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May 17, 2018 8:50 am

Trapped in Its Own Paradox, Hamas Is Buying Time With Gaza Protests

avatar by Yaakov Lappin / JNS.org

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A Palestinian rioter on the Israel-Gaza Strip border, May 14, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Ibraheem Abu Mustafa.

JNS.org – Four years after the end of its last armed conflict with Israel, Hamas once again finds itself in a corner, strategically isolated from the region and ruling over a sinking ship.

Hamas’ efforts to find a “big brother” in the area — a state power that could back it — have all ended in failure. The Sunni Arab world, which is busy dealing with Iran and its own domestic crises, has no patience for Hamas’ hardline Islamist ideology and its recipe for neverending conflict with Israel.

Still, Hamas needs a backer if it is to maintain its regime in Gaza. It is looking for a power that can promote its interests in the international arena. Hamas’ failure to find such an entity has driven it into the hands of Iran and Hezbollah. Hamas has moved closer to Iran simply because there is no one else. Even Turkey, a Sunni Islamist state that is sympathetic to Hamas, is too distant to make a significant difference or alleviate the pressure on the terrorist group.

Egypt vehemently rejects the idea of partnering with Hamas, correctly viewing it as a member of the same Muslim Brotherhood movement against which the Egyptian leadership has waged war for years. From the perspective of Egypt’s current leadership, Hamas will always be a collaborator with the enemy.

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Hamas knows it remains utterly isolated.

In recent months, the head of its political bureau Yayha Sinwar has launched a genuine effort to end this deep freeze. He initiated a reconciliation process with the Palestinian Authority (PA), which Hamas violently ousted from Gaza in 2007. Contrary to initial impressions, this effort at reconciliation was not a show. It was a real strategy designed to get Hamas out of its corner.

Yet this effort failed to overcome the intrinsic enmity between the PA and Hamas. The hatred runs deep enough for PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to refuse treatment in West Bank hospitals to sick Gazans, and try to choke off Gaza’s electricity needs.

In addition to these mammoth challenges, Hamas is broke. It is struggling to fund its extensive armed wing. It is struggling to fund its government programs. And a growing percentage of the Gazan people are finding it hard to avoid the conclusion that they have no real future under Hamas rule.

Out of Gaza’s estimated two million inhabitants, a fraction has taken part in the border incidents. This is a reflection of the clear understanding held by the majority of Gazans that Hamas is cynically seeking to use them to achieve its goals. Most Gazans have simply stayed away, preferring to avoid the risk.

After a decade of rule, Hamas has finally learned that being a government is a complex business. It has people to take care of, a 43 percent unemployment rate to deal with, and Islamic State-affiliated armed groups to police. This was not the vision it had when it overthrew the Fatah-controlled PA in 2007.

Sinwar, alongside Hamas senior political leader Ismail Haniyeh, understands that Hamas is in trouble, and the time has come to do something.

The problem, from Hamas’ perspective, is that its options are extremely limited. When its leadership looks inside the tool kit, it finds a mostly empty case. Hamas has roughly three available options going forward:

The first is to agree to the PA’s demands to disband its armed wing in Gaza. Abbas will not agree to any reconciliation arrangement that leaves Hamas’ terrorist army intact and independent of PA command. The idea of the PA receiving political but no security control of Gaza — an offer known as the “Hezbollah model,” based on Hezbollah’s monopoly of military power in Lebanon — has been completely rejected by the PA.

The second option is the most radical: war with Israel. This is always a possibility. Since 2014, Hamas has been involved in a highly organized buildup of its forces, investing in the armed wing and preparing for combat.

Yet it is safe to assume that when Sinwar sits in his office pondering war, he is bound to ask himself what the result will be. After dragging Gaza through another period of deadly destruction and engaging in battle against a militarily superior foe, what will he have to show for it? It is obvious to him that the answer is nothing.

That is why Hamas has chosen the third option: protest and violent rioting. This is what is currently unfolding along the Israel-Gaza border. By bringing masses of Gazans to the fence and ordering them to attempt mass infiltrations of the Israeli border, Hamas thinks it can achieve certain goals without risking much.

It is fully aware that Israel cannot take chances and must defend its villages and fields located just hundreds of yards from the border. A violent mob of thousands potentially breaching the fence would include a mixture of unarmed rioters and attackers with knives, grenades, and even guns, and they would waste little time in seeking to overrun a nearby Israeli kibbutz. The proximity of Israel’s villages to the border means that the Israel Defense Forces cannot take the risk of allowing this to happen.

The highly disturbing results of Hamas’ maneuvers are visible to all. But from Hamas’ perspective, this is the way to achieve a number of key goals.

The first is to retain its government in Gaza and spread its political control to include Judea and Samaria, as well as Palestinians abroad. Hamas’ vision of representing all Palestinians in place of the PA has never vanished. It is prepared to accept that this can take a decade or 15 years to achieve.

Additionally, Hamas is seeking legitimacy among the Palestinian public. The terror group’s greatest fear is that its own people in Gaza will turn on it. The “popular” protest model is Hamas’ way of maneuvering out of this threat, by diverting civilian distress outwards rather than inwards. Israel and the PA make prime targets for the frustrated energy building up in Gaza.

The international attention these incidents garner is also seen as a plus by Hamas.

Still, the organization is aware of the fact that these protests will not solve any of its basic problems. Ultimately, therefore, Hamas is playing for time.

Hamas’ current distress, however, stems from a paradox of its own making.

On the one hand, it is a government in charge of a territorial area and a movement deeply entrenched in Palestinian civil society. On the other, at the ideological level, Hamas’ current modus operandi keeps it dedicated to armed conflict, investing huge sums in the heavily armed terrorist army it has built in Gaza at the expense of the civilian population. Managing this dissonance on a daily basis is what Hamas does. It continues to dig combat tunnels, manufacture rockets, train its battalions, and threaten war while also managing Gaza’s daily affairs.

So far it appears that Palestinians outside of Gaza have not played along with Hamas’ intifada script. While this may yet change, so far, at least, it is welcome news.

Yaakov Lappin is a Research Associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He specializes in Israel’s defense establishment, military affairs, and the Middle Eastern strategic environment.

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