestinians demonstrate near the fence along the border with Israel in the eastern Gaza Strip, August 16. (AFP)

LONDON - An increase in attacks along the Gaza-Israel border and a Palestinian intelligence report indicate how volatile the security situation remains in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Violence has once again flared at the Gaza-Israel border. Several Palestinians reportedly tried to cross into Israel but were met with tank and helicopter fire, the Israeli military said. The Health Ministry in the Gaza Strip said August 18 that three Palestinians were killed in the incident.

The attempted border crossing occurred shortly after three rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel. Neither Hamas nor the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) claimed responsibility for the incursion. Hamas called it the work of “rebellious youths,” terminology it has used to distance itself from similar attacks.

In a sign of the volatility of the situation despite a de facto ceasefire, Hamas and PIJ warned that the “rebellion of the youth” in Gaza was “a harbinger of an explosion.”

A senior Hamas official previously told an Arab newspaper that the Islamist movement’s leaders were concerned that the rise in lone-wolf attacks could push both sides towards a major confrontation. Hamas and PIJ called the “Israeli occupation… responsible for the crimes targeting the young people who… protested the continued blockade.”

Tareq Baconi, of the International Crisis Group, commented on social media that Israel had failed “to ease the blockade during periods of calm,” leaving the situation in the coastal enclave unchanged. Baconi said the motivation for the rise in border attacks was to increase pressure on Israel to alleviate the blockade.

Gaza faces an “unprecedented humanitarian crisis,” the UN humanitarian agency said. Citing security measures, Israel has for more than a decade restricted the freedom of movement for goods and people in and out of Gaza, which has severely affected the Gaza Strip’s economy.

While electricity supply in Gaza increased this year, in June it was limited to 12 hours per day. The World Food Programme reported that 51% of Gaza respondents said they had borrowed food or money from relatives or friends in June.

“Hamas wants to quicken the pace of the ceasefire deal,” said Neri Zilber, director of research at BICOM, a think-tank in London. Hamas, Zilber said, is using the electoral calendar in Israel to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “The bottom line is that everyone knows, especially the Hamas leadership, that the last thing Netanyahu wants is a war, definitely not before or during an election,” he said.

The increase in violence has left its mark on Israel’s election campaign. Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s main challenger in the September 17 election, called Netanyahu “weak.” Gantz, a former head of the Israel Defence Forces, said Israel had lost its deterrence when it comes to the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu, who recently became Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is in favour of managing the conflict, not resolving it, said Menachem Klein, professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and former adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. This means there are “ups and downs, mismanagement and miscalculations” because of election considerations, Klein said.

Yuval Steinitz, a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet, countered claims that the Netanyahu was weak on Hamas. He told Israeli radio that Netanyahu was preparing for a “widespread operation in Gaza,” while also acting against Iran’s involvement in Syria. Steinitz lashed out against the Blue and White party, led by Gantz, saying its leaders, including several former generals, did not have a long-term solution for Gaza, “and they still don’t.”

Attacks from the Gaza Strip are not the only security issue affecting Israeli-Palestinian relations. Israeli media outlet Ynet cited a Palestinian intelligence report that warned deteriorating economic and political conditions in the occupied West Bank could lead to a violent uprising. It said that Hamas’s violent resistance is seen as having yielded more benefits than the Palestinian Authority’s cooperation with Israel.

Klein said these assessments were not new and were shared by Israeli intelligence. Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that Israeli assessments spoke of the possibility that increased violence could break out before the elections.

The Palestinian intelligence report came against the backdrop of the PA’s deep financial crisis, mainly triggered by its decision not to accept the transfer of taxes collected on its behalf by Israel. The Israeli government previously ordered deducting from the transfers the amount the PA pays to the families of imprisoned Palestinians.

A Palestinian official told Agence France Presse on August 22 that the PA had reached an agreement with Israel to receive duties on oil and fuel worth approximately $500 million.

Klein said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s “political strategy does not work except for blocking [US President Donald] Trump’s deal.”

News recently emerged that Abbas fired his advisers and ordered former ministers to return money received through a pay rise. The financial crisis is affecting PA civil servants and security forces, as well as the wider West Bank economy, said Zilber, adding: “That has an impact on the ground because it increases public dissatisfaction and the potential for unrest.”

Abbas announced in July that the PA was ending all agreements with Israel, including security coordination. He has made similar threats previously, which were never implemented. Security coordination “is still intact,” said Zilber. He said the Palestinians formed a committee to assess how the severing of ties would be implemented.

Ending security coordination would be a “game changer,” said Zilber. “As much as it would harm Israel and stability in the West Bank, the PA would also pay a major prize if things got out of hand,” he said.

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