Analysis |

Hamas Has the Upper Hand in Gaza

As Israel keeps mum on the bombing of a weapons plant in Sudan, closer to home Hamas is taking a more active role in rocket attacks and its prime minister confirms that the siege of Gaza is over.

Despite the dramatic changes that have rocked the Middle East over the past two years, events in the past few days serve to remind us of trends and threats that do not necessarily stem from the Arab Spring.

The repeated rounds of escalation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip began after the organization violently seized control there in 2007. And, Israel has been attacking Iran-related targets in Sudan since 2008, at least according to the international media.

The change, as compared to the period before the Arab Spring, has to do with the number of fronts on which Israel has to deploy. The threat from Gaza and the complex confrontation with Iran have been augmented by the possible implications of the instability in Syria, the renewed danger of a resurgent civil war in Lebanon (which could affect Hezbollah's behavior toward Israel), the chaos in Sinai, and, of course, Cairo's attitude toward Hamas and Gaza.

Officially, Israel has been silent about the direct accusation by the Sudanese government that Israel Air Force planes destroyed a weapons plant outside Khartoum. The claim that it was an Iranian weapons factory is plausible. Iran's Revolutionary Guard has a clear interest in moving its merchandise closer to its chief clients: the Palestinian terrorist organizations in Gaza - much like the South American drug cartels in regard to the United States. Shortening the supply trail reduces smuggling costs and lessens the risk of exposure.

On the assumption that Israel carried out the attack, it's likely that the aim was to torpedo the smuggling of arms of a specific type to Gaza. The Gaza Strip is bristling with thousands of rockets of various models, the result of years of smuggling through the Rafah tunnels. And the flow of weapons has shot up considerably since the looting of the arsenals of the former Gadhafi regime in Libya. Some reports say there are already Iranian-made Fajr missiles with a 70-kilometer range in Gaza. An unusual quantity or quality of weapons could have led to an Israeli attack in Sudan, as the Sudanese claim.

According to reports, at midnight on Wednesday indirect understandings were reached between Israel and Hamas for a cease-fire along the Gaza Strip border. That would serve the basic interests of both sides, as neither wants a large-scale military clash now. However, the length of time between one round and the next has been decreasing. The inhabitants of the communities around the Gaza Strip have to rush for the shelters every week. And although the Iron Dome antimissile defense system is successfully protecting more distant sites, such as Ashkelon and Be'er Sheva, it cannot supply a comprehensive solution for the communities adjacent to the border.

The relative deterrence that was achieved in the wake of Operation Cast Lead at the beginning of 2009 is gradually wearing off. In its absence, and in light of the relentless erosion of Hamas’ status in Gaza by the jihadist groups, the southern front looks set for a period of serious instability.

The situation in Sinai is hindering Israel’s room for maneuver. Unable to attack in Sinai (for fear of undermining relations with Cairo), the Israeli army’s preventive operations against Sinai terrorism are focused on the Gaza tail of that activity. But the assassinations in Gaza provide the extremist groups with cause to react by firing rockets into Israel, to which the army responds by attacking rocket-launching squads, and so on in a repeated cycle.

The significant development this week has to do with the change in Hamas’ pattern of response. Hamas is no longer satisfied with watching from the sidelines as Israel and the jihadist groups trade blows, but is taking part in the rocket attacks and, it seems, taking command of them. Hamas Prime Minister Sheikh Ismail Haniyeh is cultivating the image of a “head of state” who does not hesitate both to take on Israel and be the one to welcome the first Arab ruler to visit the Gaza Strip since Hamas took power there.

Haniyeh can chalk up a very successful week: Hamas had the upper hand in the latest round of the southern confrontation. The organization set a price tag for attacks on its people, without having to pay any price itself. For the time being, despite the militant declarations in Israel that “Hamas will pay a steep price,” Jerusalem too wants to get to the elections in January without becoming entangled in a military operation in Gaza, even if it comes at the cost of a “Hamas victory.”

Haniyeh also received an extraordinarily large economic aid package from Qatar, to the tune of more than $400 million, even as the race for the top ranks of Hamas’ political bureau is at its height. In the final analysis, Haniyeh wants calm, not another war with Israel. However, the jihadist groups could drag him into one. More far-reaching understandings are needed between Israel and Hamas, in order to achieve a cease-fire that will last a few months.

Following the fall of the Mubarak regime, the current mediators in Egypt probably cannot deliver the goods as Cairo once did. Indeed, the relevant question regarding Cairo might not be one of ability but of will. President Mohammed Morsi is sounding a different tune. Just as Egyptian intelligence mediated a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, Morsi stated that Egypt would not ignore any form of aggression against the Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip. He explained it was not his intention to initiate a war, but pointed out that the Palestinians’ security “is also ours.”

Myth of a siege

For a moment last weekend, a small ship called Estelle shook up the international media. Once more a handful of peace activists demonstrated the brutality of the Israeli occupation, which is denying food to the starving residents of Gaza. And if that were not enough, after the forcible interception at sea, the hard-hearted Israeli government threw the pursuers of justice, among them a few Israelis, into jail.

The trouble with this story is that the activity to remove the supposed siege is not compatible with the facts on the ground to put it mildly. The siege of Gaza has long since become a myth, promoted by the Hamas government with the aid of a few left-wing international organizations. In practice, the festive declaration on Tuesday by the Hamas prime minister that the siege has ended during the visit by the Emir of Qatar let the cat out of the bag.

Still, the activists’ spin made its way successfully into the international media. After the interception of the Estelle, CNN reported this week that the Israeli siege of Gaza has been going on for the past five years. The simple truth is that there is no longer an Israeli siege of Gaza.

Restrictions remain on exports from Gaza and on the free movement of people from Gaza to the West Bank (20,000 people a year move from the Strip to the West Bank). Gaza does not have an active airport or maritime port, and Israel blocks ships from docking there. Gaza has only a land crossing to Egypt and a limited crossing to Israeli territory. But a siege, in the plain sense of the term, does not exist.

Under pressure of the Mavi Marmara affair in May 2010 (when nine Turkish activists died after the Israeli navy boarded the ship), the Israeli government revised its policy and greatly eased the entry of goods from the West Bank into Gaza. There is currently no shortage in Gaza of food or construction materials. Gazans can enter Egypt through the Rafah crossing, and from there proceed to any destination in the world.

In fact, an average of 1,200 people a day are doing just that, according to statistics released by the Hamas government itself. Those who are prevented from crossing officially by the Egyptians (for security and other reasons) cross through the tunnels. This is no longer a tough trek between Palestinian Rafah and Egyptian Rafah through a dark, narrow tunnel. A taxi service, effectively a form of public transportation, now plies the Gaza-Egypt route via the tunnels.

The markets are overflowing with fruits, vegetables, the latest iPhones and much more. A major real-estate boom is underway in Gaza, and the projected growth rate for 2012 is 9 percent, according to the World Bank. (By comparison, the probable growth rate in the West Bank will be 5 percent.) For the first time in years, West Bank residents who are asked about this in opinion polls claim that they are economically less well-off than the Gazans (though they are wrong).

Israel allows almost free entry of goods through the Kerem Shalom crossing, apart from those which Hamas itself doesn’t want as it hopes to keep the tunnels flourishing and because the price of some goods from Egypt is cheaper.
This week’s visit by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, was a historic occasion. A Hamas honor guard awaited him on the Palestinian side as he arrived via Rafah. He dedicated a huge rehabilitation project worth $400 million a donation the likes of which the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank can only dream about. If even Haniyeh is talking about the end of the siege, maybe it’s time for left-wing activists from Israel and abroad to stop engaging in cheap PR stunts.


The periodic blockade-breaking efforts are an excellent way for the organizers to attract international attention. The participants are no longer violent, but even a few dozen nonviolent peace activists are enough to drag the Israel Defense Forces into a long process of deployment and preparation, which will always end the same way: the takeover of the ship with minimal force, the towing of the vessel into the port of Ashdod and the deportation of the activists.

Following the conclusions of the Turkel and Palmer committees on Israel’s handling of the Gaza-bound flotilla in 2010, Israel took pride in having learned the lessons of the Marmara. The IDF now prepares thoroughly for every Gaza-bound ship. No more unnecessary risks are taken after the 2010 entanglement. At the same time, other state bodies have reduced their involvement in the preparations.

On Saturday, as the IDF deliberately maintained a low media profile, politicians rushed to offer congratulations via Facebook as soon as the operation ended successfully. For the IDF, though, there were weeks of preparations, the need to leave senior commanders and operational forces on special alert over the weekend, dispatching vessels to sea and conducting broad aerial intelligence surveillance. At the very least, hundreds of thousands of shekels were spent on a spectacle that is conducted according to fixed rules of the game and ends with nothing.

The courts usually take a lenient attitude toward the detainees and release them quickly, in an effort to end the episode. Israel is doing the right thing by avoiding violent clashes with nonviolent people, but if no other way is found to block these ships, the cat-and-mouse games will recur at sea every few weeks despite the fact that most of the restrictions of the Gaza land siege have already been lifted, as even Hamas now admits.

Israeli soldiers take cover as a siren sounds at an Iron Dome antimissile battery site in Ashkelon this week.Credit: Reuters



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