Hamas still firmly in control of Gaza

This story orginally appeared on The Media Line.

One year after the heavy fighting between the Islamist Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip and Israel, Hamas remains firmly in control of Gaza and reconstruction of the 12,000 uninhabitable homes in Gaza has barely begun. Senior Israeli army officials are recommending that Israel open more border crossings between Gaza and Israel to enable more goods to enter Gaza and more Palestinians to leave.

“Since 2000, the number of people coming to UNRWA (the UN agency that handles Palestinian refugees) has gone from 80,000 to 860,000,” UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness told The Media Line. “The Israeli blockade which is a form of collective punishment must be lifted soon and that includes exports. At the moment there have been no meaningful exports at all.”

The UN says that of the 2262 Palestinians killed in the fighting, 1500 were civilians, among them 551 children and 305 women. Israel disputes the figures saying more than half of those killed were Hamas fighters. Seventy-one Israelis, most of them soldiers, also died in the fighting.

Israeli airstrikes caused widespread devastation in parts of Gaza, which Israel says were used as launching pads for rocket strikes on Israel or as hiding places for Hamas weapons. Gunness said 12,000 homes in Gaza are uninhabitable after being totally or almost totally destroyed. While large amounts of ruble have been removed, reconstruction has barely started. Qatar has offered to build hundreds of new homes there.

In recent weeks, there has been speculation that Israel and Hamas are engaged in indirect negotiations over a long-term cease-fire. Israel has not responded to several rockets fired from Gaza in the past few weeks, which were apparently fired not by Hamas but by Salafi elements who are challenging Hamas.

Some Israeli analysts say that accepting a long-term truce with Hamas would be a mistake.

“All we would be doing is giving them the time they need to rehabilitate their capability,” General Yakov Amidror, a former national security advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told The Media Line. “We will then have to face them when they are strong enough. There is no logic in such an argument.”

He said Hamas lost almost two-thirds of its rocket capabilities during the fighting with Israel, half of which was destroyed in Israeli air strikes, and half was fired. Other military analysts say Hamas has restored its short-term rockets although not the longer-term missiles which can hit Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

While that may be true, Amidror counters, Israel’s Iron Dome proved effective at stopping the rockets, meaning that Israel has established a position of deterrence vis a vis Hamas.

“What Hamas needs is something different than what it had a year ago because nothing worked for Hamas,” he said. “Its RPGs were destroyed, Iron Dome coped with the missiles and the rockets and the tunnels were not a great success. The question is does Hamas have something new that we don’t know about.”

Hamas is facing a challenge from Islamic State, he said, which has established a strong presence in neighboring Sinai and is challenging Egypt. But in Gaza at least Hamas remains firmly in control.

Israeli press reports say that the army is recommending that Israel ease freedom of movement from Gaza. Egypt has also kept a tight hold on its Rafah crossing, afraid of being inundated with Palestinians who want to escape life in Gaza. For example, the officers said, Israel could allow thousands of Palestinians to travel via the Erez crossing through Israel to Jordan, where they could fly abroad. Israel could also reopen the Karni crossing for goods into and out of Gaza.

Chris Gunness of UNRWA agrees that could make a difference in people’s lives.

“It would make a huge difference,” he said. “Freedom of movement for civilians would be a very welcome thing.”

Islamist group says it fired rockets at Israel from Gaza

A small Islamist group claimed responsibility for firing rockets on Thursday at an Israeli border town from the Gaza Strip during U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to the region.

The small Salafi group called Magles Shoura al-Mujahddin said in an Internet statement that it fired the rockets to show that Israeli air defenses could not stop attacks on the Jewish state during the visit.

Police said there were no casualties but some damage in the attack on Sderot near the Gaza frontier.

“Responding to the bragging of the Roman dog and the war criminals of their so-called Iron Dome, we assert that all their military techniques will not stop God's destiny of tormenting them,” the statement, posted on the Ansar al-Mujahideen website, which is used by Islamist militants, said.

It was referring to the U.S. president, who is on a visit to Israel and the West Bank and who had mentioned the town in a speech on his arrival in Israel a day earlier.

The group had previously claimed a deadly attack in June 2012 on Israel from Sinai.

The Islamist Hamas group, which rules Gaza since 2007, has conducted sweeps against the armed Salafis, who espouse an austere form of Islam and who often try to fire rockets into Israel in defiance of de facto Palestinian truces.

Reporting by Ahmed Tolba in Cairo, writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Alison Williams