Despite Jerusalem bluster, Hamas will do whatever it takes to avert war

Despite Jerusalem bluster, Hamas will do whatever it takes to avert war

Gaza terror group is working vigorously to avoid confrontation as it builds up its strength for a future conflict; meanwhile, its reconciliation pact with Fatah is all but dead

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Hamas fighters take part in a rally marking the 30th anniversary of the founding of the terror group in Gaza City on December 14, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)
Hamas fighters take part in a rally marking the 30th anniversary of the founding of the terror group in Gaza City on December 14, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

After several weeks of rising tensions between Gaza and Israel, including the firing of two dozen rockets from the coastal enclave, Israel’s southern frontier assumed an appearance of relative calm last week.

Although terrorists fired a rocket on Monday, it didn’t make it to Israel and landed inside the Strip. The previous day had seen two rockets, and there was also one last Friday that fell short of the border. That was a far cry from the previous week, which saw multiple attacks, including projectiles that fell in Israeli towns.

The decrease in the number of rockets fired at Israel is apparently not a matter of chance. According to reports from Gaza, the relative (if temporary) calm should be chalked up to intensive work by Hamas, which has been taking a series of steps to prevent a military escalation. As Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has said, these steps include the arrest of terrorists suspected of involvement in the rocket fire.

In addition to the arrests, sources in Gaza told The Times of Israel, Hamas operatives have been working more forcefully than ever in areas where rocket launches are common. Its forces have been erecting roadblocks, carrying out inspections, and patrolling launching grounds in order to prevent rocket fire.

This policy came from the very top — from Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and from Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’s political wing, who is working with him.

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh (L) and the its leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar attend a rally marking the 30th anniversary of the terror group’s founding in Gaza City, on December 14, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

Sinwar is not acting out of any great love for the Israelis. His interest is simply in keeping the peace for now, since he wants Hamas to go to war only when it is militarily prepared, rather than being dragged into battle by Gaza’s smaller terror groups.

In addition to Sinwar, one of the key proponents of this strategy is the notorious Mohammed Deif, who survived multiple Israeli assassination attempts over the years and is considered the terror group’s chief of staff. Occupied with building up Hamas’s fighting force and military preparedness, Deif is on the same page as Sinwar when it comes to the need to prevent escalation, and has shown a surprising alacrity in stifling the actions of other terror factions.

At any rate, the new balance of power between Deif and the current Hamas political leadership is striking. Though he has clashed with Hamas’s political wing in the past, today, in the Sinwar era, he is a loyal and disciplined soldier. Deif, it seems, is full of admiration and respect for Sinwar, and has quelled any lingering tensions between Hamas’s political and military wings.

The reconciliation limps along

Despite its deescalation efforts, Hamas called yet another “day of rage” last Thursday over US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, urging Palestinians to clash with Israeli troops along the border. A day earlier, demonstrations by Hamas’s rival Fatah party were held throughout Gaza and the West Bank, as part of Fatah’s own “day of rage.”

It seems that the conflict between Hamas and Fatah, the party led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is taking on characteristics of the First Intifada, though not in a positive way as far as the Palestinians are concerned. The internecine strife between Fatah’s secular nationalists and Hamas’s Islamists has led the two groups to try to one-up each other, initiating multiple strikes and days of rage and causing a growing fatigue among the Palestinian public, which has been turning its back on the demonstrations.

Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces near the Huwara checkpoint, south of the West Bank city of Nablus, on December 22, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jaafar Ashtiyeh)

Compounding that dynamic has been the growing pessimism in recent weeks regarding the possibility of true reconciliation between the two groups, with national unity talks steadily devolving into recriminations.

On Thursday, for example, when Sinwar met with a group of young people in the Gaza Strip, he told them that the reconciliation agreement was bound to collapse due to the demands of “some people” who want to see Hamas lay down its arms and shut down its cross-border attack tunnels. Sinwar was gruffer than ever, perhaps realizing that, having invested so much of his cachet in reconciliation, his reputation could be severely damaged if it fails. As far as Hamas is concerned, he made far-reaching concessions in the deal with Fatah and is thus associated with it. He would not want to be blamed for the agreement’s demise.

The weeks-long delay in implementing the reconciliation deal, due to the apparently intractable differences between the two sides, has led to criticism within Hamas over the concessions the group has made to Fatah. Those included giving up its presence at the border crossings with Israel without resolving the issue of Hamas officials’ salaries, which have long been withheld by the PA.

As Hamas sees it, the reconciliation agreement stipulates that the Palestinian Authority must pay the salaries of approximately 45,000 Hamas employees, but as of late December they had yet to receive November’s salaries. Counting the employees’ families, hundreds of thousands of Gazans are still clamoring for the wages they need to survive.

A view of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, under the control of the Palestinian Authority, in the southern Gaza Strip on November 18, 2017, as travelers arrive to cross. (AFP/Said Khatib)

Sinwar stated last week that a document issued by Fatah and Hamas during the latest round of reconciliation talks in Cairo was merely meant to defer an admission of failure. Yet, he added, having handed it over to the PA, Hamas would not retake civilian control of Gaza.

“This is a strategic decision and there is no backing out of it,” he said. “Hamas is out of the picture for good.”

Sinwar added that the Palestinian split with Fatah compromised Hamas as a “resistance” group. The ongoing strife “hurts all of us as a nation and as a liberation movement,” he said. “Therefore, we must end the split no matter what and at any price.”

It sounded like a textbook statement in favor of Palestinian unity, but between the lines, Sinwar’s message to the PA and to the Palestinian people was clear: Hamas has no intention of paying Gaza’s bills again — neither officials’ salaries nor residents’ humanitarian needs.

He was also careful to threaten what might happen on the ground should the reconciliation fail. In his conversation Thursday with the group of young people, he warned that Hamas could always fall back on the military option should political efforts and a popular intifada fail to defend Jerusalem.

Fatah’s Azzam al-Ahmad, right, and Saleh al-Arouri of Hamas shake hands after signing a reconciliation deal in Cairo, on October 12, 2017, as the two rival Palestinian movements ended their decade-long split following negotiations overseen by Egypt. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)

Azzam al-Ahmad, Fatah’s representative in the reconciliation talks, was quick to respond. Echoing the statements of Fatah officials in recent weeks, he reiterated that there could be no agreement for full national unity that prevented the PA from retaking full control of the Gaza Strip.

“The extent of the [PA] government’s control in Gaza is zero,” Al-Ahmad said. “Hamas did not commit to anything, and its armed men are still going around the streets and taxing people.”

Al-Ahmad was referring to the fact that despite having officially given up on collecting import taxes and customs tariffs at the border crossings, Hamas has recently been playing a simple, dirty trick: It collects taxes and customs tariffs from the merchants, far from the border crossings, in the various cities of the Gaza Strip.

Already a sham in many ways, its seems it’s only a matter of time before this latest reconciliation agreement is officially relegated to the dustbin of history.

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