Assessments and analyses arguing that neither Israel nor Hamas has an interest in escalating the conflict have become a permanent fixture after every round of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, and especially following the discovery of the bodies of the three kidnapped teens on Monday. Ostensibly, these assessments constitute an all-clear signal. But at bottom, they reflect a tortuous reality in which each side must appear like an enemy but behave like a partner.
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Israel has declared all-out war on Hamas. This has been its military, intelligence and diplomatic posture toward the Islamic movement for years. Hamas, for its part, doesn’t recognize Israel and defines it as an enemy that must be destroyed, or at least expelled from the territories, by means of armed struggle. These are the permanent decorations in the display window. But under the circumstances in which both Israel and Hamas are trapped — and not just for the past few weeks — these enemies are dependent on each other.
Hamas needs quiet in Gaza. It needs this not only so it can continue to rule there even under the reconciliation agreement it signed with its Palestinian rival, Fatah, but also to rehabilitate its relationship with Egypt. From the moment the reconciliation agreement was signed, Hamas has been striving to get rid of its image as a terrorist organization and a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (which Egypt defines as a terrorist organization), but without abandoning the principles of “resistance.” Hamas is also facing powers greater that itself, like Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which forced it to accept the reconciliation agreement and the concessions it had to make to obtain it.
Last week, even as Hamas leader Khaled Meshal was praising “the hands that perpetrated the kidnapping” and defining the Palestinian Authority’s security cooperation with Israel as a “catastrophe,” he made it clear that he continues to adhere to the reconciliation agreement. This includes acquiescing in the senior status of the PA and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, despite their close relations with Israel. Meshal thereby passed the hot potato of maintaining Palestinian national unity to Abbas. If Abbas decides to dismantle the unity government, not only will he be seen as someone who obeys Israel’s orders, but he will be held responsible for scuttling the national unity that most of the Palestinian public supports. Yet to maintain the unity deal, Hamas must avoid giving Abbas too strong a pretext for ending the partnership that has only just begun, such as firing rockets at Israel or carrying out terror attacks.
As for Israel, even though it won’t say so publicly, it needs a strong leadership in Gaza. Israeli leaders’ statements that they hold Hamas responsible for everything that happens in Gaza carry a price. Such statements can’t serve only as an excuse for Israeli airstrikes on Hamas targets or for assassinating Hamas leaders. Assigning such responsibility to Hamas not only amounts to tacit recognition of Hamas’ status, but also means demanding that Hamas use its power and influence against other Palestinian organizations. Because when Israel’s goal is to maintain quiet in the south, only Hamas can deliver the goods, even if not fully.
Hamas has “accepted” this responsibility and demonstrated its ability to keep the peace for months at a time. It has even set up special units tasked with thwarting attempted rocket launches at Israel by separatist groups seeking to challenge Hamas’ rule. This constitutes the heart of the common interest that Israel and Hamas share, which has given birth to their unofficial cooperation.
But now, a threatening dilemma has arisen. Hamas — which insists it didn’t know about the kidnapping and had no information about it, and even delayed participating in the recent rocket attacks on Israel for quite a long while — cannot refrain from backing the abduction’s perpetrators. Yet Israel, despite its need for a strong leadership in Gaza, cannot allow Hamas to get off scot-free.
Thus, both sides are trying to maneuver — cautiously, with measured steps — between the horns of this dilemma. Israel doesn’t really want to destroy the Hamas leadership or punish Gaza excessively. After all, too massive an assault is liable to lead Abbas to side with Hamas and even take steps in the international arena. Hamas, for its part, is sticking to its tactic of mutual deterrence and trying not to escalate beyond that.
The result is that both sides are holding a dialogue in sign language, and thereby seeking to determine the limits of the escalation. In the absence of official agreements, that’s the maximum they can achieve right now. But that is no small thing.