Response to foiled Gaza attack shows Hamas supports escalation, from a distance

Terror group is either allowing ‘lone wolves’ to target Israelis from coastal enclave or unable to rein them in; both possibilities spell trouble for Israel

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.

Members of the Izz-a-din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Islamist terror group Hamas, take part in a march in Gaza City, July 25, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)
Members of the Izz-a-din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Islamist terror group Hamas, take part in a march in Gaza City, July 25, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)

While Hamas predictably condemned “the occupation” for its “latest crime” in a response Saturday to the IDF’s killing of four well-armed Gazans trying to infiltrate into Israel to carry out a large-scale attack, the terror group was also careful to refer to the dead gunmen as “angry youth.”

“The continuation of the occupation’s crimes… will motivate angry youth to carry out lone-wolf attacks,” said Hamas spokesman Abdul Latif al-Qanou, suggesting that this had not been an act conducted on Hamas’s behalf, but rather an independent attack by “lone wolves.”

Yet it is clear from the images of the dead terrorists published in various media outlets in Gaza that these were not teens, rather adults who crossed the Gaza border with a clear intention to kill and possibly kidnap soldiers or civilians.

According to sources in Gaza, three of those killed by the IDF were Hamas fighters as recently as three months ago, before they bolted to join one of the more radical Salafi groups in the Strip, which has been seeking to challenge the terror organization that has ruled the enclave since 2007.

Recent events in Gaza present two possibilities.

The first is that Hamas is turning a blind eye to its fighters (and former fighters) seeking to carry out attacks.

Just a week and a half ago, the terror group claimed that one of its members had gone rogue when he crossed into Israel and opened fire at an IDF squad patrolling the border, injuring three.

The terrorist, Hani Abu Salah, managed to infiltrate into Israel and stake out the IDF soldiers for nearly two hours before he was killed shortly after firing his weapon.

And now, a squad of, until recently, Hamas members, armed to their teeth and with the apparent knowledge of how to easily cross the border, has once again tried to carry out a mass attack.

A picture taken from Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip shows an Israeli tank near the border fence with the coastal enclave on August 1, 2019, following a firefight with a Palestinian gunman. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Did these “lone wolves” draw inspiration from the attack at the beginning of the month? Perhaps. But in any case, the possibility that Hamas is turning a blind eye to such efforts is a worrying development for Israel and for Gazans as well.

Its significance has dramatic implications for the reality in the south, since it is clear that had the attack on the eve of the Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday taken place as intended, Israel and Hamas would now be finding themselves in the midst of a major flare-up from which the two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip would have been the first to feel the brunt.

But the second explanation for how the late Friday night attack managed to take place is equally worrying.

Hamas wants to prevent escalation, especially in light of the Qatari money flowing into the Strip along with new reported plans to rebuild Gazan infrastructure.

Therefore, is Hamas’s ability to control the territory no longer absolute? Perhaps.

Israeli soldiers are seen during searches in the West Bank for the terrorists who killed Dvir Sorek, August 9, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

The two possibilities may actually fit together.

Hamas is comfortable with the reality in which these “lone-wolf attacks” send a painful reminder to Israel to keep the Gaza issue on its national agenda.

In doing so, it creates permanent tension with the Jewish state and a deterrent that makes clear to Jerusalem what the cost of stopping Qatari funds or reneging on ceasefire agreements would be, all without really accepting responsibility for what happens on the border.

In doing so, Hamas has drawn a direct line to its operations in the West Bank.

The organization — with the help of the terrorists released in the 2011 Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange who currently reside in the coastal enclave — is doing everything it can to spark a major escalation in the West Bank. The latest murderous attack in the Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem, in which 18-year-old off-duty soldier Dvir Sorek was found stabbed to death on the side of the road, is the latest example of the strategy.

Dvir Sorek, 19, a yeshiva student and off-duty IDF soldier who was found stabbed to death outside a West Bank settlement on August 8, 2019 (Courtesy)

In this case, too, Hamas was comfortable removing itself from the incident, at least partially –welcoming the attack while not rushing to accept responsibility for it either.

The terror group wants the best of both worlds: to maintain its resistance against Israel while stopping short of complicating itself by sparking another war.

However, this is a very fine line to walk, and one wrong move could ultimately be fatal for Hamas and, most unfortunately, for Gazans and Israelis.

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