Israel’s curious gamble on Hamas to keep Gaza calm

Jerusalem seems willing to tolerate the terror group running the Gaza Strip – to the likely dismay of Egypt, and to the exclusion of the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas

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.

Palestinians take part in a mass wedding ceremony in Gaza on May 31, 2015. Nearly 4,000 Palestinian couples were married in a ceremony funded by the Turkish government (Aaed Tayeh/Flash90)
Palestinians take part in a mass wedding ceremony in Gaza on May 31, 2015. Nearly 4,000 Palestinian couples were married in a ceremony funded by the Turkish government (Aaed Tayeh/Flash90)

Israel’s response on Sunday morning to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip symbolizes, to a large extent, Jerusalem’s new policy regarding Hamas: embrace and contain, rather than pursue direct military confrontation.

The response featured an aerial attack on empty buildings, so as to create the impression of a retaliatory strike against Hamas, which Israel formerly holds responsible for all violence from Gaza. But it was accompanied by statements by security officials who seemed to be trying to defend Hamas.

“The purpose of the recent rocket launches from the Gaza Strip was to inflame matters between Hamas and Israel,” a high-ranking defense official said, alluding to the assessment that the rocket fire is being carried out by an Islamic State-affiliated Salafist group, some of whose operatives have been jailed by Hamas. The Israeli official added that Islamic State expected that “Israel would attack Hamas and do its work for it.”

In other words, the anonymous official was telling the Israeli public that a more substantive Israeli attack on Hamas in retaliation for the rocket fire would serve Islamic State, and therefore Israel needs to show restraint. To sum up: Relatively speaking, Hamas is good for the Jews.

In this new astonishing light, Hamas is apparently no longer a foe or a terrorist group calling for Israel’s destruction; this, even though it remains avowedly committed to destroying Israel. Instead, it is a partner in preserving calm, and could be more in the future. To the defense establishment and the decision-makers in Jerusalem, it appears, it is in Israel’s interest to keep Hamas in place, not to try to bring it down.

Things would seem to have changed 180 degrees from when Hamas was vilified in Jerusalem as the main threat to Israel. In fact, today, Israel is almost the only entity on Earth working to keep Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It is also working with the Muslim Brotherhood’s strongest representatives, Qatar and Turkey, to push for calm in the Gaza Strip, allowing Qatari and Turkish representatives to mediate between it and Hamas.

This makes for quite a contrast with last summer, when US Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to bring about an end to the Israel-Hamas war via Doha and Ankara; Israeli politicians criticized him harshly at the time, calling him amateurish and naïve.

What does Egypt make of a situation in which, despite its many urgings, there is no substantive dialogue between the Netanyahu government and the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas? And in which Netanyahu’s Israel is speaking indirectly with Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Cairo’s greatest enemy.?

Israel is allowing Qatar a foothold in the Gaza Strip through Mohammed Al-Emadi, the Qatari ambassador to Gaza, and allowing Turkey to be involved in the Palestinian issue as well. A little more than three weeks ago, Israel let Turkish religious affairs minister Mehmet Görmez visit Gaza with a high-ranking delegation. (The group also went to the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount and received a warm reception. When Jordanian Chief Justice Sheikh Ahmed Halil visited there, worshipers threw shoes at him.)

For now, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi continues to see the Netanyahu government as an ally and a partner. One might ask, however, whether that line of credit is going to run out.

The bigger questions, though, relate to this curious Israeli government gamble on Hamas, and by extension the Muslim Brotherhood, and to why Israel is apparently disinclined to work harder for cooperation with Abbas.

The new Israeli approach says: “Without Hamas, we will end up with Islamic State or anarchy in Gaza.” That may be true. But has everything been done to examine the option of the Palestinian Authority’s return to Gaza?

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