With nothing to show, Hamas slouches toward a new conflict
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Analysis

With nothing to show, Hamas slouches toward a new conflict

Terror group has failed to make significant gains after summer war, leaving Gaza’s population frustrated and looking elsewhere

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 gunmen from the military wing of Hamas during what they termed a 'victory rally' amid the debris of destroyed houses in Shejaiya, a Hamas stronghold of Gaza City, Wednesday, August 27, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Adel Hana)
Palestinian gunmen from the military wing of Hamas during what they termed a 'victory rally' amid the debris of destroyed houses in Shejaiya, a Hamas stronghold of Gaza City, Wednesday, August 27, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Adel Hana)

There is a saying in Arabic, “titi titi, zhai ma ruhti, zhai ma jiti” — as I went, so have I returned. I cannot think of an aphorism more suitable to describe Hamas this week.

On Tuesday, Israeli security forces in Hebron shot and killed the two suspected killers of three Israeli teenagers who were abducted on June 12 and whose bodies were later found in a field outside Halhoul, in the West Bank.

The early Tuesday operation marked the end of a terrible affair which sparked a chain of events leading to the summer’s 50-day Israel-Hamas conflict.

Anyone in Gaza expecting Hamas to forcefully respond to the deaths of its two West Bank killers, be it with a devastating barrage of rockets or any other form of a “high quality” terror attack, was sorely disappointed. Hamas’s negotiating team, stationed in Cairo for indirect talks with Israel, merely announced that, in protest of the deaths of Marwan Kawasme and Amer Abu Aysha, they would delay negotiations for three hours. Not exactly the fierce response many Hamas supporters would have liked to see.

Israeli operatives during the action which resulted in the deaths of Marwan Kawasme and Amer Abu Aysha, the two main suspects in the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in the summer of 2014. (photo credit: YouTube image capture)
Israeli operatives during the action which resulted in the deaths of Marwan Kawasme and Amer Abu Aysha, the two main suspects in the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in the summer of 2014. (photo credit: YouTube image capture)

Likewise, if anyone was expecting that the Cairo talks would yield a breakthrough to provide some sort of rapid and substantive relief for the battered Strip, frustration greeted them here too, as Hamas’s leadership announced only that the negotiations, immediately suspended on Tuesday, would resume at the end of October.

Almost a month has passed since Israel’s military operation in Gaza and almost nothing has changed in the Strip. Not one house been built

This is a post-military operation Hamas. The group scatters ridiculous statements every which way, boasting of its victory and achievements, when in fact, nothing of the sort can genuinely be claimed.

Gaza’s fishermen are now allowed to venture six nautical miles from the Strip instead of just three, but beyond that, Hamas finds itself at almost the exact same point it had been prior to the abduction and killing of teenagers Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel on June 12. The blockade has not been lifted, a release of its prisoners seems out of the question, and the Strip remains without a seaport and without an airport.

It’s incorrect to say Hamas’s situation has not changed, though. The group is in fact in a significantly inferior position than it was before, due to the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Almost a month has passed since Israel’s military operation ended and almost nothing has changed in the Strip. Not one house been built.

The Palestinian Authority, Israel and Hamas reached an understanding regarding building materials permitted to enter the Strip, but not much has progressed beyond that. Many of the citizens of Gaza are maintaining their habitual optimism, hoping that something good will eventually come, but plenty of them, too, are looking at their destroyed houses and realizing they are unlikely to be rebuilt anytime soon.

Fundamental political issues are inhibiting rehabilitation for Gaza as well, since the Palestinian Authority demands Hamas forfeit its control of the Strip, a proposition the Islamist group rejects outright.

Shifting frustration

For now, the frustration in Gaza is directed at Israel rather than at Hamas. The Strip’s population in general is supportive of “resistance.” But Gazans no longer necessarily identify with Hamas’s version of resistance; other radical Islamist forces in the Strip have garnered a following at its expense.

Furthermore, the volatile situation in Gaza is beginning to take its toll on the civilians’ temperament. For example, over the past few days, fights broke out in several schools serving as shelters for tens of thousands of homeless people, with the students’ parents demanding that the new refugee tenants leave at once to allow the school year to finally begin.

Another great fear for the Hamas leadership is rain. When the clouds begin showering the Strip’s roofless residents, Gazans’ hitherto reserved and polite frustration may turn more violent and widespread.

Hence Hamas’s dilemma. Militarily, its situation is far from glorious. Its political leadership prefers talks with Israel and the PA to another round of violence. But the post-conflict status quo will likely lead to a decline in support for the group, with the popularity Hamas gained after the war evaporating.

Thus within Hamas’s military leadership there are currently more than a few people who support the idea of resuming rocket fire at Israel — not massive fire, but a drizzle of projectiles to give Israel a painful reminder that Gaza is in need of desperate rehabilitation. For now, Hamas’s political wing is setting the tone, but with every passing day in which the Strip is not being rehabilitated, the scales tip more and more in favor of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the Hamas military wing.

So while the conventional wisdom both in Israel and Gaza is that neither side really wants to descend into a state of total war once again, it’s worth remembering that most analysts thought much the same before June 12, when the three Israeli teens were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank, sparking the process that ultimately brought the summer’s war.

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