Analysis |

A House Divided: Hamas Torn Between Long-term Truce and Renewed War

While its political leadership appears to be making efforts to avert conflagration, it's not clear how long Hamas’ military wing will obey and avoid attacks on Israel.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A Hamas militant marches during a rally in memory of people who were killed during the 2014 Gaza-Israel war.
A Hamas militant marches during a rally in memory of people who were killed during the 2014 Gaza-Israel war. Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Deepening divisions among leaders of Hamas in Gaza, and its power struggles with the Palestinian Authority and Egypt, are likely to sway events in the Gaza Strip in the coming months.

Hamas security forces display their military skills during a police academy graduation ceremony in Gaza City, Thursday, May 21, 2015.Credit: AP

Hamas’ financial crisis could lead to heightened military activity, just as the economic pressure Egypt put on the Strip last year was a key factor that led to its war with Israel last summer.

At the moment Hamas’ political leadership appears to be making efforts to avert conflagration. When an extreme jihadist group fired a rocket into an open field in the Negev at the end of Independence Day, Hamas had the shooters arrested and hastened to tell Israel that its people had nothing to do with the incident.

Israel responded with a symbolic bombardment in the Strip. But it is not clear how long Hamas’ military wing will obey and avoid attacks on Israel. As Haaretz reported about a month ago, Hamas’ political wing wants Saudi Arabia’s support, while its military wing, headed by Mohammed Deif, is still interested in mending the rift with Iran.

The dissention between the two leaderships could lead to a renewal of attempts to attack Israel along the Gaza Strip border. In this case, all bets are off.

MK Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Union), a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said this week Hamas has renewed digging tunnels and warned of an impending attack.

Bar-Lev is not alone in this assumption. Rumors among Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails recently said the organization was planning an attack in Gaza. Others said Deif would organize a major attack that would lead to a prisoner exchange deal with Israel. A similar Hamas move in the Kerem Shalom checkpoint area about a year ago ignited the war.

The two rival Hamas camps could be said to be in a race against time. While Deif and his people are probably considering an attack against Israel, the political leadership has sent Israel messages via the UN, Qatar and Switzerland that it wants a long term cease-fire that would alleviate the pressure on Gaza.

Israel has not responded to the offer, as far as we know, and at any rate its leaders do not agree on the benefit of such a truce. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon believes only in an unsigned de facto cease-fire and objects to building a floating port for Gaza under international supervision.

Others in the army top brass think Israel should give a cease-fire a chance. Senior Israeli officials deny that direct negotiations with Hamas are taking place, but Israel has consistently been looking for indirect contact with the organization. The Shalit deal in 2011 was conducted via unofficial negotiation channels. This is likely to happen this time as well, especially since Israel is interested in the urgent return of the bodies of soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who were killed in last year’s war.

Egypt has all but taken itself out of the picture. After the war in Gaza in November 2012, Cairo was the sole mediator between the sides and dictated, to a large extent, the understandings that were maintained until the next war erupted in July 2014. But the current generals’ regime in Egypt is so hostile to Hamas that it is not interested in taking part in the talks.

Dozens of Hamas activists from Gaza were sentenced to death this month for their alleged involvement in terrorism on Egyptian soil. Most of the defendants were sentenced in absentia. One of them is imprisoned in Israel.

The generals’ anger at Hamas is not only over its ties with its mother movement, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but also over Hamas’ continued covert assistance to jihadist groups in Sinai. Egypt is continuing to destroy houses on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border as part of its war against Hamas’ smuggling tunnels.

In case of an escalation in terror attacks in Sinai, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi may even order an attack on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.

Egypt also strongly objects to other mediators’ involvement in Gaza, especially Qatar’s. It seems that in the long run Egypt wants the Palestinian Authority to be reinstated in Gaza. But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is careful not to intervene in the goings on in Gaza and has even refused to position his men on Gaza’s border crossings with Israel and Egypt.

But 80-year-old Abbas will not rule forever and the Egyptians are interested in Mohamad Dahlan taking his place and ruling in Ramallah and Gaza. If Egypt is involved in such a move, it will have to take into account Hamas’ response, not to mention a war.

Meanwhile, as long as the Gaza Strip is quiet, the violence is centered in East Jerusalem, sometimes spilling over into the West Bank. Since the security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has been maintained, despite the political stalemate, both sides have been preventing institutionalized terror activity.

The Israeli army arrests Palestinian terror suspects every day – mostly for throwing stones or firebombs. The Palestinian Authority has imprisoned dozens of Hamas militants in the West Bank. The joint effort has resulted in foiling Hamas’ isolated attempts to carry out major attacks.

The vacuum has been filled by lone militants and local terror cells that are usually not associated with any known organization. In view of the difficulty of recruiting organized cells for suicide or shooting attacks, most of the terror activity consists of isolated stabbing or car ramming incidents that don’t require weapons purchases or prolonged preparations.

On Wednesday Border Police officers killed a Palestinian from East Jerusalem’s Jabal Mukkaber neighborhood, after he ran over and injured three police officers in the city’s A-Tur neighborhood. A few days earlier an Israeli was stabbed in the Mishor Adumim industrial area and four youths were injured in a car ramming attack in Gush Etzion.

Palestinians who rammed Israelis with cars have testified in their interrogation that they did so at the spur of the moment, without preparation or out of ideological conviction.

Similar attacks have taken place throughout the past year, culminating in October-November, following a wave of provocative visits to theTemple Mount by rightist MKs.

After the string of attacks the prime minister stopped the MKs from going to the Temple Mount and hundreds of policemen were deployed in the streets. Jerusalem calmed down almost immediately. But if a more serious attack takes place, it could have wide repercussions.

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