The latest clashes between Israel and Hamas may have started because of a mistake

By BEN SALES

(JTA) — Israel and Hamas may be headed toward yet another war in Gaza. By accident.

The last two days have seen clashes ratchet up between the two sides, who have fought three wars in the past decade. The last Gaza war, in 2014, was particularly devastating: Some 2,100 Palestinians and 70 Israelis died in the fighting.

Sderot residents view the site where a mortar shell from Gaza hit the southern Israeli city near the border, Aug. 9, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Another replay may be about to start. Since Wednesday, Hamas has launched about 200 rockets at Israel. Israel has bombed 150 targets in Gaza. Three Palestinians have been killed, according to Hamas, including a pregnant mother and her toddler. Israel reports 11 wounded on its side.

The fighting escalated Thursday night as a missile struck the Israeli city of Beersheba, which is farther away from Gaza. Israel responded by destroying a building in Gaza City that Israel calls a Hamas headquarters and Hamas says is a cultural center.

And it all started from what might have been a mistake.

Before Wednesday, Israel and Hamas were in indirect talks to establish a long-term truce on the border. The truce would see Hamas attacks against Israel end in exchange for Israel easing the blockade and allowing more goods in and out of Gaza. Two Israelis and the bodies of two dead soldiers held by Hamas would be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners.

But on Tuesday morning, Israeli troops on the Gaza border detected Hamas fire in their direction. They responded in kind, killing two Hamas military officials. Hamas responded with rockets, and here we are.

Except the Hamas gunfire apparently was not meant for Israeli soldiers. It was, according to Hamas, part of a naval commando exercise in the presence of senior Hamas officials in Gaza.

So it’s possible that this is all the outcome of a misunderstanding. Yet even as they remain in indirect talks to end the fighting, both sides are speaking in bellicose terms. Israel’s Security Cabinet, which manages issues of war and peace, directed the army to “continue taking strong action against the terrorist elements.” According to Haaretz, a Hamas spokesman said, “The brutal Israeli attack and the targeting of civilians will not be tolerated quietly, and the occupation will pay the price.”

How is it possible to go from indirect peace talks to the verge of a war in a matter of days? Such is the tinderbox of Israel-Hamas relations — or lack thereof. The sides don’t talk, as a policy, which increases the chances that a misunderstanding can snowball into war. There’s no hotline that we know of where Benjamin Netanyahu and Ismail Haniyeh can smooth things over.

Not that things were smooth to begin with. The conflict between Israel and Hamas is less peacetime interrupted by a series of wars, but more like a sine curve, with periods of more and less conflict. Residents of Gaza are dependent on humanitarian aid, have limited electricity and still haven’t rebuilt the thousands of buildings destroyed in 2014. Israelis living on the border have been terrorized for decades by sirens warning of incoming rockets, with only seconds to run for shelter.

And the past few months have not been particularly calm. A series of Palestinian protests on the Gaza border this spring erupted in clashes between Palestinians, including Hamas militants, storming the border fences and Israeli soldiers, who killed more than 100 Palestinians altogether — including 60 on May 14, mostly Hamas members.

Since then, Palestinians have set fire to thousands of acres of Israeli farmland on the Gaza border via flaming kites and balloons. In early July, Israel closed Gaza’s only commercial border crossing in response to the fires, later partially reopening it. On July 20, Hamas sniper fire killed an Israeli soldier. Israel responded with airstrikes that killed four Hamas militants.

But those clashes were headed off the next morning with a cease-fire. Whether that will happen again remains to be seen.

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