This past week demonstrated yet again, for the umpteenth time, the complexity of the relationship between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
On the one hand, it has become apparent that the potential for escalation between the sides has only increased in recent days: more rocket fire from Gaza, which drew a sharp response from Israel, which brought a threat from Hamas that it would not take it lying down if Israel attacked again.
On the other hand, it is also clear that Israel and Hamas have a common interest in keeping things calm for as long as they can. Israeli officials refrained from attacking targets in Gaza after the latest rocket-fire at Ashkelon, and Hamas arrested members of Salafist groups in Gaza that appear to be linked to the attacks on Israel.
While Iyad al-Bazam — a spokesman for Hamas’s interior ministry, which is responsible for the security agencies in Gaza — denied an Asharq al-Awsat report that as many as 550 members of “radical” groups have been arrested, he did say that “Anyone who harms the security and stability of the Gaza Strip will face court-martial.”
In other words, Hamas’s message to these groups — and perhaps mainly to Israel — is that it has no intention of allowing the Salafist groups who support Islamic State and its ilk to lead Gaza into war.
The problem is that al-Bazam’s statements may not have much backing them up. We can only imagine what will happen if another rocket fired by one of the Salafist groups hits a populated area in Israel, drawing a robust Israeli response. What will Hamas do in that case? Its officials have issued several veiled and not-so-veiled threats over the past several days, the meaning of which is clear: Hamas has no intention of holding back if Israel attacks it following rocket-fire by Salafists. As one Hamas-affiliated website put it: “Rocket for rocket, outpost for outpost, target for target.”
The purpose of making such threats, of course, is to deter Israel. The problem is that doing so increases the gamble in which Hamas is engaging. And it requires it to prove, at least to the Palestinian public, that it can back up its threats with action — even if it has no interest in a confrontation with Israel. Hence the conclusion that the road to escalation is becoming shorter.
In an optimistic scenario, Hamas will rise above its internal political interests and consider its moves with great care. But this is not what has occurred in the past; when Hamas faced internal difficulties in recent years, it usually chose to extricate itself from them by entering into conflict with Israel.
Still, it is possible that the considerable clout wielded by Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s new leader in Gaza, will enable the group to back down from its threats without being drawn into armed conflict.
During his time in Israeli prison, Sinwar, a convicted murderer who many in Israel see as extraordinarily radical, was capable of compromise when the need arose. People who knew him over that 22-year span recall that “Abu Ibrahim” — as he was known — chose on more than one occasion to reach understandings with the prison authorities in order to avoid conflicts he knew he could not win.
Sinwar and his associates may understand now, too, that there is little to be gained by waging war. Or not.