Some of us have snow days; Israeli children have “rocket days” – if you need an explanation, you haven’t been paying attention. Children in southern Israel had a rocket day Monday (Feb.24th), which was fortunate because a Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) rocket slammed into a kindergarten playground. It was only one of dozens launched from the Gaza Strip this week.
The fact that the rockets are PIJ, not Hamas, is, in fact, an important point.
While Hamas’s main enemy is the Palestinian Authority (PA), which it ousted from Gaza in a bloody and brutal war in 2007, the State of Israel provides a 20-mile wide physical barrier between the two. But PIJ is in Gaza and it has become increasingly unhappy with what it perceives to be Hamas’s “softness.” In December, the Israeli Security Cabinet was considering a long-term truce with Hamas. Israel-Hamas Truce talks, brokered by Egypt, have been a staple rumor for years, but this one gained traction in 2020 after PIJ commander Baha Abu al-Ata was assassinated.
Israel holds Hamas responsible for whatever happens in Gaza – which is appropriate – but it is also true that Hamas has never actually governed Gaza; it doesn’t know how and doesn’t want to. The goal for Hamas was to build an asymmetric force to challenge Israel. It tried tunneling under the border fence, rioting at the fence, shooting hundreds of rockets over the fence at Israel. With kites – and an “incendiary falcon” – in 2018, Hamas burned over 7,400 acres of land, an area equal to half of Manhattan. Tire burning produced an ecological catastrophe because tires have carcinogens that are released when they burn. (It isn’t clear whether Hamas considered the health effects on the Palestinian civilians who breathe the same air as Israeli civilians.) The kite fires burned cultivated fields and nature preserves and killed thousands of animals.
Hamas was never going to destroy the State of Israel and it wasn’t designed to. For Hamas, the trick has been to use enough violence to get the world’s attention and to create an Israeli response – preferably one that results in a fair number of civilian casualties, which will bring the UN, the EU, Human Rights Watch, etc. down on Israel – but not enough violence that Israel really punishes It.
For Israel, the goal was to use enough retaliatory force to restore status quo ante, but not enough to cause Hamas to collapse. If Hamas collapses, Israel will have to step in and consider reoccupying Gaza – its worst nightmare.
There was a sort of equilibrium; a sort of slow-motion train wreck – especially for the civilians on both sides.
The intention of PIJ is to upset the equilibrium. Israel expects Hamas to control PIJ but thus far, it doesn’t seem able.
One problem for Hamas is that the Arab states – primarily Saudi Arabia & Kuwait – have changed their view of Israel’s role in the region and changed their view of the Palestinians. They’re tired of them. They stopped supporting Hamas financially years ago and as President Donald Trump’s peace plan shows, they’re not too fond of the Palestinian Authority. Egypt, while it is willing to be a broker for Israel, considers Hamas an enemy. And it is. It is the Palestinian branch of the same Muslim Brotherhood that is outlawed in Egypt. Most of Hamas’s financial support comes from Iran and Turkey – two non-Arab countries – which makes the Gulf States, Egypt, and Jordan angry.
But if Hamas has little control over the situation, PIJ took a page from its playbook, announcing a “cease fire” when Israel retaliated for the aggression of the past two days. But, as often happened with Hamas, PIJ firing resumed only hours later. I wrote in 2012:
Under the circumstances, any Hamas promise to do anything — should it make one — would be nothing but cause for additional uncertainty as to the time of its breaking its promise.
So, what is Israel to do?
Cease fire unilaterally at the moment Israel decides that it has done as much destruction of Hamas capabilities inside Gaza as its military command deems essential. And cease fire with a message — that the ceasing of fire is indeed unilateral and is undertaken because the government of Israel has decided that it has done what it intended to do and therefore chooses to stop without regard to what Hamas wants. And that because it was unilaterally begun, it will last only as long as the government of Israel finds that it serves the interest of the State. If it doesn’t, fire will recommence, and that without regard to Hamas desires as well.
Substitute PIJ for Hamas and it is still pretty good advice.
As long as Israeli children are forced to take “rocket days,” Israel, not PIJ should be making the rules.