Why Hamas beat a tactical retreat after near-descent into full war with Israel
AnalysisNot a state secret: Vast majority of dead were indeed Hamas

Why Hamas beat a tactical retreat after near-descent into full war with Israel

Yahya Sinwar, the Israel-loathing terror group’s Gaza leader, has a reputation as a particularly notorious killer. But after Monday’s deadly clashes, he clamped down

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.

Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, speaks to foreign correspondents in his office in Gaza City on Thursday, May 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, speaks to foreign correspondents in his office in Gaza City on Thursday, May 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

On Wednesday at 7 p.m., a rare and most unusual interview with Hamas’s Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar, who spent 22 years in an Israeli jail and was released as part of the 2011 deal to free Gilad Shalit, was broadcast on Al Jazeera.

Sinwar began by declaring, in the context of the violent “March of Return” rallies at the Gaza border, that he was working to quell the violence on the Gaza border this week. “Our Palestinian people, resistance factions and Hamas movement, will continue in the path of ‘popular resistance’ and we will do everything possible to prevent these demonstrations from spilling into armed action,” he promised.

It was enough to make any veteran observer of the organization rub their eyes in disbelief. Was it possible that this Hamas leader, the man considered until recently to be among the most extreme leaders of the radical camp within the terror group, had softened his views? Sinwar is notorious for executing people suspected of collaborating with Israel with his bare hands. Indeed, his nickname is “Abu Thanashar” — “the father of the 12” suspected collaborators he is said to have murdered.

Could it be that instead of the usual incitement to war against Israel, and the usual calls for terror attacks against Israelis, this same Sinwar was now urging an unarmed “popular resistance” — the same resistance that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been advocating for years?

Not quite.

A picture taken on May 14, 2018 from the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz across the border with the Gaza Strip shows Palestinian protestors gathering along the border fence with Israel. (AFP/Jack Guez)

Before anyone had a chance to read too much into his ostensible newfound opposition to “armed action,” Sinwar returned to the usual playbook by issuing several threats, including that Hamas’s response would turn violent indeed “if the blockade [on Gaza, imposed by Israel to prevent Hamas importing weapons] does not end,” and “if the number of casualties [at the border protests] gets too high.”

Yet plainly something was going on. Something was responsible for Sinwar’s uncharacteristic relative moderation.

His message in the interview was hardly peaceful, but it nonetheless amounted to a commitment not to allow the Gaza protests to explode into full-fledged war with Israel.

Sinwar’s message was intended not for the Palestinians, but primarily for Israeli officials: Hamas does not want the violence — in which 62 Palestinians (almost all of them members of Hamas, according to its own leadership) were killed in Monday’s major confrontations and in further clashes Tuesday — to escalate into all-out conflict.

Palestinians take part in clashes with Israeli forces near the border between the Gaza strip and Israel, east of Gaza City, on May 14, 2018. (AFP Photo/Thomas Coex)

The fact that Hamas did not respond to the deaths by firing rockets at Israel underlines the clear (even if temporary) decision.

Hamas will do as much as it can to raise awareness of the dire situation in the Strip to the world and Israel — primarily in order to improve the economic and humanitarian situation there, and to guarantee its political survival. But at this stage, it intends to make do with protests.

As Monday’s clashes intensified throughout the day, it appeared the sides were on the cusp of war. But then Hamas stopped the protests, sent the rioters back to their homes, and halted its own activities to stir up demonstrations — for a few days, at least.

Was this a complete surrender by Hamas, as some in the Hebrew media were quick to report? Any Israeli victory celebrations are likely premature. Hamas does not want to end violence completely, but to lower the flames, to keep things under control.

Israel was braced Friday for more protests adjacent to the border immediately after midday prayers. But the demonstrations were not expected to be of the same intensity. The heat wave, the Ramadan fast and the heavy trauma Gaza experienced on Monday were expected to keep many Gazans at home.

Additionally, it may be that a promise by Egypt to keep the Rafah border crossing open will prove a calming factor.

A changed man?

Sinwar is the central figure in Hamas’s current amended approach. Assertions by Hamas leaders that the “March of Return” is intended to be a nonviolent protest, however lacking in credibility, represent a new tactic. Hamas is an Islamic terror organization that has dedicated itself in the past to armed “resistance,” suicide bombing, tunneling under the border, firing rockets. But right now, under Sinwar in Gaza, it is trying to cast itself in a slightly new light.

It continues to work to build up its military strength in Gaza. It continues to try to orchestrate terror attacks from the West Bank. But for now in Gaza, it is speaking the language of Fatah, sounding like the non-religious nationalistic Palestinian factions after the Oslo Accords were signed.

It was also Sinwar who oversaw the attempted reconciliation process with Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party and was prepared to cede civilian control of the Strip — though not to dismantle Hamas’s military wing, which is why reconciliation efforts failed.

Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal speaks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, December 10, 2015. (MEMRI screenshot)

What happened to the Sinwar of old, who championed terror attacks and murder, who personally killed a Hamas commander suspected of collaborating with Israel? Did his elevation to Hamas leader in Gaza in early 2017 change him? To abuse a familiar Hebrew expression, are there things he sees as Hamas leader that he didn’t see before, from lower in the hierarchy?

It may be that becoming a father has had its influence; he and his wife have had two children since his 2011 release. More significantly Sinwar and Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Hamas political bureau — who were both born in refugee camps in the Strip (Khan Yunis and Al-Shati, respectively), who grew up in the Strip — may have internalized since the last major conflict with Israel in 2014 the tremendous cost of another non-productive war.

Haniyeh’s predecessor Khaled Mashaal lived in a fancy hotel in Doha, Qatar, and swore to fight until the last drop of Gazan blood. Haniyeh and Sinwar live “among their people” and understand how destructive a war would be — to them, to their families, to those around them and all the inhabitants of the Strip.

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)

Whereas Mashaal and his pals could pamper themselves in their Jacuzzis in Doha while their “brothers” in Gaza were spilling blood, men like Sinwar and Haniyeh have the threat of targeted assassination hanging over them. (Sinwar was directly threatened with assassination by an Israeli minister this week.)

Again, however, we should not be misled. Hamas is still the same terror organization, with the same avowed goal of destroying Israel — and the same readiness to escalate the conflict when it deems the time ripe. It is grappling with a reality in which the Iron Dome can stop most of its rockets, and its attack tunnels are being found one by one.

This is a tactical retreat. And even right now, the danger of a flare-up remains ever-present.

On Thursday, a contact in Gaza told me, “This situation [of a relative lull] will not continue for much longer. There is only one option for the Gaza Strip now, since it is clear to us that the protests are no help.

“There is growing pressure on the Hamas from the public to seek revenge and respond with rocket fire,” he added. “Right now, the organization does not want it, but the public also gets a say here, and there is criticism of Hamas that it is not responding to the massive death toll.”

A verbal ‘work accident’

On Wednesday, Hamas suffered an unusual “work accident.” One of its well-known spokesmen, Salah Bardawil, said in an interview on Palestinian media that 50 of the 62 people killed on Monday and Tuesday were members of the group.

One might have expected this statement — “I am giving you an official figure,” Bardawil stressed. “Fifty of the martyrs in the recent battle were from Hamas” — to resonate globally, and dramatically undercut Hamas’s claim that Israel murdered innocent people in cold blood, the narrative widely reported worldwide.

Hamas’s Salah Bardawil (right) acknowledges 50 Hamas fatalities among the 62 killed on Israel-Gaza border, May 16, 2018 (Screenshot)

The allegation of indiscriminate killing by Israel of innocent Gazan civilians was central to media coverage — in the United States and Europe, and certainly in the Middle East. Hamas defeated Israel by a knockout in terms of propaganda, which is no less important to the terror group than its other activities. Throughout Monday, television coverage of the violence dominated the news; Tuesday’s funerals ensured more coverage — all overwhelmingly sympathetic to Hamas-run Gaza, again turning Israel into a pariah in the eyes of much of the world.

But the same media that had rushed to publicize Israel’s ostensible “war crimes” gave little prominence to Bardawil’s admission.

For their part, Arab-Israeli politicians, highly critical of Israel all week, responded by saying that Bardawil was a minor politician who was using the blood of the “martyrs” for political gain.

But Bardawil was correct. Numerous sources in the Strip confirmed in conversations with The Times of Israel that, when the names of those killed were made public, the vast majority were indeed Hamas members.

This is not a state secret; the residents of Gaza know their names and details. But the global media circus has moved on.

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