Seeking calm but wary of the street, Hamas stuck in an uneasy tango with Israel

The Gazan terror group and Jerusalem have taken steps to keep the border quiet, but if popular anger builds, they may end up swinging back into more rounds of violence

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.

Palestinian students display their military skills at Hamas's Al-Rebat College for Law and Police Science in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. (AP/Adel Hana)
Palestinian students display their military skills at Hamas's Al-Rebat College for Law and Police Science in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. (AP/Adel Hana)

The weapons fired at Israel on Friday and the attacks on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip in response illustrate for the umpteenth time in recent years Israel’s lack of a clear policy toward Hamas and the Palestinian enclave it rules.

But it takes two to tango, and in the last few weeks, Hamas has also shown that it has no clear strategy in dealing with Israel.

Over the weekend, one of the organization’s senior officials, Khalil al-Hayya, announced that the demonstrations on the border fence with Israel will resume next Friday, after three weeks in which the protests were shelved by the group in order to avoid unnecessary clashes with the IDF.

Despite Hamas putting the kibosh on the protests, one formed anyway. It was spontaneous, without Hamas’s organization and transportation, and the event ended with a 16-year-old Palestinian boy, Fahd al-Estelle Mahan Yunis, killed by IDF gunfire, according to reports from Gaza.

Mourners carry the body of Palestinian teenager Fahd al-Astal, who was killed the previous day near the border fence with Israel, during his funeral in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on November 30, 2019. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

In announcing the resumption of border demonstrations, the terror group, which is the de facto power in the Gaza Strip, appears to be attempting to deal with mounting public criticism of its accommodating approach toward Israel.

This does not necessarily mean that tensions will rise, and that Hamas will switch to a more aggressive tack, though, Instead the terror group could be seeking to take control of the protests in order to ensure they don’t get out of hand.

The targeted killing on November 12 of Islamic Jihad terror leader Baha Abu al-Ata, a powerful commander in the group’s military wing, and the flareup that followed, marked a significant crossroads in Israel-Hamas relations.

In the aftermath of the assassination, Israel refrained from firing at Hamas targets while the ruling organization in the Gaza Strip did not participate in the Islamic Jihad’s attacks on Israel. Hamas was also drawn into confrontations with Islamic Jihad members amid its decision not to take part in the attacks. A mob of people tried to attack senior Hamas official Mahmoud a-Zahar outside the mourning tent at Abu al-Ata’s home.

Rockets are fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel on November 13, 2019. (Anas Baba/AFP)

Since the killing, there have been growing indications that both Israel and Hamas seek calm and are exploring the possibility of a broader agreement.

There are a few reasons why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett prefer to sue for peace rather than trying to topple or weaken the regime, including the desire have a free hand to deal with threats from Iran and its allied proxies on the northern border.

The result is that Bennett, once the loudest voice in favor of hitting Hamas as hard as possible, is charting the same path as his defense minister predecessors. On Friday night, after unspecified “non-rocket” fire at Israel, he made do with pro-forma retaliatory strikes on “Hamas targets,” causing no casualties and keeping the flames to a bare minimum.

Illustrative: An Israeli airstrike in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, November 27, 2019. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

According to reports, Bennett is also considering a broad agreement with Hamas, a terror organization sworn to Israel’s destruction, including okaying projects like an artificial island and seaport for Gaza. Even Avigdor Liberman, the head of Yisrael Beytenu who once famously said that he would give Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh 48 hours to return the bodies of captured Israeli soldiers or be assassinated, was more combative in relation to Hamas when he was defense minister.

Hamas also appears to be taking steps to keep things from getting out of hand. On Monday and Tuesday last week, missiles were fired from Gaza at Israel, but it appears the  projectiles were fired by friends of Abu al-Ata, who wanted to send Hamas a message. The terrorists were protesting the arrest of Islamic Jihad members by Hamas forces seeking to stanch the rocket fire. Hamas reportedly took forceful action against Islamic Jihad to keep the rockets from being fired at Israel.

Hamas sees how the wind is blowing. On Wednesday, banks in Gaza began handing out the latest tranche of Qatari cash to some 70,000 needy families. Doha, it appears, is also planning on continuing to send money along with supporting projects aimed at improving water, electricity and other infrastructure in the Strip.

Palestinians receive financial aid from Qatar at a post office in Gaza City, November 27, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)

Hamas also reads the reports of Israel mulling a wider ceasefire arrangement, which could include a deal to allow masses of Gazans into Israel for work.

At the same time, proposed Palestinian parliamentary elections are still on the table. Hamas is hungry for achievements to show off to the Palestinian public and is putting a lot of effort into trying to bring stability to the Strip and improve the humanitarian situation there.

You could call this a second Palestinian Authority, one in direct competition with the PA of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. This new PA is doing much to maintain quiet with Israel, but it won’t do everything.

Fighters from the Izz Ad-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas terror group, stand behind an automatic rifle in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, November 11, 2019 . (Said Khatib/AFP)

And so we come to the events of this past week, and the unmistakable impression that Hamas is attempting to have its cake and eat it too. It is willing to take action against Islamic Jihad, but not to the point of endangering its support among its political base. It will cancel protests along the border, but if the Gazan street starts clamoring for the demonstrations, Hamas will be the one to lead them.

At the end of the day, the region remains flammable and ripe for more fighting. Hamas, like Israel, will need to decide whether it’s more interested in doing the tango, or getting in another tangle.

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