When support for Hamas wanes, the cannons roar

For the beleaguered rulers of Gaza, facilitating attacks on Israel offers easy distraction from economic woes. But can they control the flames?

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.

Hamas forces on the Gaza-Egypt border (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatab/Flash 90)
Hamas forces on the Gaza-Egypt border (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatab/Flash 90)

You can’t say Hamas isn’t consistent. Just as it has refrained from tying itself directly to a string of recent skirmishes along Gaza’s border with Israel, the organization hasn’t claimed the shooting attack that saw an employee of Israel’s Defense Ministry slain on the Gaza border on Tuesday. In fact, according to assessments in the Strip, it was carried out by the Popular Resistance Committees.

And yet, it would be a stretch to say that the government in Gaza isn’t the party most responsible for the recent escalation. Last Friday, someone on the Gazan side allowed a group of Palestinians to approach the fence and even attempt to lay explosives. Someone also looked the other way when a rocket was fired last week at Ashkelon. And on Tuesday, someone apparently allowed men from the PRC (which has been known to cooperate with Hamas) to fire into Israel.

It isn’t that Hamas is trying to trigger a major escalation. But it would appear that the organization wouldn’t mind a bit of a scrap with Israel, a “controlled explosion” of sorts that could help it recapture some of its rapidly declining popularity in Gaza.

The reason for Hamas’s interest in a mild flareup with Israel is apparent in a survey published Tuesday by Dr. Khalil Shikaki’s Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. According to the study, support for Hamas is in decline among Gazans, a trend that the center had already underlined in its September study. Only 33 percent of the latest survey’s respondents in Gaza said they’d vote for Hamas if Palestinian parliamentary elections were to be held today, down from an already poor 39% in September.

Combine that figure with the responses of West Bank residents, and Hamas is left with the support of only 29% of the Palestinian population, versus 40% for Fatah. (According to the poll, Fatah’s PA President Mahmoud Abbas would be reelected were he to run against Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. But both Abbas and Haniyeh would be bested by jailed Fatah Tanzim strongman Marwan Barghouti.)

The study produced equally interesting figures regarding the economic straits of Gaza residents. Only 16% of respondents in the coastal territory gave a positive evaluation of their financial situation, as opposed to 65% who said conditions in the Gaza Strip were “bad or very bad.” Almost one in two of those polled (45%) said they wished to emigrate from Gaza.

But economic woes aside, the most perturbing statistic to emerge from the study, as far as Hamas is concerned, may very well be that only 39% of respondents said that “Hamas’s way” was the best way to “end the occupation,” a dramatic drop-off from the 60% rate recorded shortly after Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel’s week-long bombing campaign against Hamas in late 2012.

Examined in light of the plummeting quality of life in Gaza, the Strip’s ongoing conflict with Egypt, and the eradication of the smuggling tunnels that were once the lifeblood of the local economy, these figures must be generating profound worry among the Hamas brass. While some of the Islamist group’s leaders maintain that the organization has weathered worse crises in its history, others have been reiterating that, if a popular uprising is to be averted, something must be done to curb the backlash against it in Gaza.

For now Hamas has chosen a quick fix for its deep-seated problems: divert public unrest on the one hand and, on the other, rouse Israel and Egypt from their complacency vis-à-vis the Strip, by creating a contained conflict. This includes skirmishes along the border with Israel, automatic weapon fire, and sporadic rocket attacks on southern Israeli communities. Thus, Hamas hopes, public debate in Gaza will focus on the reported death Tuesday of a three-year-old girl at Israel’s hand, not on the government’s impotence in dealing with the dire economy.

The problem, as ever, is that it’s a gamble on Hamas’s part: Contained clashes and controlled crises have a way of spiraling out of control and giving way to all-out conflict — sometimes in a matter of hours.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed