Hamas Wants Quiet as It Prepares for Next Assault on Israel
Strategically, Hamas remains as committed as ever to destroying Israel and toppling the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority. Tactically, however, Hamas is exhibiting pragmatism, and won’t rush into a war with Israel until the timing is right.
Hamas remains convinced that it can eradicate Israel in the long run, even if it takes decades or centuries. Yet it would prefer to bide its time, and build up its forces, while working to decrease its acute regional isolation. For this to happen, Hamas needs to avoid plunging Gaza into a new war any time soon. Yet it remains far from clear that the terror group will be able to do this.
Should a war erupt in the near future, it likely will be triggered by unplanned dynamics of escalation. Gaza’s woeful living standards and infrastructure are among those factors.
Crises such as the ongoing electricity supply problem plaguing the Strip could facilitate an early conflict, as Hamas may try to distract the population’s frustrations from its failings, and divert them to Israel.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) is threatening to make matters worse by cutting off cash for Gaza’s power plant. This is part of the ongoing feud between the Fatah-run PA in Ramallah, and Hamas in Gaza. Gazans now receive electricity only four to six hours a day. In January, people in Gaza took the unprecedented step of protesting power cuts, making Hamas extremely nervous.
In addition to tensions over the electricity crisis, a Hamas-run terror cell could spark a conflict if it carries out a mass casualty attack that spawns Israeli retaliation.
The sheer scope of such plots that Israel thwarts every year is enormous.
Last year, 184 shooting attacks, 16 suicide bombings and 16 kidnapping plots were foiled, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman recently told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Hamas had “significantly increased” its efforts to carry out attacks in the West Bank and Israel, he said, adding that Israeli security forces arrested more than 1,000 Hamas members in the West Bank last year, and broke up 114 cells.
These are apparently risks that Hamas is prepared to take — because the day that it ceases trying to carry out jihadist terrorism against Israel is the day that it stops being Hamas.
Yet Hamas is also a government now, and it must consider the people it rules. Hamas is keenly aware of Palestinian sentiment. Its leaders grew up in Gaza’s refugee camps, and always have their finger on the pulse of Gazan society.
Hamas’ leaders seem to understand that the public opposes a new damaging war with Israel. The reconstruction program in Gaza following the 2014 conflict is far from complete, and there are still Gazans whose homes haven’t been repaired from the damage inflicted in 2014.
Furthermore, the general population, despite being exposed to Hamas’ daily propaganda diet of jihadist rhetoric, would likely be reluctant to be again be used as human shields by the group’s military wing. The price of Hamas’ policy of embedding its rocket launchers and fighters in Gaza’s civilian areas is simply not alluring to many Gazans.
On the flip side, one of Hamas’ worst fears is of being perceived as weak. After one of its senior operatives was mysteriously killed recently, it executed three people that it accused of collaborating with Israel.
Hamas also responded to the murder of operative Mazen Fuqaha by sending threatening messages to Israel promising vengeance. Hamas suggested that it would target senior Israeli security officials for assassination.
Fuqaha was a key figure in the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and was reportedly in charge of setting up multiple terrorist cells in the West Bank. His bullet-ridden body was found outside of his Gazan apartment building.
Despite the noise, however, Hamas has not rushed to respond just yet — underlining the fact that Hamas is aware of the restraints that it is under.
Hamas’ leadership also faces unfavorable regional conditions. They lack any powerful regional backer, following the 2013 downfall of Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president in neighboring Egypt, in whom Hamas staked so many of its hopes.
In the past, Hamas has enjoyed many partnerships, enjoying arms support and funding from the Shiite axis (Iran and Hezbollah) — and forming relationships with Sunni powers.
But the Middle Eastern regional upheaval, which is pitting Sunnis against Shiites, and Islamists against non-Islamists, has forced Hamas to make choices. It can no longer be on the same side of both Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. In the same vein, Hamas cannot be on the same side as both the Assad regime and the Sunni rebels fighting to remove him.
Worst of all from Hamas’ perspective, Morsi’s departure means that it cannot rely on its primordial impulse to attach itself to a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood-led backer.
Five years ago, there were initial signs of a regional wave of Muslim Brotherhood successes. But now the rise of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a leader who identifies Hamas as a Gazan branch of his domestic arch-enemy, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has guaranteed Hamas’ isolation.
Relations with Cairo remain rocky despite recent Hamas attempts to improve ties. Egypt may open its Rafah border crossing a few days a week, but this does not change its core view of Hamas as a true enemy.
Hamas has also fallen out with Saudi Arabia. And Hamas and Iran do not get along very well now either, despite the fact that Iran continues to be the chief sponsor of the Hamas military wing, paying it $50-$60 million a year, according to various estimates.
This leaves Hamas with just two stalwart friends: Qatar and Turkey, neither of which can back them substantially. Turkey is not an Arab state, meaning that its role in the Arab world is limited, and its desire to lead the Arab world will always be met with suspicion.
Hamas’ new leader Yihyeh Sinwar, understands these regional realities.
Furthermore, to compound its problems, Hamas also has serious financial issues. It has three main sources of income: donations from states, donations from private individuals and Hamas’ network of investments.
Hamas gets far less money than it used to from its donors, according to Israeli assessments. Only Qatar and Turkey donate on a regular basis, while Iran continues to finance the military wing, but not the entire movement.
Hamas is a large organization, and needs to pay salaries and prepare for its next clash with Israel. Hamas also seeks to export terrorism to the West Bank, and build up political support among West Bank Palestinians. All of this costs money. Yet private Gulf State donors are drying up. Wealthy Saudis are more interested in supporting Syrian rebels, and Hamas’ cause has moved to the back of the line.
Its long-term investments, meant to be saved for a rainy day, now must be tapped.
So what can Hamas do? First and foremost, it continues its domestic military build-up, mass producing rockets, mortar shells, variants of shoulder-fired missiles, drones and digging tunnels — all at the expense of the welfare of the two million Palestinians it rules.
Second, Hamas is trying to becoming more ‘acceptable’ to the region and to the world. It unveiled this week a new charter that attempts to obfuscate its jihadist ideological leanings, and its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, and to present itself as being merely a national “resistance” organization.
In the long run, however, Sinwar and his regime plan to continue to prepare for the “grand” destiny that they have chosen for Gaza. So long as Hamas rules Gaza, it will be the base of unending jihadist attacks against Israel, buffered by tactical ceasefires, until conditions are ripe for a new war.
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the Israel correspondent for IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.
This article was originally commissioned for the Investigative Project on Terrorism.