Hamas did not order Operation Protective Edge. It also did not want to participate in the festival of Qassam rocket firings started by Islamic Jihad and the Popular Committees. All these were in clear contrast to the interests that have guided Hamas so far.
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Khaled Meshal, the head of the Hamas political leadership abroad who praised “the hands that carried out the kidnapping of the settlers,” went to the trouble of declaring that Hamas did not know in advance of the abductions and his organization was not behind the incident. As far as he is concerned, the abductions, murders and their consequences ruined a number of political moves he had been trying to develop since the reconciliation with Fatah; and now it has brought the Israeli operation down on him.
Hamas’ single most important issue is preserving its status as the sole ruler of the Gaza Strip, both from a military and a civilian perspective. From the security standpoint, Hamas enjoys the status of being solely in charge – a status given to it by Israel. The civilian side is where things have become more unstable, because of the deep economic crisis that has hit it, the severing of relations with Egypt and the closing of the Rafah border crossing, and the destruction of most of the tunnels by the Egyptian army, which served for smuggling goods and weapons from Egypt and used to be Hamas’ main source of funding.
The financial support Hamas received from Qatar also fell victim to the pressure put on Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – who all returned their ambassadors from Qatar with the excuse that Qatar is harming their foreign policy, and mostly because in their eyes Qatar is interfering in the matters of other Arab nations.
The essence of the claim was against Qatar’s support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and some of the militias in Syria, in opposition to Saudi Arabia’s fierce stance against them. Qatar’s support for Hamas, which the Egyptians view as part of the Muslim Brotherhood, both of which are described as terrorist organizations, has also infuriated the Saudis. The attempts at reconciliation between Qatar and the other Gulf States have cost Hamas in its own reconciliation with Fatah, since Hamas was forced to pay the price by making concessions of its own: agreeing to a unity government based on the framework Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wanted – even before holding elections – and without setting a date for an election for the Palestinian National Council, the Palestinian Authority and the presidency.
The abductions caught Hamas during a period that put its political strength to a severe test, when it turned out that the new unity government did not intend to pay the salaries of most Hamas government employees in Gaza and decided to make do with paying the salaries only of the PA’s workers. Qatar, which offered to pay $20 million to make up the difference in salary payments, was faced with the opposition of the Palestinian bank branches in Gaza that pay out the salaries. The banks said they did not want to get embroiled in troubles with Israel, which cast a veto on the transfer of money to Hamas employees.
The rebellion of the Hamas government officials made it clear to the organization’s leadership that as a result of the reconciliation its control over the funding of its supporters is in danger. At the same time, Egypt also was in no hurry to implement its promise to open the Rafah crossing completely, since it insists that supervisors from the unity government man the crossing, and no such agreement has yet been reached.
And so – despite the public declarations from the Hamas leadership and the PA that “there is no retreat from the reconciliation agreement” and it is an “essential national goal” – at least so far the agreement is seen as a too-expensive payment Hamas has made in return for a chance to rehabilitate the organization’s status. The abduction and murder of the three youths, and Abbas’ thunderous condemnation of it at the conference in Saudi Arabia, was an unprecedented threatening signal to the continued survival of the reconciliation – a situation that would isolate Hamas, with no known means of funding.
Operation Protective Edge, despite all the damage it is causing in Gaza, could as a result actually improve Hamas’ political standing for now. Abbas, who shows solidarity with the Palestinian public in Gaza, is in any case providing his support for Hamas, which is “standing firm” against the Israeli attacks. This position could also calm the harsh criticism against Abbas for the continued security coordination with Israel. Egypt may have failed in its attempts to reach a cease-fire, but it can officially – despite the crisis in relations with Hamas – renounce any responsibility for the attacks on Gaza.
Meanwhile, Egyptian journalists are avoiding reporting on the operation in depth, President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi did not even mention the situation in Gaza in his speech Monday evening, and the editorials were dedicated to internal Egyptian matters. Some commentators went as far as claiming that the Israeli operation in Gaza was coordinated in advance between Israel and Egypt. But this Egyptian position is likely to change if the operation is expanded or the aerial bombardment causes dozens of deaths. But despite the political profit Hamas will likely reap from the attacks, it seems the organization is still trying to limit its extent, or even bring it to an end.
Meshal recently asked Turkey and Qatar to attempt to convince Israel to stop the attacks, and the Hamas leadership is calling on all the organizations in the Gaza Strip to “unite in the face of the Israeli aggression.” This is an interesting appeal that testifies to the fact that Hamas is incapable of enforcing its will over some of the organizations, and it has been dragged into a war situation because of the actions of the separatist organizations who started the rocket attacks in the first place.
This is how Hamas has found itself in the same situation as Abbas. Hamas was the one in the past who challenged the peace negotiations and Abbas’ policies; but now, when Hamas actually aspires to rehabilitate its image, it finds itself in competition with the separatist organizations in Gaza. The way out for Hamas is through external mediation that will offer a temporary cease-fire, from which it will be possible to return to the rules of the game that were set after Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.
True, Hamas is presenting other demands too, such as the end to further arrests of its activists in the West Bank, as well as the release of the prisoners freed in the Gilad Shalit deal who were rearrested by Israel in the wake of the kidnapping and murders; but Hamas sources say these are not demands made of steel. The solution to the economic crisis of Hamas is more important, along with the continued implementation of the reconciliation with Fatah and the PA.