Year After Gaza War, Hamas Seems ‘Deterred, Restrained and Restraining’

Israeli army officer speaks of 'potential for quiet for years ahead,' even as Hamas military wing prepares for preemptive strike.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An Israeli soldier standing atop a military post on the border with northern Gaza (seen in background) July 6, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

A year after the start of the war in Gaza, there is a sense in the Israel Defense Forces General Staff that the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip is “deterred, restrained and restraining.”

A senior IDF officer said Tuesday in a conversation with journalists that the organization’s leadership does not seem interested in conflict with Israel and that it is working to retrain small, more extreme Islamist groups and to prevent rocket launching at the Negev. Operation Protective Edge, the officer said, created “a potential for quiet for years ahead,” but in order for this goal to be achieved, steps need to be taken to improve Gaza's economic situation and formulate understandings on a long-term Israel-Hamas cease-fire.

Sources in the IDF say Hamas in Gaza is making great efforts to overcome political and economic isolation by simultaneously pursuing a renewed rapprochement with Egypt, better relations with Iran and ties to the branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Sinai. The IDF is concerned over chaos in the Strip, with disputes arising between Hamas' political and military wings and extremist Salafi organizations trying to undermine Hamas control by provoking Israel.

Hamas' military wing renewed connections with Iran and has received tens of millions of dollars since the end of the war, despite the rift between the Hamas political wing and Iran following Hamas’ condemnations of Syria's slaughter of civilians in the civil war there.

The military wing is demonstrating independence from the political leadership, some of its members apparently believing the political wing was much too restrained last year, and that in retrospect it was a mistake not to strike a quick pre-emptive blow against Israel in the form of a large-scale invasion of a community and an abduction through the Kerem Shalom tunnel before the IDF was able to blow up the tunnel.

The senior officer added: “There remains a potential to upset the quiet, although at the moment we do not identify a real and immediate danger of a flare-up. We have accordingly formulated our response policy regarding Gaza rocket fire on the Negev. They are clearly trying to drag Israel into an attack and embarrass Hamas. Not every rocket has to turn into a national incident.”

Hamas has in recent months taken unusual steps to prevent rocket fire. It has arrested and prosecuted members of the smaller groups and has built a string of border outposts, 300 meters west and south of the Israel-Gaza fence, to control movements nearby. The IDF sees this as a positive development, although some residents of communities on the border with Gaza regarded it with concern, saying Hamas has created a de facto buffer zone.

In the ten-and-a-half months since the war ended, eight rockets fired from Gaza have landed in Israel, and there were eight instances of light-weapons fire and explosive devices at the border. These numbers are much lower than in the periods following past major operations in Gaza, namely Cast Lead in 2009 and Pillar of Defense in 2012.

An opinion poll taken in Gaza by Palestinian pollsters (including that of Dr. Khalil Shikaki) shows two clear phenomena: Fewer people in the Strip believe Hamas won last summer’s conflict with Israel and more people support ISIS. From September to June, the percentage of people believing Hamas had won declined from 66 percent to 47 per cent. About 14 percent of Gaza Palestinians identify as ISIS supporters, almost double that seen in polls in other Arab countries.

Source in the IDF say Hamas is trying to restore its pre-war military prowess by manufacturing masses of short-range rockets, improving its array of medium-range rockets and rebuilding its tunnels. The IDF did not want to say whether tunnels dug into Israel have once again been identified, but members confirm Hamas will rely in future as well on efforts to move the fighting in the next war into Israeli territory by means of tunnel-based commando attacks.

If a future escalation pushes the two sides toward war, Hamas' military wing would very possibly seek to take the initiative by means of a pre-emptive terror attack to attain a military achievement in the first phase of fighting. Besides tunnels, Hamas is expected once again to use UAVs and commandos in raids on the Israeli home front. A good deal of the intelligence Israel listens for is based on the concern the military wing will try to launch a surprise attack, without necessarily formulating a joint policy with the political wing.

Marking the anniversary of the Gaza war's outbreak, the IDF Spokesman’s Office released some recordings and photographs of the war. Among them is a recording from Givati Brigade communications on “Black Friday”, August 7, in Rafah, the battle in which three of the brigade’s reconnaissance soldiers were killed and the body of one of them, Lt. Hadar Goldin, was taken. In the recording, the word “Hanibal” can be heard (the code word meaning that a soldier has been abducted and special efforts are to be employed), as well as ongoing reports to the brigade commander, Col. Ofer Winter, on the troops' progress. The commander of the brigade’s reconnaissance force, Lt. Col. Eli Gino, is heard reporting that a force under the commander of Lt. Eitan Fund, had emerged from a tunnel with equipment belonging to Goldin. The discovery of the bloodstained equipment belonging to Goldin made it possible to declare him dead.

The IDF Spokesman’s Office also released video footage from the helmet camera of Major Benaya Sarel, commander of the reconnaissance force, who was killed in a fight with a Hamas squad. The footage shows the force’s actions in the days before the incident.

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