This summer’s war in Gaza continues to leave its mark on Israel’s relations with the two Palestinian camps, even though more than two months have passed since the cease-fire agreement was reached between Israel and Hamas. The serious escalation in Jerusalem has not yet subsided, while Gaza seems to be heating up again.
In both cases, the tension stems from the complex relationship between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas (in which Egypt and Jordan are also involved), and is rooted in the events of this past summer.
The Israel Police announced on Sunday with satisfaction that it had curbed the urban intifada raging in Jerusalem since the murder of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir in early July, citing the relative quiet in the city over the weekend and only a few incidents around the Temple Mount. But it seems that the calm, after last week’s assassination attempt on Yehuda Glick followed by the killing of the suspect in short order by a police SWAT team, is probably better attributed to the stormy weather that kept demonstrators off the streets, and the large contingent of police reinforcements brought to the capital from elsewhere.
Anyone visiting East Jerusalem in recent days might get the impression that it was under aggressive military occupation, with policemen and border policemen at every corner, armored jeeps in the streets, and observation balloons in the air.
Sooner or later the police command will have to send most of those police officers back to their home districts. And since there has been no change in the original reasons for the outbreak of rioting – decades of neglect and frustration in the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, increased Jewish settlement in those areas, and the growing national and religious tensions due to Palestinian fears that the status quo on the Temple Mount (which today favors the Muslims) might be altered – it is hard to see full-fledged calm being restored for very long.
One can’t ignore the fact that the Palestinian Authority leadership has a strong interest in preserving the popular uprising in the Jerusalem, which is acceptable to the majority of the residents of the territories, and is not perceived by the world as real terrorism, despite the victims it has claimed, including a 3-month-old baby.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did well when he said repeatedly on Sunday that he would not allow any change to the status-quo prayer arrangements on the Temple Mount. But the Palestinians, as well as Jordan, are not only hearing Netanyahu, but also Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel, who promised in a radio interview on Sunday that the Temple will be rebuilt.
If the prime minister is indeed looking to go to elections, as many political commentators seem to believe, it’s doubtful he will take any meaningful steps to rein in the right flank of his coalition. One can also assume there will be more announcements of new construction plans for Israelis on the city’s eastside.
Meanwhile, the situation in Gaza has gotten significantly worse. The Netanyahu government, which was accused by many of its members of being too restrained when confronted with rocket fire in the days before the last war, is seeking to appear more determined this time. When a rocket was fired at the western Negev on Friday, the crossings at Kerem Shalom and Erez were closed in response.
Israel’s move came only a few days after Egypt’s far more punishing measures: Following the killing of 33 Egyptian soldiers late last month, Egypt shut down the Rafah crossing and began to implement a contingency plan for establishing a buffer zone between the Palestinian side of Rafah and the Egyptian side.
The bulldozers sent by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, unencumbered by a High Court of Justice or B’tselem, are destroying hundreds of homes on the Egyptian side of the border to create a “sterile” zone hundreds of meters wide, aimed at making it even more difficult to dig smuggling tunnels under the border.
While Hamas has often sought to undermine Egyptian control in Sinai, it seems that the current Egyptian allegations that Hamas had aided the recent attacks, carried out by a radical jihadist group called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, don’t hold much water. Nevertheless, the Egyptian media has no problem calling Hamas leaders in Gaza “dogs,” or threatening that even more serious measures will be taken against them.
Hamas is now trying to appease the Egyptians while also signaling to Israel that it wasn’t their men who fired the rocket at the Negev and that the group remains committed to the cease-fire mediated by Cairo at the end of August. Hamas security forces on Saturday arrested five Gazans suspected of being involved in the rocket fire. At this point it’s not clear to which Palestinian group they belong.
The practical result of all these developments is the same: The siege on Gaza is worsening and efforts to rebuild after the devastation left by this summer’s IDF operation have ground almost to a halt. It’s not just that the transfer of construction materials has been delayed; so far there has been no breakthrough on the reopening of the Gaza-Sinai crossings.
Egypt and the PA want a significant presence of PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ Presidential Guard at the crossings, and apparently also along the Philadelphi corridor in Rafah, under which the tunnels were dug. Hamas would probably accept the presence of Ramallah officials at the crossings, but armed police are another matter.
Somehow, these events are beginning to echo the way the escalation toward war began in the summer. Even if ostensibly no one has any interest in another round of violence, once Hamas feels the rope around it tightening, the path to a renewed outbreak against Israel may be shorter than it seems.