Hamas Is Trying to Get Itself Out of a Tight Spot

Prolonged escalation that paralyzes the south may force the IDF into returning to Gaza in a large ground offensive directed against Hamas’ rule.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Palestinians inspect the rubble of the al-Zafer apartment tower in Gaza.
Palestinians inspect the rubble of the al-Zafer apartment tower in Gaza.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

After the initial shock following the killing of two of its senior commanders, Raed Attar and Mohammed Abu Shamaleh (with the fate of Mohammed Deif, the head of its military wing, still unknown), Hamas responded over the weekend with heavy barrages of rockets and mortar fire at Israel. This time the results were lethal, with the death of 4-year-old Daniel Tragerman from Nahal Oz, hit by a mortar shell fragment. Netanel Maman, a soldier on leave, was critically injured by rocket fragments near Gan Yavneh.

Hamas is now focusing its efforts on areas close to the Gaza Strip, knowing that close to the border alert times are shorter and interception by Iron Dome of incoming fire is partial, at best. So far it has no shortage of mortar shells and short-range rockets. Its stockpile of longer-range rockets (40 kilometers and longer) is more limited. In the first days of the war it sometimes fired 20 such missiles a day. Now it avoids firing longer-range rockets, making do with token ones from time to time, in order to conserve ammunition. Damage to the center of the country is minimal so far.

The paths available to Hamas for restocking are blocked by Egypt. It appears that most of the production lines for producing its own rockets have been destroyed from the air, despite Hamas denials. Analysis of the fighting indicates that rocket fire is proceeding according to preset plans, with every local commander knowing how many to launch, where to direct them and at what time each day. This decentralized method allows Hamas to continue firing even under intense pressure by the IDF. For the first few hours after the assassinations on Thursday the fire subsided, with Hamas commanders seeking cover. Later, the firing resumed.

The intense barrages and the boy’s death have led to massive evacuations, particularly of women and children. Perhaps the authorities should have initiated such a move earlier. In response, the IDF intensified its fire, issuing a new threat on Saturday: a stark warning to Gaza residents that any house close to hostile activities will now be targeted, including houses near launch sites. This is another attempt to drive a wedge between Hamas leaders and the local population, in view of continued hostilities.

The assassination campaign has put the Hamas leadership in a tight spot, as evident in the large number of executions of suspected collaborators, culminating in the murder of seven people outside a mosque after Friday prayers. This was a self-defeating move by Hamas in the international public opinion arena, allowing Israel to compare it to The Islamic State. Hamas, however, is more troubled by its internal front.

It is highly unlikely that the murdered victims had any connections to Israeli intelligence agencies, particularly with regard to disclosing the whereabouts of the assassinated commanders. It is more likely that they had publicly challenged Hamas policies in Gaza. That was the message: Anyone helping Israel or opposing us risks his life. This indicates panic and supports estimates that the military wing has been without a leader for several days. The more days that pass without a sign of life from Deif, the more suspect will be Hamas’ version that he escaped Israel’s attack unscathed.

The question now is whether Hamas’ military distress will translate to the political arena. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is back in the picture, following trips to Qatar and Cairo. In Qatar he had a tense meeting with Hamas political chief Khaled Meshal. Abbas and his people are sticking by the Egyptian proposal, hoping that if the PA’s security forces assume roles in Gaza, with Hamas forced to acquiesce, he will be perceived as the savior of Gaza’s residents. Egypt proposed that the two sides resume talks after declaring a cease-fire with no time limits. Israel is apparently willing to go a long way to ensure that the first diplomatic initiative of President al-Sissi is successful.

The results of this confrontation depend on patience and steadfastness. Hamas embarked on this war for lack of choice, driven into a corner by the Egyptian-Israeli siege which crushed Gaza’s economy. After all they have sacrificed, it won’t be easy for Gaza’s people to yield easily to pressure. Hamas consoles itself for now with disrupting daily life in Israel, first by postponing the soccer season and more importantly, by threatening the opening of the school year. It is still looking for a more significant achievement, such as kidnapping a soldier through an attack tunnel, which may upset the cart yet again.

The IDF defined Operation Protective Edge as another campaign in a round of similar ones, but it seems more like a war of attrition, a third intifada which has not yet spread to the West Bank. Although Hamas may return to Cairo to negotiate, a prolonged escalation that paralyzes the south may force the IDF into returning to Gaza in a large ground offensive directed against Hamas’ rule.

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