Hamas’s ‘defensive’ drill seen as a warning to Israel, Abbas, and Trump

The terror group is boasting that its military wing in Gaza has been transformed into the Palestinians’ strongest army

Khaled Abu Toameh is the Palestinian Affairs correspondent for The Times of Israel

Masked gunmen from the Izz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Hamas terror group, march with their weapons during a large-scale drill across the Gaza Strip, March 25, 2018. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)
Masked gunmen from the Izz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Hamas terror group, march with their weapons during a large-scale drill across the Gaza Strip, March 25, 2018. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

Hamas mounted a large-scale military exercise in the Gaza Strip on Sunday and Monday, the terror group’s largest show of force in recent years.

Hamas says some 30,000 members of its armed wing, Izaddin al Qassam, participated in the drill, using live ammunition and various types of weapons, including rockets and missiles.

The timing of the maneuvers seemed to be more significant than the weapons on display, none of which came as a surprise to military experts. It was a message to several parties, including Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Palestinians living under Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip.

The exercise came days before mass protests that Hamas and several Palestinian factions are planning near the border with Israel. The protests, which are being held under the banner of “March of Return,” are expected to attract thousands of Palestinians.

The large-scale drill is seen as a warning to Israel not to “interfere” with the protests, especially in light of preparations by the IDF to prevent any Palestinian attempt to cross the border.

Hamas leaders insist that the protests will be “peaceful” and that any attempt by Israel to thwart the “March of Return” will be met with an “appropriate response.”

Hamas has also indicated in recent days that it’s not interested, at this stage, in another war with Israel. That’s why Hamas officials repeatedly stated in the past 48 hours that the military exercise was of a “defensive” nature.

By calling it a “defensive” exercise, Hamas was seeking to assure Israel that it had no intention to launch a surprise attack. That explains why Hamas was quick on Sunday night to clarify that the explosions that were being heard in various parts of the Gaza Strip were part of its maneuvers.

For nearly 40 minutes on Sunday night, there was fear that Hamas had fired scores of rockets and missiles at Israel — a fear that quickly turned out have been unjustified, when the IDF announced that, contrary to earlier reports, no projectiles had been launched toward Israel.

Political analysts in the Gaza Strip pointed out that the Hamas drill was also a Palestinian “response” to the recent Israeli-US joint military exercise in southern Israel. Hamas, they said, wanted to send a message to both Israel and the US that it was prepared for any military attack on the Gaza Strip.

Hamas is now boasting that the exercise shows that its military wing has been transformed into an army that is much stronger and better equipped than any other Palestinian fighting force.

The show of might came amid mounting tensions between Hamas and the ruling Fatah faction headed by Mahmoud Abbas, particularly after the apparent attempt to assassinate Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in the northern Gaza Strip earlier this month.

The smoke of a rocket fired by Palestinian Hamas is seen over Gaza City on March 25, 2018 as they take part in a military drill. (AFP/MAHMUD HAMS)

Abbas recently threatened that “shoes will soon be pouring on the heads of the most senior and most junior Hamas officials.” Hamas sees Abbas’s remark as a direct threat to its entire leadership and is therefore hoping that the military exercise will deter the PA president and his loyalists.

By deploying tens of thousands of heavily armed and highly motivated Qassam militiamen through the Gaza Strip, Hamas sought to signal to Abbas that its security forces and militiamen are in full control and prepared to thwart any attempt to undermine its rule.

The exercise was also aimed at sending a message to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip that Hamas remains capable of defending them against any new Israeli “aggression.” It is Hamas’s way of boosting the morale of its people as they face an escalating humanitarian crisis due to the blockade and economic sanctions imposed by Abbas in recent months.

Hamas’s military display was also seen as part of the group’s effort to thwart US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, when and if it is announced. Hamas sees the plan as part of an American-Zionist conspiracy aimed at obliterating the Palestinian cause and imposing an unacceptable solution.

The drill was designed to send a message to the US administration and other international parties to the effect that Hamas remains a major player, with an impressive military capability in the Palestinian arena that can’t be ignored or underestimated.

Hamas may also be preparing for the post-Abbas era, as reports of the PA president’s failing health continue to circulate. Some Hamas officials and other Palestinians believe that Abbas’s departure from the scene could result in a bloody power struggle between rival Fatah leaders, plunging the West Bank into scenes of anarchy.

The Hamas maneuvers were thus aimed at demonstrating to the Palestinians that the Gaza Strip remains stable and secure — in contrast to the uncertainty over the fate of the West Bank on the day after Abbas’s demise.

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