For a moment this week, it seemed that Israel and Hamas were once again on the brink of a major escalation in Gaza.
Day after day brought another rocket strike, another bomb blast. Israel publicly and repeatedly blamed Hamas after five rockets were fired at residential areas in Ashkelon (a sixth fell in an open area), and had to be intercepted by Iron Dome. Days earlier, rockets were fired toward Ariel Sharon’s funeral, despite repeated warnings from Israel.
At the same time, there was Israel’s elimination of two PFLP activists, and an assassination attempt on a Palestinian Islamic Jihad member. The Israel-Gaza front was plainly heating up.
And yet, for now, Hamas does not seem like an organization spoiling for a big, new fight. What’s more, even the rival group that fired the latest rockets and was struck in response — Islamic Jihad — issued a statement Wednesday saying that it wants to maintain the ceasefire. Islamic Jihad Gaza spokesman Daoud Shihab said it “does not want conflict, and that great efforts are being made to restore the Tahdiyya [temporary truce] based on the November 2012 agreement at the end of Operation Pillar of Defense.”
Shihab was careful, of course, to blame Israel for the recent flare-up, claiming that the Zionist enemy was violating the understandings reached at the end of the conflict. But the truth is, shall we say, a bit more complicated. According to information from Gaza, Islamic Jihad’s decision to launch rockets at Ashkelon was not a response to ostensible Israeli ceasefire violations. It stemmed, rather, from a personal conflict between members of Hamas’s military wing (Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades) and senior activists in the Islamic Jihad military wing (Saraya al-Quds).
If the rockets had hit Ashkelon, there would likely have been Israeli casualties and, it stands to reason, a much more aggressive Israeli military response against Gaza. The effectiveness of Iron Dome and its soldiers averted that.
This isn’t the first time that Islamic Jihad has fired rockets at Israel for reasons entirely unconnected to Israel. And not for the first time, Israel sent a message to Hamas and Islamic Jihad via Egypt that if the shooting didn’t stop immediately, a harsh response would follow.
This time, though, the Egyptian-Israeli pressure on Islamic Jihad to calm things down was echoed by Hamas. Despite the impression given in public statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials that Hamas is behind the rocket fire, Gaza’s Islamist rulers have actually been working for a complete ceasefire with Israel. More than six months ago, the organization reestablished a special body (as first reported by The Times of Israel) named “Dabat al-Midan” (Restraining Force) that operates 24/7 in order to prevent rocket launches at Israel. The force initially numbered 600 fighters, but it has received extra manpower in recent months. They are subordinate to none other than the head of the Hamas military wing, Mohammed Deif — whom Israel has tried to assassinate several times — and receive their salaries from the Qassam Brigades budget.
The force had been proving pretty effective until recently; although there was not complete calm, there had still been an impressive drop in the number of rocket launches over the last year. For example, in the year after Operation Cast Lead (which lasted from December 2008 to January 2009), the Palestinians fired 370 missiles from Gaza at Israel. The year before last, Operation Pillar of Defense (in November 2012) saw 898 rockets and missiles. (During the eight days of Pillar of Defense itself, 1,406 rockets were fired at Israel, an average of 150 a day. By way of comparison, an average of 20 rockets a day were fired at Israel during the three weeks of Cast Lead). But from the end of Pillar of Defense through last December, only 47 rockets and missiles were fired.
Hamas remains formally committed to destroying Israel. Its leadership underlines that imperative regularly, including to teenage trainees at its paramilitary camps. Nonetheless, its efforts to rein in the rocket launches, for now, have created a different reality for most residents of the south, where it is generally possible to enjoy something akin to a routine daily existence. Still, those 47 missiles are 47 too many for the Israeli defense establishment.
The flag of resistance at half-mast
The next figure may surprise some senior political figures in Israel. According to the IDF, since Pillar of Defense ended 14 months ago, Hamas has not fired a single rocket at Israel.
Then how to explain the partial escalation in recent days? This probably isn’t what Hamas would like to hear, but the organization may be turning into a sort of Palestinian Authority II in Gaza, for better or worse. The reasons for the recent launches are reminiscent of the PA’s bad days in Gaza before it was violently thrown out by Hamas in 2007, when it tried repeatedly to stop rocket attacks on Israel, but Hamas and Islamic Jihad defied it. This has become Hamas’s reality these days: It is trying to preserve the quiet, but is not entirely able to do so.
The similarity with the PA era also rests on the fact that Hamas’s attempts at control are primarily based on various understandings and agreements with Islamic Jihad and smaller organizations, including a “revolving door” policy for offenders: Individuals suspected of belonging to jihadist terror organizations, or firing at Israel, are arrested by Hamas and released a short time later.
These releases are interpreted by some as signs of Hamas weakness. Certain organizations in Gaza sense that Hamas’s military and economic strength is flagging in the wake of the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and are exploiting that perceived weakness to carry out operations they would not have attempted in the past. These groups — including the PFLP and those identified with Salafi jihadists — understand that support for Hamas is dwindling among the Gaza public. In their view, Hamas will try to avoid decisive violent actions against them, since that would prompt harsh criticism in Gaza.
This may be leading to a breakdown of discipline among the smaller groups, and may account for the growing incidence of rocket fire against Israel. Hamas, which is expected to be leading, or at the very least participating in, the “resistance” against Israel, is giving excuses similar to those that the PA once voiced in order to explain why it wasn’t doing so. Hamas would rather use the current period to build up its strength for further conflict with Israel at a time of its choosing, not to engaging now in another round in which it assesses that the residents of Gaza will pay too heavy a price compared to that of the Zionists.
The assumption on the Israeli side is that Hamas will keep trying to maintain relative quiet and stability. But it is unclear whether Hamas will be able to do so, in light of its struggles on the home front. The economic situation of Gazans is not improving, to say the least. Although daily electricity outages have been reduced from 16 hours a day to “only” 8, Gazans are far from happy with their Islamist rulers.
Egypt’s closure of Gaza’s smuggling tunnels has led to a significant decrease in Hamas’s revenues and a simultaneous and dramatic rise in the cost of living in Gaza. The transfer of goods from Israel is a partial remedy only, since such supplies are too costly for a population that is poor and needy. Hamas is also facing acute regional isolation, suffering from the aftermath of Mohammed Morsi’s fall in Egypt, with no assistance from Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or even Iran, which isn’t showing eagerness to help Hamas solve its economic crisis. Even Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, one of the organization’s closest allies in recent years, has not rushed to send Hamas financial aid.
And so, the pressure on Hamas is rising all the time. And its capacity to prevent rocket fire into Israel by its increasingly emboldened rivals may be falling.