At 11 p.m. on Tuesday, during the World Cup semi-final between Brazil and Germany, the streets of Gaza were empty – and not because of the game.
A few days earlier, in the quarter-final stage, Gaza’s beachside cafes had been packed with men who had come to watch the games and puff away on hookahs on the seashore. But on Tuesday, and then again the following day, when the second semi-final was played, the residents of Gaza stayed in their homes for fear of Israeli airstrikes.
With unemployment soaring at 44 percent and acute poverty that afflicts nearly two-thirds of the population of the coastal territory, despair has not become any easier to bear in the Strip.
One pundit who resides in Gaza joked while speaking to me on the phone from there that “people sank even deeper into despair after the first game, as the majority here supports Brazil.”
He also said the average Gazan blames Israel for the latest escalation.
“The people here think that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is using the kidnapping [and killing of three Israeli teenagers last month, allegedly by Hamas] to end the negotiations with [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas and harm the reconciliation and Hamas. So far, Netanyahu has achieved both objectives – to strike at the reconciliation and end the talks with the Palestinian Authority.”
I asked him what Hamas wanted to achieve. After all, it had started the escalation.
“First and foremost, to forge new relations with Cairo,” he said. “They have named this war ‘The Tenth of Ramadan.’ Do you know which other war had the same name? The Yom Kippur War. ‘This is a gift for the Egyptian army,’ they said. They even demand that the injured be evacuated to Egypt for treatment. At the end of the day, they want the Rafah crossing to open and to build a new relationship with the president, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.”
“Until now, Hamas has been isolated,” he went on. “They can’t leave Gaza at all. There are no more tunnels [for smuggling material in the Strip, which have been closed down by Egypt]. The prices just rise and rise, and the reconciliation has hurt them. Now this is their way of changing the equation. Since the Israeli strikes began, they have won great popularity on the Palestinian street: they have managed to shoot at Tel Aviv, as only Saddam Hussein had done before them. They have fired at the Dimona reactor, at Haifa. Little Hamas has been able to drive five million Israelis into bomb shelters. In the eyes of the average Gazan, this is a huge achievement. In the meantime, they go on doing whatever they want. Even the Palestinian Authority officials (whose salaries are paid by Abbas) have been afraid to approach the banks after armed militants shot at the ATMs and banks from which they collected their salaries.”
According to this Gaza pundit, the aggressive Israeli offensive and the harming of innocents have only served to bolster popular support for the Islamist rulers of the strip.
“They will want to set up a new government, after it is all over. They want to be on the map again, not to be those who surrendered to Abbas and Israel.”
And yet, it is not at all certain that Hamas invested much thought in the decision to go to war. Yes, it is evident that they prepared ahead of time for such a scenario by identifying precise shooting targets and planning special operations. But even in our region, such a decision is usually preceded by numerous high-level discussions, foreword planning and possibly also an exit strategy. The aggressor will generally have clear objectives for his decision to instigate the violence, relating to the enemy against whom he is fighting.
But the latest confrontation between Hamas and Israel exposes a phenomenon that is not as well known in our region: It’s the case of a semi-military terrorist entity, Hamas, going to war against a stronger enemy, Israel, not to cause it to accede to its demands, but to cause a third and fourth entity to accede to them. Hamas has dragged itself into war without devoting too much thought to its exit strategy. Its key hopes are that Egypt will change its attitude toward it, and that it will finish off Palestinian reconciliation efforts once and for all.
Israel, it would seem, has been drawn against its will into Hamas’s fight for survival against Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.
The deliberate escalation of rocket fire toward Israel in the days before the fighting began seems like an improvisation born of Hamas’s understanding of the changing reality. And if we take a moment to try to reflect on what has taken place here in the last few weeks, it becomes evident that Hamas is acting ad-hoc, without a strategic plan.
First came the kidnapping and killing of the three Israeli teens by a Hamas cell in Hebron. Israel doesn’t have proof that the leadership of the organization in the Gaza Strip or abroad was behind the act, but it is clear that an as-yet unseen hand invested significant resources and funds in the attack, apparently with the intention of taking Israelis hostage and negotiating with Israel for their release.
The abductions led to an expansive IDF operation in the West Bank targeting the Hamas infrastructure there, both military and civil. Hundreds of Hamas members were arrested, financial institutions were closed down and, worst of all for Hamas, over 50 Hamas members who were released in the prisoner exchange deal to free kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011 were re-arrested by Israeli security forces. Hamas’s great achievement, the release of 1,027 prisoners in exchange for a single Israeli soldier just under three years ago, was undermined by Israel’s decision to punish the organization for the latest kidnapping and killing by arresting its men.
But there were two other main factors that led Hamas to go to war against Israel. Abbas’s message to the organization in the aftermath of the kidnapping was blunt: when we figure out who is behind the teens’ deaths, we will punish the perpetrators. And then there was the ongoing standoff with Egypt — the tunnels closed off and the government in Cairo treating Hamas like a band of terrorists who compromised Egypt’s security and forced a blockade on Gaza.
And yet, right up until the killing of 16-year-old Shuafat resident Muhammad Abu Khdeir on July 2, it was not apparent that Hamas was interested in an escalation of violence. The prevalent attitude in the defense establishment in the past few years, right up until Monday, was that the leadership of the organization in Gaza sought to hold onto its control of the Strip by any means necessary.
It is possible that the reaction to Khdeir’s murder of Arab Israelis, coupled with the fierce clashes in East Jerusalem, led the Hamas leadership in Gaza and abroad to realize it now had an opportunity to seize the momentum created by all those Palestinians who wanted revenge, to ride the waves of their admiration. It may also have been the usual arrogance shown toward Israel by Hamas and Hezbollah — in other words, the assumption that firing rockets at Israel would not trigger too aggressive a reaction due to Jerusalem’s fear of sliding into war (echoing Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah’s “spider web” theory from 2000, which claimed that Israel was unable to stomach war despite its military might).
Apparently, Hamas’s assumption was that in fighting Israel, the organization would be able to win support on the Palestinian street and effect a change in Egypt’s attitude toward it — resulting in the opening of the Rafah crossing and eventually, after the current round of fighting would be over, the establishment of a new government in the West Bank that would comprise a plethora of groups and movements, enjoy Cairo’s cooperation and, to take the cake, leave Abbas stranded in the Muqata in Ramallah as the Palestinian street viewed him as a collaborator with Israel.
Hamas’s terms for a comprehensive ceasefire were relayed for the first time as early as Sunday, revealing that what it wanted was an escalation. There were conditions on the list that had nothing at all to do with Israel, such as lifting the blockade on Gaza (opening the Rafah crossing). But meanwhile, in the Kirya in Tel Aviv, the top brass of the Israeli defense establishment had yet to realize that something had changed, that a decision had been made by Hamas to start an all-out war. Indeed, it was only on Monday night that Israel realized Hamas was no longer in the same state of mind that had characterized it in recent years, and was now pushing for an escalation.
Gershon Baskin, who mediated between Hamas and Israel to secure the Shalit deal, apparently tried in the past few days to negotiate a temporary ceasefire. Baskin, who cannot be suspected of being a sympathizer of the Israeli Right, wrote about his efforts on his Facebook page.
In a conversation with me on Wednesday, he emphasized time and again that “It is clear to me that they (Hamas) don’t want a ceasefire. When the escalation began, they had an opportunity to relay their terms to Israel through Abbas. They claimed that they did not kidnap the three [teens] and had nothing to do with it. Okay, let’s say they didn’t. And they claimed that Israel took advantage of the situation to hurt them. You can accept that statement, or you can reject it.
“But they wanted to instigate a response. They knew that an Israeli offensive against Gaza would improve their public standing. They also knew that in light of the differences of opinion within Hamas, the only thing that would unite them all would be a conflict with Israel. And that the more heavy-handed Israel’s attacks against them would be, the stronger they would become.
“Before the escalation began,” Basin went on, “I tried to convince them that Netanyhau is serious this time, and that he might initiate a ground operation. That was why I suggested that they agree to stop the rocket fire for 24 hours, that was all, without getting anything in return. During that time, they were to have relayed their terms to Israel through Abbas. It would not have done any harm. My message reached even [Hamas political chief] Khaled Mashaal, but there was no answer. Instead, they stepped up the rocket fire. Now they are saying that they demand the release of the hundreds of prisoners who were arrested in the IDF operation that followed the teens’ kidnapping, particularly those who were released in the Shalit exchange and re-arrested.”
Baskin said that in the political and military wings of Hamas, there are personages who are unhappy with the reconciliation with Abbas and don’t want it to take place. It is possible, he said, that the escalation is their way of shrugging off the reconciliation pact.
Haifa, city of the future
Meanwhile, on Wednesday evening, during a speech in Qatar, Mashaal declared war. His speech contained a considerable measure of haughtiness and arrogance, as well as an empty promise that “if the occupation doesn’t end, Haifa will be bombed.”
What exactly was Mashaal trying to say? It’s hard to tell. He mostly repeated catchphrase after catchphrase, without elaborating on Hamas’s terms for a ceasefire.
To a large extent, his speech reminded me of Nasrallah’s hubris at the start of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when, still giddy from the kidnapping of IDF soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, he bragged again and again of his organization’s exceptional abilities, rising up to superstardom in Lebanon and other Arab states. It was only after the war had ended that he acknowledged his mistake, and his standing in the Arab public began to slowly ebb.
It remains to be seen how the current clashes in Gaza will play out. Mashaal will probably stay in the Qatari capital of Doha, safe and sound, while the Hamas leadership hiding in tunnels underneath Gaza will survive unscathed. The rockets will continue to fall all over Israel, in the south, in Gush Dan and north of there.
But the heaviest price will be paid by the Gazan public, the public currently embracing Hamas. In an echo of the aftermath of the 2006 war, they are unlikely to continue to embrace Hamas after the ceasefire, when they find out that almost nothing has changed, and certainly nothing for the better. Gaza, it would seem, will still be Gaza after this war, too.