Hamas Escalates Again as It Plays the Long, Radical Game
Three months after the end of its May conflict with Israel, Hamas has returned to its familiar ways of constant attrition, violent extortion, and “controlled escalation” tactics. Hamas has launched violent border disturbances again and authorized the release of arson balloons designed to harass and damage southern Israeli communities located close to the Strip. Recent years have shown that these measures, designed to “pressure” Israel into concessions, can quickly spiral out of control and result in war.
Hamas’s escalation ostensibly stems from its objective of forcing Israel into a broader post-conflict arrangement, which would include allowing greater quantities of goods into the Strip, reconstruction of damaged areas in Gaza, and additional measures.
Yet Hamas is unwilling to budge on negotiations on freeing two Israeli citizens who, suffering from mental health conditions, entered Gaza and have since been illegally held incommunicado. It also is unwilling to release the remains of an IDF officer and soldier killed in action in 2014, unless Israel agrees to its demand to free 1,111 Palestinian security prisoners — a number Israel cannot agree to.
After the 2011 Gilad Shalit deal, many of the 1,027 security prisoners Israel released dove back into active terrorism, and Israeli civilians have paid with their lives. Today, there is greater opposition in Israel to mass releases of security prisoners as part of swap deals.
Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, was serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for killing Palestinians he suspected of collaborating with Israel until his own release in the Shalit deal. Today, Hamas remains true to its radical Islamist ideology under his command.
Under this vision, Israel is eventually destroyed and replaced with an Islamic state stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
“Over is the time Hamas spent discussing recognizing Israel. Now Hamas will discuss when we will wipe out Israel,” he told Gazan youths in 2017. In June, weeks after firing rockets at Jerusalem and provoking conflict with Israel, Sinwar said, “we are convinced that very soon, Allah willing, when we will be standing in the courtyards of the Al-Aqsa Mosque as liberators.”
Hamas practices long-term strategic patience, and a degree of tactical flexibility, enabling it to agree to temporary ceasefires when this serves its interests. But it never ends its attrition, conflict, and terror plots against Israel. When Hamas senses that Israel is keen to achieve quiet and is leaning towards restraint, it often seizes on the opportunity to escalate further.
Sinwar’s radical mindset
Since narrowly winning internal Hamas elections in March, Sinwar faced internal Hamas criticisms. Some, like Salah Al-Arouri, Hamas’s overseas head of the West Bank sector, accuse Sinwar of failing to achieve any tangible results, such as securing a new prisoner release deal, or improving the quality of life in Gaza. Sinwar dragged the Gaza Strip into a destructive war in May that was designed to showcase Hamas as the authentic defender of Jerusalem — at Fatah’s expense. He now continues to agitate for fresh escalation.
This has led Israeli intelligence analysts to consider Sinwar to be in a more messianic and militant frame of mind than ever before, and to reassess previous conclusions that claimed that Sinwar was able to follow cost-benefit tactical pragmatism.
On Saturday, despite a deal allowing in $100 million a month in Qatari cash for needy Gazan families — a core Hamas demand — Sinwar’s Hamas provoked a new escalation with a large-scale border disturbance.
The event was held to protest Israel’s so-called “siege,” and also to mark the 52nd anniversary of an attempt to burn down Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque by a mentally disturbed Australian tourist.
During Saturday’s rioting, an Israeli border policeman was critically wounded when a member of Hamas’s internal security forces, dressed in civilian clothing, fired point blank at him through a hole in a security wall.
The policeman, 21-year-old Barel Hadaria Shmueli, is now fighting for his life. Hamas has taken the gunman into “protective custody.”
More than 40 rioters were injured by the IDF in the clashes, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, two of them critically. One, a 32-year-old man, died of his injuries on Wednesday. Hamas’s military wing said he was one of its members.
On Monday, Hamas released arson balloons to terrorize residents of southern Israel and burn down Israeli agricultural fields. The IDF responded with airstrikes that night, hitting targets that included a Hamas weapons manufacturing site in Khan Yunis and a terror tunnel entrance in Jabalia.
“A Hamas underground rocket launch site that is located adjacent to civilian homes and a school in Shejaiya, was also struck,” the IDF stated.
Yet another border disturbance was held Wednesday, with rioters hurling an explosive device at IDF troops. Five suspects reportedly were moderately injured by Israeli fire.
Hamas’s willingness to encourage Gazans to enter harm’s way while endangering Israeli security forces along the border and injecting its own armed members into the crowd is by now a familiar modus operandi.
These developments have deeply embarrassed Egypt, which has acted as mediator between Israel and Hamas since May. Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate, and its head Abbas Kamel, have been engaged in intensive diplomacy with Israeli and Hamas delegations traveling to Cairo separately. Kamel recently visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The two discussed “the need to maintain regional stability and to continue counterterrorism efforts,” according to a statement by Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s office after their Aug. 18 meeting.
“Minister Gantz thanked Minister Kamel and asked that his gratitude be expressed to Egyptian President Al-Sisi for Egypt’s positive role in the region. Minister Gantz also emphasized the importance of long-term peace and quiet on Israel’s southern border as well as the need to return the Israeli soldiers and civilians held hostage by Hamas in Gaza,” the statement added.
Yet these efforts have failed to rein in Hamas’s violent extortion tactics, and Egypt’s anger was clearly visible in its recent decision to shut down its Rafah border crossing with Gaza.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi views Hamas as an extension of his domestic Islamist adversary, the Muslim Brotherhood. But he is driven by an interest to prevent a new Hamas-Israel war, which would negatively affect the region. Egypt remains the region’s most capable mediator.
Cairo continues to apply pressure on Hamas to lower tensions, by offering it the carrot of a partial reopening of Rafah when border tensions decrease, and through behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressure. If Hamas complies, its ideological DNA means all such breaks in conflict can only be temporary.
All of this brinksmanship comes as the Palestinian Authority faces internal divisions over who might succeed its 85-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas could see a new opportunity to boost its West Bank terror cell development and threaten both Israel and the PA simultaneously.
These unstable factors have led IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi to declare that the Israeli military is prepared to launch a new operation in Gaza if necessary, possibly in the near term future.
“We will not accept a breach of our sovereignty, no matter who is behind it, and Hamas is responsible for all that happens in the Strip,” Kochavi said on Wednesday.
For Hamas, however, all of these events form one small chapter in the long game, in which it is prepared to play its radical role — a role it believes it has been divinely assigned.
IPT Senior Fellow Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the military correspondent for JNS. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.
A version of this article was originally published by The Investigative Project on Terrorism.