For Hamas, Kidnapping Isn't a Win, Only a Bargaining Chip

Hamas is in no rush to take responsibility and legitimate an Israeli attack.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A Palestinian holding a rocket during a Hamas 25 year rally in Hebron, December 14, 2012.
A Palestinian holding a rocket during a Hamas 25 year rally in Hebron, December 14, 2012. Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The received wisdom that is taking form is that we should not take the abduction of Hadar Goldin as a strategic event necessitating a change in the application of military force. According to this mode of thinking, just as soldiers are killed and wounded, the kidnapping of a soldier should be seen as a part of the Gaza campaign.

It is worth mentioning that this received wisdom didn't inform the decisions of the country's leaders when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in June, since unlike Goldin, the teens were civilians who didn't take part in the war. Israel still ignores the fact that Hamas sees the kidnapping of civilians in general and of settlers in particular as a legitimate target just like kidnapping soldiers. In Israel these aren't considered a part of the fight against the occupation, but rather as local terrorist attacks, despite the warnings of intelligence agencies and previous kidnapping attempts, which indicate that these are a part of an overarching war strategy.

In addition, Israel sees the abducting of soldiers and civilians as a blow to its prestige, not its military might, but nevertheless treats them as if they were existential threats. Therefore, the Israeli response in these cases is the same. In the West Bank, Israel began an all-out campaign against Hamas, even though no evidence indicating that Hamas' leadership was behind or even knew of the kidnapping in advance has surfaced. Meanwhile, in Gaza, Israel is deploying a policy of revenge that in a single day killed some 100 people.

If the abducting of a soldier is an "inseparable" part of the fighting, then revenge, the decimating of Hamas' leadership and the systematic destruction of homes and neighborhoods are an aberration of the objectives of the fighting, which are still as they have been: The uncovering and destruction of tunnels. The addition of another objective - locating and releasing the captive officer - means that a new strategic dimension has been created, which would probably require new steps and a much longer operation.

Paradoxically, Hamas doesn't view the kidnapping as a strategic achievement or a military victory, but rather a lever to be used in future negotiations. As far as they are concerned a kidnapping will help in the negotiation for the release of the long-time Palestinian prisoners held by Israel or one of those prisoners released by Israel only to be imprisoned again after the kidnapping of the three Israeli teens. This pertains to only one of the clauses in Hamas' demands for a cease-fire or a long-term settlement. Thus, despite initially taking responsibility, Hamas was quick to deny any knowledge of the kidnapping, or to clarify that any announcement would have to come from Hamas' "military leadership" not the "political leadership."

Hamas is in no rush to take responsibility for the kidnapping and give further international legitimation for a large-scale Israeli operation against them. But it will continue to aspire to abduct more civilians and soldiers and garner more bargaining chips. Meanwhile, it can rely on the destruction, killing and displacement of 400,000 civilians as diplomatic assets. To judge by the publications on Hamas websites and things said by its leaders, it seems that the public rift between the United States and Israel, which they are emphasizing, and the European statements against the Israeli operation, may bear fruit and force Israel to stop its attacks and unilaterally pull out, without requiring Hamas to reach a status quo agreement. In the balance of prestige, it is a unilateral Israeli move that would be interpreted by Hamas as a victory. The destruction of Gaza will be compensated for by aid money that will pour in after the fighting subsides.

The possibility that the fighting will end without an agreement or an understanding and will look like an Israeli withdrawal may trap Egypt and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a complicated predicament. It will neutralize the important Egyptian leverage – the opening of the Rafah Crossing – and will pull the rug from under the Egyptian demand for a cease-fire as a precondition for any negotiation. Without an arrangement, this Egyptian condition loses all meaning, which only three weeks ago seemed to be of utmost importance in Israel's eyes.

Egypt may find itself in a situation whereby under Arab and public pressure it is forced to open the Rafah Crossing without Hamas capitulating. Without an agreement Abbas' position as the representative of the Palestinian side will remain without substance, and at any rate he will not gain any political or diplomatic capital. On the other hand, Hamas' gains would also be limited too. Without negotiations it will not be able to achieve the lifting of the blockade, which it has turned into its strategic objective, as well as the rest of its demands of Egypt and Israel. Thus Israel, Hamas, Egypt and Abbas all have the shared interest of reaching an understanding as soon as possible in order to avoid the unilateral option.

Abbas highlighted the urgency by announcing the names of the delegates scheduled to travel to Egypt on Saturday, while stressing that the delegation would leave no matter what, meaning even if a cease-fire is reached. Egypt has also backed down from its demand for a cease-fire, and it will agree to receive the delegation as long as there is an agreement on the core of the Egyptian initiative. It seems that in the end a cease-fire will come only as a result of negotiations, as Hamas wants, and not as a preliminary step, as Egypt demands and Israel supports.

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