Israel's Crackdown on Hamas Leaders, Prisoners May Boomerang

There is little logic to the exiling of the organization’s leadership to Gaza and the retributive measures against jailed Hamas members.

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Palestinians militants from various armed factions, including Hamas, attend a news conference in Gaza City June 17, 2014.
Palestinians militants from various armed factions, including Hamas, attend a news conference in Gaza City June 17, 2014. Credit: Reuters

While the arrest of 150 Hamas activists may seem reasonable within the context of the efforts of the intelligence services to track down the abductors of the seminary students, there is little logic to the exiling of the organization’s leadership to Gaza and the retributive measures against jailed Hamas members. There is no decisive proof as yet, aside from declarations by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that Hamas is involved. On the contrary, three organizations that are unrelated to Hamas have rushed to take responsibility for the kidnapping.

It seems as though the government is attempting yet again to climb the cliff called “obliterating terror infrastructure,” while looking for the proverbial dropped penny under the lamppost. Such efforts failed in two earlier operations in the Gaza Strip, “Cast Lead” and “Pillar of Defense.” Assassinating senior Hamas leaders also failed to yield the expected results during the second intifada. This time as well, it does not seem that the removal of senior and mid-level Hamas leadership figures will accomplish the impossible. Hamas has proved time and again that it can survive and raise new cadres. It is doubtful whether there are any intelligence benefits in banishing its leaders to Gaza since as long as they are in the West Bank, they are under the continuous surveillance of both the Shin Bet security service, which very rapidly located and arrested them, and the Palestinian security forces. In Gaza they will enjoy much broader freedom of action, benefiting from a more extensive political and organizational infrastructure than available to them in the West Bank.

The worsening of prison conditions for jailed Hamas activists as part of the retributive measures taken, aside from its moral aspects, may prove to have a boomerang effect. The solidarity of political prisoners, as demonstrated by the hunger strike of administrative prisoners who were joined by sentenced prisoners, may lead to an insurrection within security prisons which could result in international intervention. International criticism of the new provision allowing forced feeding may grow, possibly leading to charges against Israel at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Israel isn’t usually flustered by such scenarios, but if it is trying to muster international sympathy and support for itself as a victim of terror, retribution against prisoners will have the opposite effect.

However, it seems as though the main objective of these sanctions is not just retribution. They are part of a larger package deal meant to achieve several things: to portray Hamas as a terror organization, unchanged despite its reconciliation with Fatah; to sever the links between Hamas and Fatah; to persuade Egypt not to open the Rafah border crossing as a gesture of goodwill after the formation of the Palestinian unity government, and to stem the drift in the United States and Europe towards supporting this government. All these objectives have nothing to do with finding the missing teens and their abductors. This is but an opportunity that fell into the government’s lap, but its implementation stands on shaky legs. Paradoxically, despite the establishment of the unity government, the Palestinian Authority continues to cooperate with the Israel Defense Forces in a “meaningful manner,” according to a senior officer.

In all the days since the kidnapping, Hamas did not request a cessation of this cooperation or a breaking off of contacts with Israel. This fits in with the strategy that led Hamas to reconcile with Fatah in the first place. “Hamas has to look after itself, and it would be an act of folly to open too many fronts,” wrote Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal in a recent letter to the Muslim Brotherhood, exposed this week by Egyptian journalist Mustafa Bakri.

Meshal, who has so far not commented on the kidnapping, is unlikely to initiate a breakup of the new government. It doesn’t seem as though Mahmoud Abbas is rushing to fulfill Israel’s objectives either. He condemned the kidnapping and his associates have said that if it turns out that Hamas was behind it “this will mean the end of the reconciliation.”

Abbas does not consider Netanyahu’s declarations as proof. At this point, Abbas views the reconciliation as a step that brings Gaza under a united Palestinian umbrella, while possibly also converting Hamas into a legitimate political party. This will strengthen his demand for international recognition of a Palestinian state. His commitment to the reconciliation with Hamas provides him with ammunition against those who argue that he is a submissive collaborator with Israel.

The practical question now is how the military wings of Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad will respond to what they have labeled “new Israeli aggression against the Palestinians.” The tahadiya (cease-fire) between Hamas and Israel is still in effect and usually adhered to. However, the military wings of these organizations can terminate it if they feel that their political leadership and the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah have given Israel a free hand to operate against them.

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