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Israel’s Odd Partnership With Hamas in the Face of Salafist Escalation

Officially, Israel regards Hamas as an enemy, holds it entirely responsible for every attack from Gaza and responds harshly to every instance of fire. But practically speaking, its policy is the opposite.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Members of Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas march during a military graduation ceremony in Gaza City, May 21, 2015.
Members of Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas march during a military graduation ceremony in Gaza City, May 21, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The firing of rockets at the Negev from the Gaza Strip, which happened twice in three days last week, is still a localized problem. The rockets were launched by an extremist Salafi faction in the context of a local conflict with the Hamas government in the Strip, after Hamas arrested some of its activists and killed one of them. Hamas is working to stop the firing on Israel and Israel is giving it time to deal with it.

In the meantime, there is still hope in Israel that the regime in Gaza can overcome the internal threat and ensure that it does not escalate to the point of renewed conflict with the Israel Defense Forces, as the Salafis are threatening to do.

In the coverage of the escalation in the Israeli media, the organization that fired the rockets was prominently branded as Islamic State. That is a somewhat dubious claim. ISIS’ successes in Syria and Iraq in recent months have prompted various jihadist groups throughout the Arab world to position themselves as branches of the worldwide brand. In some places, like Sinai, a connection has been created between a local faction (Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, which has now changed its name to Sinai Province) and ISIS, and apparently money was also sent. In other places, such as Gaza, the connection seems to be symbolic.

But the description of the Gaza group as ISIS by the Israeli security establishment serves two goals. It strengthens Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s line, which depicts extremist Islamist terror at the fences on all of Israel’s borders, and it provides an excuse for Israeli conduct. If the choice is between Hamas and ISIS (contrary to Netanyahu’s claim at the end of last summer’s war that “Hamas is ISIS” ) then there is a reason that Israel is in no hurry to topple the Hamas government.

Meanwhile, neither Hamas nor Israel is dealing robustly with the Salafi groups. Hamas is having a hard time challenging the Salafis, although they are far fewer in number than Islamic Jihad, on which the regime in Gaza has forced it will with relative ease. It seems that the Salafis play by their own rules and are more insistent on having their way. Israel, for its part, has so far avoided direct attack on leaders of the Salafi groups.

The worry over the recent nighttime sirens in Negev communities is completely understandable, given the events of last summer. What is not being discussed is the large gap between public declarations by Israel’s government and its actions. Officially, Israel regards Hamas as an enemy, holds it entirely responsible for every attack from Gaza, responds harshly against Hamas installations in response to every instance of fire and threatens to escalate its actions. But practically speaking, its policy is the opposite. It takes great care that its punitive attacks on Hamas do not harm anyone, seeks to strengthen Hamas control in the Strip (as long as it maintains the cease-fire) and operates new channels of mediation, much to Egypt’s displeasure.

Egypt today is Israel’s closest regional partner. The two countries are joining forces in dealing with the local ISIS faction in Sinai and other Salafi organizations operating in the area, and they coordinate their positions on many activities. But on the question of Gaza, they do not agree. Egypt has a complete lack of faith regarding Hamas’ intentions and continues to enforce a tight siege on the Gaza Strip by keeping the Rafah border shut. It is also trying to push for greater involvement of the Palestinian Authority in the crossings.

Israel suspects that the PA does not really want to accept any responsibility for Gaza. What is more, ties between Jerusalem and Ramallah are tense in any case in light of the dependence of the new Netanyahu government on a narrow right-wing coalition.

For these reasons, it might be more convenient for Israel to reach indirect, general understandings with Hamas, which will not bind Netanyahu to political concessions (as long as he does not publicly concede that he has, de facto, recognized Hamas as a partner.) This is the background for the increased activity in the area by Qatari representatives, who are not dealing only with the economic rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip.

The Egyptians also suspect that Turkey, an opponent of the generals’ regime in Cairo and partner of the Muslim Brotherhood axis in the Middle East, is increasing its involvement in the Gaza Strip. Only last summer, at the height of the war, Israel adamently refused to involve Qatar and the Turks in mediation with Hamas and faced off against the United States because of the latter’s willingness to consider a compromise proposal by those two countries. Now, it seems that Israel’s approach has changed.

There are many players in the Gaza arena and many more that are active behind the scenes. At the moment, it seems that the Salafi rebellion against Hamas is putting at risk the relative stability attained between Gaza and Israel, though at some later stage the risk could come from the Hamas military wing, which is conducting an independent policy separate from that of the organization’s political leadership. Above all, there is the economic distress in the Strip, with unemployment at 50 percent, scarce potable water and inhabitants living with a sense of continual siege. It is hard to expect long-term stability, even if Israel has so far done more than Egypt to make possible the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip after last summer’s war.

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