Israel needs a new policy to push Hamas out of its comfort zone

The Gaza-ruling terror group is enjoying the economic benefits of detente with Israel and building its forces, while allowing Palestinian Islamic Jihad to keep up the fighting

Hamas terrorists in Gaza City on December 10, 2022. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)
Hamas terrorists in Gaza City on December 10, 2022. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)

Amid the hostilities between Israel and Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the advice of the security establishment, issued a clear directive to ministers: Keep Hamas out of your rhetoric.

Up until Friday, only two ministers broke ranks: Energy Minister Israel Katz, a Likud MK who reportedly got a scolding as a result, and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a key coalition partner from the far-right Religious Zionism party.

Israel’s conduct in this context is noteworthy. Hamas, the terror group that rules the Gaza Strip, has not been mentioned a single time in any of the statements by the prime minister, defense minister, IDF chief, the head of the Shin Bet or army generals on the ongoing operation, which has targeted the leadership of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), an Iranian-backed terror group in Gaza.

Israel’s leaders recognize that the current round of conflict must be managed with heightened sensitivity compared to the operation against PIJ in 2022 following Israel’s arrest in the West Bank of a senior PIJ leader. Fearing an imminent attack on the Gaza border in response, Israel launched a series of airstrikes in Gaza last August against a senior PIJ commander and several anti-tank guided missile squads in an operation called Breaking Dawn, which prompted rocket fire from the Strip. Hamas joined in, and after nearly three days of fighting, a ceasefire agreement was signed.

Currently, the understanding is that every mention of Hamas could spur the group to join the fight, and give rise to a whole new kind of confrontation.

When Israel struck Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007, Jerusalem remained silent in order to not push Syrian President Bashar Assad into a corner and force him to react. In a similar fashion, it is now seeking to not force the hand of Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar. The less Hamas is mentioned, officials were told, the more Israel is able to act against PIJ. Words create reality, and in the case of the current flareup, the strategy has proven itself so far.

Since Operation Shield and Arrow began in the early hours of Tuesday, Israeli intelligence has focused its resources not only on what PIJ might do next, but also on what Hamas would do. Or not do.

Messages were apparently sent early Tuesday to Hamas leaders in Gaza by way of Egyptian intermediaries. The latter were woken up in Cairo minutes after 2:30 a.m. with a call from Israel updating them about the simultaneous assassinations of the three PIJ leaders in the strikes that started the operation. Israel wished to convey to Hamas that its beef was with the terror group’s rivals in PIJ, and that it did not intend to start a war with Gaza’s rulers.

Arabic media reported the Egyptians reacted with anger, having been caught off guard by the operation. But Jerusalem knew that Egypt was the appropriate pressure point and the most effective conduit for messages.

Iran International, a US-based Persian-language satellite news channel, said the argument among Hamas ranks over how to respond was fierce. The more militaristic voice came from Hamas officials based outside Gaza, with Ismail Haniyeh in Qatar allowing himself to talk of a military response. Sinwar, who wakes up every morning to the cries of despair from Gaza’s impoverished streets, was the more moderate voice that ultimately set the tone.

Even Katz’s statement that Sinwar’s “head will be on the table” if Hamas fires its rockets did not move the Hamas leader off the fence.

Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas in Gaza, delivers a speech during a rally marking ‘Jerusalem Day,’ or Al-Quds Day, at a soccer field in Gaza City, Friday, April 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

On the Israeli side, security officials would have been fine with ending things five minutes after the trio of assassinations — having carried out a potent response to the firing of over 100 projectiles at Israel a week earlier after the death in Israeli custody of the hunger-striking former PIJ spokesman Khader Adnan. The terror group’s long wait before it responded with rocket fire — more than 24 hours later — surprised the security establishment. An official who asked the Shin Bet head Ronen Bar the day after the assassinations about PIJ’s delay received the unexpected answer, “It’s not clear to us either.”

Apparently, even Israel’s impressive intelligence on Gaza’s terror groups didn’t enable it to accurately predict the extent of the shock to PIJ. The terror group sought to respond by firing hundreds of rockets, but it seems its chain of command simply wasn’t functioning in the first hours after the assassinations. After that, it decided to wait until after the funerals of the senior leaders, and in the meantime hold conversations with Hamas about its possible participation in the response.

When PIJ understood that Hamas was reluctant to join in, it initially decided to try to carry out a “quality” terror attack by firing an anti-tank missile at a vehicle or home in an Israeli community near Gaza. Israeli intelligence thwarted the squad dispatched for that task before they could even get out of their vehicle.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad members gather near a damaged house after an Israeli airstrike in Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, Palestinian Territories on May 9, 2023. (Said Khatib/AFP)

But despite the impressive success on both the operational and intelligence levels, Israel must be wary of complacency. It’s doubtful that the current round of fighting will prevent the next one. Those pleased with the tactical success should bear in mind that since 2019, Israel has thrice assassinated the commanders of PIJ’s northern brigade, and yet it finds itself facing off against the group time after time.

Israel must rethink its Gaza strategy. Its policy of providing economic relief to the Strip has given Israel significant leverage over Hamas — in the form of 17,000 workers who leave every day to work in Israel, the transfer of goods through open crossings and the process of rehabilitating the Strip. But it cannot rely on this alone for the long-term. No one can guarantee that Hamas will stay on the fence if this round drags on or when the next round comes along.

Although Sinwar fully understands the potential cost of joining a conflict with Israel, he is still preparing for war. For now, he has arranged a situation where he can enjoy both worlds — an improvement in Gaza’s economy that allows him quiet and time to build up his forces, while maintaining military “resistance” against Israel by turning a blind eye to PIJ’s activities.

Illustrative: Rockets are launched from Gaza City toward Israel on May 11, 2023, amid fighting between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Israel needs a strategy that will push Hamas out of its comfort zone. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have a realistic one.

There are some who believe Israel should initiate fighting with Hamas, including sending troops into Gaza to work on dismantling its terror infrastructure.

This was successful in the West Bank in 2002, in Operation Defensive Shield at the height of the Second Intifada, with a relatively low level of casualties. Less than three years later, Mahmoud Abbas became president of the Palestinian Authority, and significantly improved governance and control over PA areas.

But Gaza is not the West Bank. Military action in the Strip is an entirely different challenge — the topography and especially the demographics are different. An operation lasting weeks or even months could leave dozens dead and hundreds wounded on the Israeli side, and thousands on the other side. No government in Israel is going to risk it, due to the number of casualties and the question of who would rule the Strip afterward.

Hamas collapsing could put responsibility for Gaza, and its 2.5 million Palestinians, back in Israel’s hands. With the exception of a few extreme politicians on the right, no one is seriously discussing re-occupying Gaza. Still, it is worth noting that some of those extreme voices hold ministerial positions.

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