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Israel-Gaza ceasefire

15 May 2019 Jack Kennedy

A ceasefire arrangement was agreed between Israel and Gaza-based Islamist militant groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad (PIJ), on 6 May. The ceasefire was reported in Israeli and Palestinian media as subject to the implementation of terms agreed to in early April - including the transfer of Qatari money to Hamas, an easing of the economic blockade of Gaza, and on an extension of fishing access off the Gaza coast. Israeli newspaper Times of Israel reported on 13 May that the Qatari envoy had crossed into Gaza to distribute approximately USD30 million to Hamas and civilians.

The escalation was probably an attempt by Hamas to raise the cost for Israel to delay the implementation of previous ceasefire arrangements. For the three previous days, there had been a significant escalation after two Palestinians were killed during protests at the border and two Israeli soldiers wounded. The total number of casualties was higher. Gaza groups subsequently fired approximately 690 rockets into Israel, with 240 intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. Four Israeli citizens were killed. Israel carried out air and artillery strikes not seen since the 2014 Gaza operation and resumed targeted killings of Hamas officials.

Full implementation of the ceasefire arrangement conditions would reduce the likelihood of an immediate return rocket launches and the risk of conflict escalation. Any perceived stalling by Israel to implement the terms of the ceasefire (not all of which are under Israeli control) would increase the likelihood of another confrontation in the one-month outlook. This will be highly dependent on the regular transfer of the amount agreed upon across the border by the Qatari envoy and ensuring that the border crossings into Gaza from Israel remain open to the transfer of fuel and commodities.

Although neither side is looking for a return to prolonged conflict, the Gaza leadership probably calculates that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's vulnerable position makes him likely to offer concessions. The Israeli government will be seeking to minimize the risk of rocket-fire from Gaza for the next two weeks, with Israeli Independence celebrations and the Eurovision Song Contest due to be held in Tel Aviv from 14-18 May. The leadership of both Gaza groups - particularly PIJ - have, however, likely calculated that Netanyahu is vulnerable to threats of renewed violence while he tries to form a governing coalition and seeks to avoid any escalation over Gaza.

If the conditions of the ceasefire are not met in the next few weeks it would significantly increase the likelihood that the PIJ's leadership, based in Syria, will seek to pressure Israel. This would probably involve the use of longer-range rocket fire at southern cities, notably as Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Be'er Sheva, while avoiding targeting Tel Aviv, as this would almost certainly provoke a much stronger Israeli response. The current situation raises the likelihood of a major miscalculation by the militant groups over Israeli tolerance of civilian casualties.

Indicators of changing risk environment

Increasing war risk

  • Israel closes the Kerem Shalom and Erez border crossings into Gaza to the movement of goods or people.
  • The Qatari envoy, Mohammed al-Emadi, is delayed from personally transferring the next tranche of promised funds to Hamas.
  • Israeli coalition government formation negotiations close with a proponent of an anti-Hamas campaign in Gaza, such as Avigdor Lieberman, as Minister of Defense.
  • An intensification of US-led attempts to economically pressure Iran into renegotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) provokes overtly Iranian-backed Gaza groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad to respond with rocket fire and sniper attacks on Israeli border troops.

Decreasing war risk

  • Hamas's leadership commits to reducing the intensity and size of the weekly Gaza border protests, particularly for Nakba Day commemorations on 15 May.
  • Deployment of Hamas night time 'confusion units' along the border is phased out over the coming week - this would be an indicator of a reduced likelihood of cross-border attacks and an IDF response.

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