In Gaza, Hamas is dictating the rules of the game with Israel
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Analysis

In Gaza, Hamas is dictating the rules of the game with Israel

With the international community focused on the Strip’s future, the terror group can afford regular flareups without immediate fear of all-out war

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 leader Ismail Haniyeh (L) and Hamas's leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar wave during a rally marking the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Islamist terror movement, in Gaza City, on December 14, 2017. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (L) and Hamas's leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar wave during a rally marking the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Islamist terror movement, in Gaza City, on December 14, 2017. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

On Tuesday night, a familiar series of events played out in the south, orchestrated by Hamas: The terror group launches incendiary kites and balloons, causing immense environmental damage; the IDF reacts by striking targets in the Gaza Strip, in this case in the Nuseirat refugee camp; and Hamas responds by sending a limited barrage of rockets at Israeli communities.

Everything goes according to the ritual outlined by none other than Hamas, which is setting the rules at this stage.

The Israeli reaction is mostly more of the same: strikes on empty Hamas command centers and weapons depots. Almost always they end without casualties, partially thanks to Israeli warnings sent ahead of time by “roof knocking” — dropping a non-explosive or low-yield device on a building before the actual strike.

The past week gave the impression that something in this equation had changed, after Israel targeted a group of youths launching fire balloons, wounding three of them, without Hamas shooting at Israeli targets in retaliation.

For a moment it seemed the various diplomatic efforts to implement economic initiatives and improve the situation in Gaza were going to persuade Hamas to not stick to its version of the “ceasefire.” But on Tuesday night the familiar routine returned.

How much longer will the brawling continue in accordance with Hamas’s rules? Probably until there are fatalities.

Illustrative: Masked youth cadets from the Hamas terror group’s military-wing march in the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Younis on September 15, 2017. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Even then, Hamas won’t necessarily want to go in a direction that could lead to all-out war. Israeli media is featuring near-daily reports of new possible Israeli-led projects for easing the economic crisis in the Gaza Strip: from building a seaport in Cyprus or a solar field near Gaza to letting Palestinian workers into Israel — in exchange, of course, for the release of the Israeli civilians held in the Strip, Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, and of the bodies of IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul.

For the time being, Hamas isn’t rushing to accept these offers, in part because Israel is demanding that the terror group disarm as a condition of any long-time agreement between Israel and Gaza. Hamas doesn’t accept that demand.

But the terror group is also not hurrying to break the rules and go to war, since it and its senior officials have returned to the center of the Palestinian and international stage.

In recent days, a Hamas delegation headed by Mousa Abu Marzook, the deputy chairman of its political bureau, visited Moscow to discuss a possible truce with Israel or a prisoner swap deal.

Hamas’s leadership is also in constant contact with Egyptian intelligence chiefs, who are continuing their efforts for intra-Palestinian reconciliation between the terror group and the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah.

Finally, the entire world, including US President Donald Trump’s administration, is far more focused on the future of the Gaza Strip than on that of the West Bank and the PA.

In short, for Hamas, the economic situation in Gaza may be dire, but politically and diplomatically it is not in bad shape at all. If even Trump’s envoys are seeking to remedy Gaza’s woes, and Israel is talking about the need for an arrangement with Hamas, then from its perspective — at least in some sense — things are moving in the right direction.

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