By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
On Sunday Israel announced that it had declared some areas around the Gaza Strip a “closed military zone.” This is not an unprecedented declaration, but it tends to reveal the potential for conflict amidst rising tensions.
In recent weeks tensions have risen along the Gaza border with Israel. On October 30th Israel announced it had blown up a tunnel that stretched from Gaza into Israel. According to reports: “Seven Palestinians, including an Islamic Jihad (PIJ) commander and two members of Hamas, have been killed and nine others reportedly wounded after Israel blew up a tunnel leading into the country from Gaza.”
Then on November 11th there was an exchange of threats between Israel and Islamic Jihad leaders. Israel had threatened to strike at the group if it retaliated for the tunnel incident. Islamic Jihad said any act would be a “declaration of war.” According to another report in Haaretz, “Islamic Jihad personnel in Gaza received a green light from their top leaders in Damascus to retaliate to Israel’s attack on one of their main tunnels, which led to the death of several leaders in the movement’s armed ‘Saraya al-Quds’ wing.”
On Thursday November 30 tensions flared again. The AP reported “Israeli aircraft and tanks struck a number of militant targets in the Gaza Strip on Thursday in response to a volley of mortar fire emanating from the Palestinian territory, in a spike of violence a month after Israel demolished a militant tunnel dug from Gaza.”
Then on December 3 Islamic Jihad critiqued the Arab League for not supporting “resistance” against Israel.
This was followed by reports that areas around the Gaza Strip had been declared a closed military zone. Walla reports “areas adjacent to the Gaza Strip were blocked due to extensive military activity, which was allowed today for publication. The blocking of the roads came about three days after a barrage of mortar shells was fired at an IDF post near the security fence.”
On December 3 Hamas also held a press conference in Gaza. The details of that conference are no clear, but Israel’s COGAT (Coordination of Government Activity in the Territories) has accused Hamas of trying to cater to Iran’s regime by including numerous pro-Iran media in the press event.
Context of the tensions: The Palestinian unity deal
It has been more than three years since the last conflict in Gaza. In mid-October Hamas and Fatah signed a unity agreement. Under the agreement, supported by Cairo, “Hamas agreed to hand over administrative control of Gaza, including the key Rafah border crossing, a decade after seizing the enclave in a civil war.” That would mean the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza. On November 1 the Palestinian Authority took over Rafah, Erez and Kerem Shalom border crossings.
The rest of the Strip was supposed to come under a level of PA control by the end of November. However by late November it appeared clear that there was a pause or even a crisis in the handover. France24 notes: “Fatah and Hamas announced the delay late Wednesday after sharp disagreements derailed a plan to return civil power in the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority by Friday.” As Adam Rasgon at The Jerusalem Post reports, ‘Hamas and Fatah requested that the Egyptian brothers postpone the completion of the government’s takeover of its responsibilities in the Strip…from December 1 to December 10,’ Fayez Abu Eitah, a Gaza-based Fatah official, said, reading a joint Hamas-Fatah statement on Wednesday night.”
This complex set of circumstances, including Egyptian pressure and Israeli concerns about the handover are the context in which Islamic Jihad appears to want to create tensions and conflict. It would serve PIJ’s interests to stoke such a conflict and it would also serve the agenda of Iran which supports PIJ. Some have also pointed to claims that an airstrike in Syria on December 2 that destroyed an alleged Iranian base also hit a weapons depot that holds weapons for PIJ.
Many are focused on tensions regarding Jerusalem and claims Trump is willing to recognize it as the capital of Israel, while Gaza is still very much an elephant in the room. Despite “stirrings of hope” in the Gaza Strip that years of isolation may end, another conflict would prevent that. The recent terror attack in Sinai also led to the closure of the border.