SDEROT, Israel — The members of the kibbutz Nir Am woke up Monday morning to an urgent command from the Israeli army: no one was to leave home until further notice. The socialist farming community is less than two miles from the border with Gaza _ and therefore an easy target for a group of Hamas militants who crept under the border and were caught by Israeli soldiers.
“But if they had managed to pass the Israeli soldiers, they would have come straight to the kibbutz,” said Micha Ben-Hillel, who lives in Nir Am. Most of the community’s 400 people have left the kibbutz and are staying with relatives until the war ends.
Two weeks into Operation Protective Edge, Hamas is showing expanded tactics, infrastructure and weaponry against Israel _ which has unleashed its firepower at Hamas in a deadly air and ground operation. More than 500 Palestinians have died since Israeli airstrikes began July 8, and 24 Israeli soldiers have been killed in battle since troops crossed into Gaza on Thursday. On Monday, Israeli tank fire punctuated the night in Sderot. Military vehicles crisscrossed the region near the Gaza border.
The Israeli army has vowed to wipe out Hamas’ arsenal and restore calm to Israel. Hamas, however, has countered that there will be no cease-fire until Israel and Egypt lift restrictions on movement in Gaza that have left the small coastal enclave isolated for the past seven years.
The 1.7 million people in Gaza lead lives that are sharply defined by limitations. Israel closed its two border crossings with Gaza after Hamas took power there in 2007. For years, Gazans eluded Israeli restrictions by using the Rafah crossing with Egypt and trading goods via a flourishing underground economy of tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt frontier.
Then in July 2013, the Egyptian military deposed President Mohamed Morsi, who rose to prominence through the Muslim Brotherhood, and the new government cracked down hard on Hamas, which had long had close ties with the Brotherhood. The new military-installed government closed the border between Egypt and Gaza and blew up most of the tunnels.
Today, the people of Gaza are hemmed in on all sides. They are rarely granted permits to leave the enclave, which has cost many of them job opportunities, scholarships and travel.
Speaking Monday, former Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh vowed that his people “cannot go back to the silent death” of the blockade.
Haniyeh’s comments came days after Egypt attempted to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. The Islamist militant group refused the terms. Hamas officials claimed they were excluded from cease-fire negotiations until the last minute, and that any cease-fire agreement must include lifting the restrictions on the enclave.
Hamas’ attempt to leverage the current conflict into greater political rights is meeting strong Israeli opposition.
“We have on our southern border an entity which is in a declared state of war with Israel,” said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. “Therefore the border crossings cannot be opened for anyone to come and go.”
Many argue, however, that before Israel’s recent attacks, Hamas had shown itself to be far more pragmatic than Israel has cast it.
Political scientist Mukhaimar Abusaada, who teaches at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, said that Hamas had been making moves toward the mainstream in recent years, a trend that, he said, now in all likelihood will end.
He noted, for example, that after the last Israeli attacks on Gaza, so-called Operation Pillar of Defense, which ended in a cease-fire in 2012, Hamas agreed to force more radical Islamist groups to stop attacking Israel. Hamas was running health services, schools and a judicial system, and performed well enough that Qatar offered it $500 million in aid, Abusaada said.
After the Muslim Brotherhood government fell in Egypt, Hamas, facing isolation from Egypt and without funding from Iran or Syria, finally forged an agreement with its arch-rivals, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah faction, to join a unity government in which Abbas, not Hamas, would govern relations with Israel.
The stage was ripe for Hamas to rejoin the fold, Abusaada said – and then tensions escalated and erupted into the current battle.
Israeli officials denounce suggestions that Hamas had tempered its stand toward Israel. They note that the current fighting has shown that Hamas had invested heavily in weapons and a network of tunnels for infiltrating Israel.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said the arsenal Hamas amassed in the last two years included 10,000 rockets, 1,600 of which have been fired into Israel in the last 14 days. The army also has uncovered 14 tunnels snaking underground to Israel, and 36 shafts that lead into them, Lerner said.
“Hamas has clearly been preparing for this battle,” he said.
This Hamas defiance is “embarrassing” for Palestinian Authority President Abbas, according to political scientist Sameeh Hammoudeh, whom teaches at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
“Abbas always says he doesn’t want the Palestinians to get into bloody conflict with Israel, because he believes they cannot stand up to Israel and will pay a heavy price,” Hammoudeh said.
Since the current Israeli operation began July 8, Abbas has been trying to help the Gazans through diplomatic channels. He announced the Palestinians would soon file for membership in the International Criminal Court, where they could potentially sue Israelis for what they say are war crimes. Abbas also traveled to Cairo, where he tried to broker a cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas.
As Hamas makes more assertive demands, the Israeli army response has gotten harsher.
The death toll surpassed 100 in Gaza on both Sunday and Monday as Israeli troops inched deeper into the Gaza Strip and fought Hamas in the streets. In the Gaza City neighborhood of Shijaiyah, Israel bombarded what it said were rocket-launching sites, some inside homes or hospitals. Gaza’s Shifa Hospital was inundated with the injured and dead.
According to the United Nations, more than 101,000 people have sought shelter in 69 Gaza schools run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees.
Israel says the death toll, destruction and displacement are so high because Hamas operates from within civilian population centers. On Thursday, United Nations officials discovered 20 rockets under a school run by the international organization. Spokesman Chris Gunness said the U.N. “strongly condemns” the rockets being hidden in U.N. schools. Gunness said the U.N. delivered the weapons to local bomb disposal units who answer to the national unity government between Fatah and Hamas.
Israel has pointed to the incident as evidence that it has little choice in targeting civilian buildings like schools and hospitals.
“Hamas will wake up from all this and see a new Gaza, and they will have to think twice whether it was worth it to attack Israel the way they did,” said army spokesman Lerner. “And they will also have to look at their people and decide if it was worth their lives.”
Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.