In the worst outbreak of violence between Israel and Hamas in months, four Hamas members were killed and five Israeli soldiers were wounded, one seriously, in clashes along the Israel-Gaza border that ranged into the night on Thursday.
The violence was sparked by an Israeli move to destroy a tunnel network that the Israeli had discovered in southern Gaza last month. The ISDF destroyed one of the tunnels then. On Thursday, the IDF sent tanks and armored personnel carriers into Gaza to finish the destruction.
The tunnel, which was reinforced with concrete, connected the coastal territory with Israel and was one of the larger tunnels built by Hamas. The IDF believes it was built exclusively for smuggling Gaza militants into Israel and capturing Israeli soldiers and taking them back to Gaza.
The five soldiers were wounded when they triggered a booby trap at the entrance into the tunnel. One soldier was seriously injured, one moderately wounded, and the other three lightly injured.
Following the explosion Israeli soldiers opened fire on armed Palestinians in the vicinity, killing a Hamas leader. During the exchange, Hamas members fired mortars at the Israeli soldiers. In a later attack the Israeli Air Force bombed another part of the tunnel complex, killing three other prominent Hamas members.
Hamas is under extreme pressure, economically and politically, and its tunnel building is a sign of its desperation to establish itself as a relevant force again.
Israel’s blockade of Gaza’s northern border, Egypt’s closing of its southern border and the Egyptian military’s destruction of nearly all the smuggling tunnels that connected Gaza with the Sinai Peninsula, has further ruptured an already fragile economy.
The Israeli paper Haaretz quoted Hamas Deputy Economic Minister Hatem Oweida as saying that Egypt’s closure of the tunnels costs the Gazan economy $230 million a month. Gaza's economy depends on the tunnels. Even when they are operating, however, unemployment stands at 43 percent and there are no funds to create new jobs or pay Hamas’s 40,000 employees.
Adding to the generally bleak outlook, the U.N.Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) says it will scale back aid to only 10,000 Palestinian refugees out of a population of more than 1.5 million people in the territory.
The tunnels from Egypt were used to smuggle in all sorts of goods with one of the most important commodities being fuel. Gaza’s sole power plant shut its generators down on Friday due to a lack of fuel, which means Gazans could face 12-hour power cuts, creating medical emergencies in hospitals which depend on the generators to operate.
The coastal territory’s economic crisis has been further exacerbated by a falling out with one of its former benefactors, Iran. A former adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, Dr. Ahmed Youssef, recently tried to organize a trip to Teheran to discuss bilateral relations but was rebuffed by the Iranians.
Teheran has not forgiven Hamas for closing its office in Damascus, after criticizing the Syrian regime for its conduct during the Syrian civil war, and moving offices to Qatar and Cairo respectively, before former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was overthrown.
“Iran’s problem is that we refused to stand with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad against the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian rebels and the Syrian people,” Hamas spokesman Akram al Tissari told McClatchy.
In addition to losing regional support, the geographical and political divide between the Western-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) government in the West Bank and Hamas remains as wide as ever with little hope of reconciliation between the two mainstream Palestinian political factions in the forseable future.
However, Hamas is now also facing increasing opposition from Palestinians in Gaza, tired of the crackdown on civil liberties and the increasingly repressive measures against any political opposition.
Gaza’s Tamarod, which borrowed its name from the Egyptian group that helped orchestrate the massive demonstrsations that ended with Morsi's ouster, is now planning demonstrations against Hamas on Nov. 11, the anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death. Expecting a massive crackdown by Hamas security forces, Tamarod organizers have already warned Gazans to stock a week’s supply of food and other essentials.
The Israelis believe that due to Hamas being cornered, its intention to carry out more attacks and attempts to capture Israelis is just a matter of time and the tunnels were a means to do that.
“It’s a pity that when we allow more construction material into Gaza for rebuilding destroyed homes and buildings as a humanitarian gesture that instead it is used cynically by Hamas to construct tunnels from which to attack Israel,” Israeli Foreign Ministry Deputy Spokesman Paul Hirschson told McClatchy.
Simultaneously, as Gaza heats up, clashes and violence in the West Bank are escalating with three Israelis and nine Palestinians killed during the last two months.
The Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee held an emergency meeting on Thursday night in Ramallah to discuss urgent steps to be taken in the next few days as it comes under increasing pressure to withdraw from peace talks with Israel over the new wave of settlement construction planned for East Jerusalem.