Pressure on Gaza || Israel believes Hamas won’t hesitate to attack again, despite growing isolation
Cairo is putting its foot down and Fatah is trying to step in, and the Islamist movement's ties with Iran went into crisis earlier this year. Is Hamas more interested in holding on in Gaza or in starting another round with Israel?
Egypt has been squeezing Hamas tighter in recent weeks, demanding that its leadership prevent attacks against Israel at all costs. Cairo insists that Hamas stop any assistance to Islamist organizations in Sinai, which are fighting against Egypt’s new rulers.
The military coup in Egypt in July caused a strategic change in the region, with Hamas being one of the main victims so far. Cairo hurls almost daily accusations at the Palestinian organization, exposing what it says are terrorist attempts against the new regime. Last month Egyptian forces opened fire at Hamas positions on their common border at Rafah, and Egyptian naval vessels fired on fishing boats from Gaza that approached the Sinai coast.
The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Sinai is currently open for only four hours a day instead of eight, and just 350 people pass through it each day in both directions, compared to 1,300 in the past. Last week the crossing was closed entirely after Islamists bombed the Egyptian intelligence building in Rafah. Egypt is also not allowing Hamas cabinet ministers to leave for Egypt through the crossing.
In addition, a substantial portion of the tunnels used for smuggling goods and weapons have been closed following Egyptian operations. Egypt is now leveling houses in a swath of land several hundred meters wide, west of the border with the Gaza Strip, to prevent construction of new tunnels concealed by these houses.
Economic distress is growing in the Strip following this pressure from Egypt. Fuel shortages are prompting many Gaza residents to walk long distances instead of taking the bus or driving a car, since the price of fuel doubled to more than NIS 6 a liter after most of the tunnels that had been used to smuggle in fuel were destroyed.
The small amounts of fuel that are smuggled into Gaza are directed by the Hamas government to the central power station, but that’s not enough to prevent the power from being cut for several hours every day. Government inspectors have been placed at gas stations to check whether residents have any outstanding payments due to the authorities before they are allowed to fill up their cars. In any case, fuel is rationed. A black market has emerged for goods that are no longer smuggled in through the tunnels.
Hamas is losing tens of millions of shekels monthly on the taxes it used to collect on smuggled goods.
Hamas is worried about Gazans’ increased grumbling about the worsening economic situation. In the last few weeks there have been attempts to organize a protest movement in Gaza that emulates the secular Tamarod movement that played a role in toppling the regime in Egypt. The movement, which is linked to Fatah, aims to organize a large rally November 11, to mark the ninth anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death. Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of people attended another mass rally Fatah organized in Gaza.
This weakening of Hamas in Gaza is the backdrop to Israel’s announcement last week that it will allow building materials into Gaza, to be used in the private sector. In an effort to strengthen Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel said it was making the allowance in response to his request. Israel also allowed in more fuel, but since it is considerably more expensive than the smuggled fuel, Gazans are in no hurry to ask for more.
Hamas is now experiencing a growing regional isolation. Ties with Egypt are disrupted. A crisis with Iran erupted earlier, following Hamas’ condemnation of the Assad regime’s massacre of Sunni rebels, many of whom are radical Islamists. The crutch that Turkey and Qatar used to provide is not what it used to be, given the upheaval in the region and their wish to leave open some line of communication with the new rulers in Cairo.
The media in Egypt attack Hamas on a daily basis. The Hamas leadership in Gaza is perceived as responding unusually slowly, as not grasping new developments. Hamas still controls Gaza, but it faces growing difficulties due to the pressure from Cairo.
Egypt constantly complains about aid given by various Gaza groups to rebel Islamists in Sinai. In a few cases, Egyptian security officials discovered weapon caches in Sinai bearing markings that indicated they came from Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. According to official figures put out by Egypt, 30 percent of the 130 Islamic activists killed by Egyptian security forces have come from Gaza.
Cairo is particularly worried about attempts by terrorist organizations to paralyze transportation through the Suez Canal. A few weeks ago there was an attempt to fire antitank missiles at a ship going through the waterway. Next month, Egyptian courts will start hearing lawsuits filed against the government, demanding that it tighten the siege of Gaza and prohibit Gazans from traveling to Egypt.
One option Hamas has is to announce renewed attempts to reconcile with the Palestinian Authority leadership in the West Bank. The only problem is that Abbas and his supporters are not only declining to go out of their way to help Hamas; they don’t even try to hide their satisfaction over the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo or over the current hardships facing Hamas.
Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, is trying to foster reconciliation with the PA, but others in Hamas think that would be tantamount to political suicide and that Hamas should continue to stand strong under the pressure coming from all directions.
Another option open to Hamas is to defy Egypt; there have already been a few protest marches toward the border with Egypt. Or it could return to its usual pattern of escalation with Israel.
Israel’s security services have previously said that if the Hamas leadership had to choose between maintaining its rule and keeping alive the idea of armed resistance against Israel, it would always choose to stay in power. However, this leadership has now been pushed into a corner, in an unprecedented situation. A cartoon in a Hamas newspaper shows the Gaza Strip gripped between pincers, with one arm Israeli and the other Egyptian. It’s difficult to know how Hamas will react over the long term, but it is certainly possible that in the short term its fury over the siege of Gaza will be directed at Israel.
The Gaza border has been particularly quiet in recent months, following the relative stability that followed Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in November of last year, but the Israeli army says Hamas and the other organizations in Gaza are continuing to prepare for a possible further round of confrontation.
The reduction in smuggling is forcing the organizations to be more self-reliant in producing mid-range rockets to replace the Iranian Fajr missiles. Explosive devices are being laid close to the border with Israel, and it is reasonable to assume that Gazans are tunneling toward that border in the hope of eventually using those tunnels to crawl under the border fence and kidnap Israelis, as Palestinian militants did in June 2006, when they captured Gilad Shalit and killed two other Israeli soldiers near the Israel-Gaza border.
“Don’t be fooled by the current quiet,” a senior officer in the army’s Southern Command told Haaretz. “We know that the other side is preparing attacks for a time when hostilities break out, and that these can occur suddenly, with no prior warning.”