21 August 2019
- Further provocative Israeli actions highly likely ahead of September elections, which will raise risk of violence in Gaza and West Bank
- Egyptian mediation between Israel and Hamas will continue, limiting risk of major escalation in Gaza violence for now
- Rising Palestinian anger and violence will complicate US efforts to build support for forthcoming peace plan
Hamas claimed on 18 August that recent clashes on Gaza’s border with Israel were conducted by “angry young men” responding to poor economic conditions created by Israel’s “siege of Gaza”. The statement followed two separate incidents on 10 and 17 August when Israeli security forces shot and killed a total of seven Palestinians, who were reportedly armed and attempting to infiltrate the Gaza border and enter Israeli territory. Separately, on 16 and 17 August, three rockets fired from Gaza were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defence system prompting two retaliatory air strikes on Hamas positions in the Strip.
Clashes along the Gaza border are common, particularly following the inception of the Hamas-backed “Right of Return” marches, held at the border every Friday since March 2018. Border violence and Hamas rocket strikes have met with an assertive Israeli response including air strikes in Gaza. Tel Aviv and Hamas have, however, engaged in Egyptian-brokered talks over the past year, which has helped prevent any significant escalations, such as when a heavy outbreak of violence in April was ended via a ceasefire mediated by Cairo on 6 May. The recent incidents are however the most significant clashes since this ceasefire, and likely reflect anger over recent Israeli actions in the West Bank. These include Israeli settlers’s entry to the Al-Aqsa mosque compound during Eid al-Adha celebrations on 11 August which triggered significant international condemnation, particularly from Kuwait and Jordan.
Hamas has historically sought to portray itself as the most credible resistance force against Israel and it is therefore likely to have coordinated the recent border incidents to highlight these credentials and appeal to Palestinians angered by recent Israeli provocations in both Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas will also have intended to maintain pressure on Tel Aviv to ease its blockade against Gaza. This explains the group’s emphasis on the economic conditions created by Israel’s blockade in its 18 August statement, as being the driver for recent violence. That said, Hamas leadership is also aware that promoting violence against Israel risks eliciting a strong response from Tel Aviv. Its suggestion that the attempted attacks were conducted by “angry young men” will thus have been calculated to distance Hamas from their actions to limit the risk of major military retaliation.
Israel’s relatively restrained response to the rocket strikes reflects Prime Minister Netanyahu’s efforts to avoid heavy violence on the Gaza border ahead of Israeli elections on 17 September. Netanyahu, however, continues to face criticism from opposition figures such as presidential challenger Benny Gantz, who accuse him of not acting assertively enough towards Hamas. Any further Hamas rocket strikes or border attacks that lead to Israeli causalities in the coming weeks are therefore likely to elicit a firmer military response from Tel Aviv, although continued Egypt-mediated engagement will help ensure further swift de-escalations.
Meanwhile, hardline Israeli politicians will call for provocative actions in Jerusalem and the West Bank ahead of the elections to appeal to right-wing Israeli voters, such as inciting further raids on Al-Aqsa and backing large-scale approvals of settlements in the West Bank. Palestinian anger will therefore continue to increase both in the West Bank and Gaza and raise the risk of lone-wolf attacks by citizens on Israeli interests in both these areas, as well as in Jerusalem. Rising anger and violence are also likely to further complicate Washington’s efforts to secure backing for its forthcoming peace plan, further incentivising Palestinians to maintain their outright rejection of the initiative ahead of its proposed unveiling in October.
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