I begin this posting with a caution about how “current” it will be when you read it. This may seem to be a strange statement.
But it is an honest and necessary one, in light of the current situation, which is so very, very fluid. That instability, that shifting dynamic, is part of the story.
Tuesday, into the night, there was news of renewed conflict with Hamas after a quiet of some hours: Rockets were being launched again (including one towards Ashkelon, stopped by Iron Dome) and incendiary balloons were being released; Israel was retaliating. But yesterday (Wednesday) the situation was once again being described as an “uneasy quiet.”
“Uneasy” was an accurate description, as it is almost a certainty that the quiet will not last another 36 hours. There are two related reasons for this:
Tomorrow marks a year since the Friday demonstrations/riots at the Gaza fence – called the “Great March of Return” – were first initiated. The declared goal of these Marches was to secure lifting of the blockade on Gaza. In the beginning they were supposed to last for six weeks, but then the schedule was extended and extended again.
With regard to Hamas’s situation, analyst Shmirit Meir observes:
“A year has passed and (Hamas leader Yahya) Sinwar doesn’t really have anything to say, [either]to the ordinary residents of the Strip [or] to the loyal Hamas supporters who have demonstrated tirelessly week after week over the past year along the security fence. The economic situation has not improved and the millions in Qatari aid are just a drop in the ocean compared to the needs of Gaza’s residents, some of whom have stopped being afraid and taken to the streets.
“The Egyptians – who have been indirectly mediating talks between Gaza and Jerusalem – presented Israel with a list of far-reaching demands from Sinwar, who thought that Netanyahu would try, at any cost, to avoid a military confrontation in Gaza two weeks before the Knesset elections. There is a sense of real distress within Hamas: neither Sinwar nor Ismail Haniyeh can afford to be left empty-handed and drag the masses into another year of useless demonstrations. At this point, it’s a matter of political survival for Hamas.
“…Hamas is trapped: They need a notable accomplishment to showboat to Gaza residents, otherwise their rule will be in danger. And in that case, they would prefer to risk defeat against Israel than against their own people.” (Emphasis added)
Sinwar was, I think, only partly correct in his reading of Netanyahu.
The prime minister, it is true, might not opt for a war (and the risk of Israeli deaths) two weeks before elections. However, as he makes those hard calls, he is constrained by his recognition that, conversely, concessions to Hamas might lead to his defeat at the polls. The electorate is looking for a tough stance with Hamas: polls taken since the military action in Gaza indicate that more than 50% of Israelis believe it was not tough enough.
Please keep reading for more on this.
Sinwar, it must be noted, is one of the most ruthless and passionately ideological of the Hamas leaders. Over 30 years ago, he established Hamas’s security apparatus, Majd, which was charged with identifying, torturing if necessary, and then killing Palestinian Arabs suspected of collaborating with Israel. Apparently he sometimes killed these collaborators with his bare hands.
He was sentenced to four life terms in Israeli prison for his role in these killings, but only served 23 years before he was released in 2011 as part of the trade for Gilad Shalit, an ill-advised trade for which we continue to pay dearly.
Sinwar’s urgent need to show some results from those March of Return demonstrations is only part of the story, however, because this Saturday, March 30, is also Land Day. The big demonstration marking the anniversary of the March of Return is being pushed off from this Friday until Saturday, to dovetail with Land Day and give the demonstration an even more powerful impetus.
Land Day is a focus for Palestinian Arab resentment and a rationale for unrest. It is difficult, however, to secure accurate information on the historical circumstances associated with this day because each source tells it differently.
What is clear is that in March of 1976, the Israeli government announced intention to confiscate some 5,000 acres of land in the Galil, in the north of Israel, near the Arab city of Sakhnin. Less than one-third of this land was Arab-owned.
There is a great deal of disagreement about whether this was an illegal confiscation aimed at the Arabs or was within permitted legal boundaries. There are questions about how the land was to be used and whether this was in the nature of “eminent domain,” a common practice in the US and other democracies whereby land is taken by the government for public purposes.
Further complicating the picture is the fact that apparently some of what was nominally “Arab-owned” land within that 5,000 acres involved absentee ownership. This refers to a complex legal situation: when Arabs fled from Israel, or were dislocated, at the time of the War of Independence, they sometimes abandoned land that was legally theirs according to pre-State documentation. At some point, this ownership was often transferred legally to the State, via a custodian.
The prominent political party in the area at that time, Rakah, called a general strike for March 30th and rallied the Arab population to protest the seizure of land. This was not a peaceful demonstration: riots broke out, starting the night before and continuing into the next day. Firebombs and rocks were thrown at the IDF and police. In the course of the melee, as authorities contended with the violence, six Arabs were killed.
Since then, Land Day is commemorated by Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Arabs, to protest what they say is the injustice visited upon Arabs in the State of Israel. These demonstrations are not peaceful.
What we can say in the end is that the demonstrations are not about some land confiscated from Arabs in the Galil in 1976, but rather the fact that the Jews had won the War of Independence in 1948-49 and established the State of Israel. It is that larger loss that fuels the riots and engenders the anger. The participating Arabs have not yet made their peace with the historical reality. Undoubtedly, the fact that the Jews were the victors and thus in a position to confiscate land underpins the resentment.
Last year, Land Day, March 30, fell on a Friday and that was the day the Great March of Return was launched. Some 30,000 participated in the riots then, and 17 Arabs were killed.
This year, Hamas leaders are calling for a million people to participate, and possibly to try to enter Israel. They are also calling for the participation of Palestinian Arabs in Judea and Samaria, which would greatly increase the difficulty of containing the unrest. The PA’s Abbas is warning that this may lead to a new intifada.
In spite of the “uneasy quiet” that settled in on Wednesday, additional troops were deployed at the border and Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi – who I understand is strong-minded and tough – had ordered them to stay on high alert.
For some hours today, there were reports of an imminent one-year truce between Israel and Hamas, which was being negotiated by Egypt as go-between. In return for “quiet,” it was said that Israel would permit the entry into Gaza of additional goods, allow a larger fishing area for Gaza fishermen, arrange for additional electricity, etc. But “quiet” meant quiet – not just no rockets, but also no balloons, and no riots at the fence.
Hamas reportedly agreed to no balloons starting immediately, but then balloons were subsequently launched – to which we provided some response via drones. Some Gazans also broke through the fence, but were chased back. Seems the rioters are already at it.
Some hours ago, it had been announced that the Egyptian negotiating team had left Gaza and was going to Israel to present the Hamas terms. The fact that no agreement was subsequently announced means terms were not acceptable. But Egypt continues to scramble to forge a deal: latest report is that they consulted here in Israel and are headed back to Gaza.
Prime Minister/Defense Minister Netanyahu visited the fence at Gaza and when he left, he announced that he was ordering a “tightening” of security around Gaza and preparing for an “extensive campaign.” He warned Hamas that if we do go in it won’t be like last time.
Meanwhile, Hamas has announced that there will not be any deal in place until after the demonstrations on Saturday.
Netanyahu is sounding tough, and this is good; he must stand by his words.
The decisions that must be made by him are difficult ones. That we must be tougher, a great deal tougher, is understood. The question is how tough. Netanyahu says he’ll send in ground troops if necessary, but this does not necessarily reflect intent to take out Hamas and take over Gaza – tasks that would be huge in human cost and have considerable political implications.
And then there’s the question of the point at which Israel would decide going in was “necessary.” At the moment, he is saying no ground operation is planned.
One of the things that has been happening is that Hamas has been doing low level terrorism, via the balloons and such. We have permitted far too much of this – far more than I think any other nation would tolerate – frozen with indecision as how to respond. They’ve been manipulating us and this situation must be rectified.
Undoubtedly, I will be visiting these questions again.
See Dr. Mordechai Kedar for a good piece on some of the issues we must deal with:
Overnight last night an industrial area near Aleppo, Syria was targeted in air strikes. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the bombardment hit “ammunition stores belonging to Iranian forces and allied groups, and caused huge explosions.”
Seven people were killed in the explosion – all Iranian militia or militia associated with Iran.
Acting Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz refused to directly acknowledge Israel’s involvement in the attack, simply saying:
“According to foreign sources, the air force attacked Iranian troops in Syria. As far as Iran knows, it was us. It was an extremely challenging action from a military perspective.”
I will write again after Shabbat, and hopefully have the opportunity to look more extensively at a variety of other issues (although I would not count on it).
In closing now I simply want to share the good news that the latest poll indicates that Likud is getting stronger. For some days, Likud was a few mandates less than Blue and White (Gantz and company) but the combined right, for purposes of forming a coalition, was much stronger than the combined left.
Now Likud and Blue-White are in a dead heat, at 30 mandates each, while the right bloc is gaining in strength relative to the left bloc as well.
We must hope this continues. I have read that the party favored by the largest number of religious Zionists is the Union of the Right, and that many more Israelis see Netanyahu as better equipped to function as prime minister than those who prefer Gantz.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by independent journalist Arlene Kushner. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.