This is the up-to-date intelligence assessment, as presented on Thursday to the leaders of the Israeli government: Despite the relatively widespread rocket fire from the Gaza Strip – about 15 rockets over the past nine days – Hamas is not interested in a confrontation with Israel.
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The Hamas government in Gaza has loosened the reins a bit for the extremist Salafi groups after U.S. President Donald Trump’s speech on December 6 and has allowed them to fire rockets as an expression of Palestinian opposition to the American recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Since then, the organization that controls the Gaza Strip is finding it difficult to put the genie back into the bottle. Hamas’ security services have arrested Salafi activists who were involved in the rocket fire, but it seems as though it will take time until they manage to restore calm. The atmosphere in Gaza has been volatile ever since late October when Israel blew up an attack tunnel leading from Gaza into Israel, killing 12 members of Islamic Jihad and Hamas.
Israeli intelligence officers have identified a direct link between what is happening in the Gaza Strip and the events in the West Bank. In general, things have remained quiet in Jerusalem and among Israeli Arabs, except for the violent protest on the main road in Wadi Ara last Saturday. The instructions for the Trump protests have come from above. Both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, whose leaders have called for a third intifada, have encouraged the public in the Palestinian territories to come out and protest against the United States and Israel. But the response was limited, drawing only a few thousand people. The religious narrative about the American declaration never took hold in the Palestinian street.
Lacking a symbolic act on the ground worthy of a protest – such as the setting up of metal detectors at the entrances to the Temple Mount last July in the wake of a terror attack – and lacking a clear goal for the protest, such as Israel backing down and dismantling the metal detectors – the masses never came out.
The Israeli security establishment advised waiting to see the outcome of the events of this weekend, namely, the 30th anniversary of the founding of Hamas, which fell on Thursday, and the Friday prayers. If those events pass without any casualties on either side, it will be possible to say that the Trump protest is more or less over.
But not all of this logical and organized analysis necessarily corresponds to reality. First, the volume of rocket fire from Gaza is much greater than any time since the end of Operation Protective Edge in August 2014.
The present situation is so exceptional from the previous situation in the Gaza Strip that the question arises as to whether Hamas has been intentionally turning a blind eye to the activities of the rocket teams. Second, the Shin Bet security service announced on Wednesday that it had arrested a Hamas cell from the village of Tell near Nablus, which had planned to kidnap an Israeli soldier or settler in Samaria during the Hanukkah vacation.
Hamas ascribes supreme importance to kidnappings, which it regards as the only way to try to bring about the release of thousands of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. The group would consider that a great achievement – as it views the 2011 Gilad Shalit deal. But Hamas also knows that Israel would view such an abduction as a strategic incident, almost a declaration of war, to which it would respond severely in both the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.
The security forces believe that the planners of the kidnapping were not a gang of amateurs. They were headed by a relatively veteran activist in the field, and they had already obtained a pistol, raised funds and conducted preliminary surveys of the roads as part of their preparations for the attack. The orders came from the outside, from the “West Bank headquarters” of Hamas that operates from the Gaza Strip and directs Palestinian prisoners freed in the Shalit deal. They are under the command of the “West Bank region” of Hamas, headed by Saleh al-Arouri, who today divides his time between Turkey and Lebanon.
The proximity of these two events – the preparations for an abduction in the West Bank and the sudden increase in rocket fire from Gaza – revives unpleasant memories from the summer of 2014. In June of that year, a Hamas cell from Hebron kidnapped and murdered three Israeli youths who were hitchhiking in Gush Etzion. After their bodies were found in early July, tensions escalated – in part over the army’s efforts to foil an attack by Hamas through a tunnel dug into Israel. Ultimately, that escalation led to the beginning of Operation Protective Edge.
This time the circumstances are a bit different. First, the kidnapping on the West Bank was thwarted. And second, Hamas has taken preliminary steps toward reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority, which is supposed to free Hamas from the burden of civil management of the Gaza Strip, as well as bring in crucial finds to ensure its survival. But the reconciliation process is stuttering and it is hard to rule out deterioration into a conflict, which could very well surprise Israel – once again.
It is impossible to ignore the political pressures at play in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has twice conducted military operations in Gaza and both times he did so reluctantly.
In November 2012, on the eve of Operation Pillar of Defense, Netanyahu was facing a Knesset election campaign and endured a never-ending barrage of headlines in Yedioth Ahronoth that blamed him for the plight of residents of near the Gaza border, who were being bombarded by Qassam rockets launched from Gaza.
In 2014, he was under similar pressure from the right, from within the government coalition too, especially after the bodies of the murdered youths were located. Netanyahu himself admitted this year, in a session in the Knesset on the State Comptroller’s report on the operation, that he did not want a war in Gaza, but was dragged into it in the face of Hamas’ aggressive moves.
New faces in Hamas
One of the main changes that has occurred since 2014 is the switch in leadership in Hamas. During the last war, Hamas was torn between its external and internal leadership. Khaled Meshal, the head of the Hamas political bureau and its most senior leader, sat in Qatar and spurred the organization to continue fighting, even when some of the leadership in Gaza hoped for a cease-fire that would stop aerial bombardment by Israel.
Since then, Meshal has been replaced by Ismail Haniyeh, who lives in Gaza. Haniyeh was replaced as the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip by Yahya Sinwar, who had been the leader of the military arm of the organization in Gaza. This new internal balance of forces inside Hamas transferred the power from the outside to the inside and granted much more serious weight to the veterans of the military wing. Sinwar, who was also one of the prisoners released in the Shalit deal, is the first to unify – to a certain extent – the military and political wings of the organization.
A few of his friends, also veteran prisoners, took over key positions in the organization. They are members of the “in-between” generation: The young members of the group that came together around Sheikh Ahmed Yassin when the movement was founded at the beginning of the first intifada. They are veterans of both intifadas who came from the Palestinian “periphery” — the refugee camps in Gaza. They know Hebrew very well and Israeli society too, because of their extended stays in Israeli prisons.
When Sinwar was selected for his position in February this year, the Israeli media was filled with reports on his ideological rigidity and determination. After all, the man spent over 20 years in prison for the murder of suspected collaborators with Israel. But during his 10 months in the job, he has managed to prove many of the earlier forecasts wrong.
It is not that Sinwar was suddenly discovered to be a fan of Israelbut rather that he is better prepared than his predecessors and partners in leadership to make hard decisions, called for by the organization’s strategic troubles. Sinwar is the one who led Hamas to the reconciliation agreement with the Palestinian Authority, with the Egyptians acting as the brokers of the deal.
The Israeli intelligence agencies estimate that Hamas’ most important goal is to preserve its rule in Gaza, and after that to continue to build up its military forces. But preserving its power has become more difficult because of its growing diplomatic isolation – the crisis with Egypt, reduced economic support from the Gulf states – and the severe budgetary shortfall that have followed.
This is what has led to the willingness to let the Palestinian Authority assume some of the government authority in the Gaza Strip. But the reconciliation has been accompanied by many obstacles and reservations, mostly on the part of the chairman of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, who went ahead with the agreement somewhat reluctantly. Abbas, who rightfully fears that Hamas will continue to control the Gaza Strip by the force of its weapons, much like Hezbollah has done in Lebanon, has still not transferred a single shekel to improve the electricity supply in Gaza or pay the salaries of its government workers. Trump’s declaration provided an excuse for demonstrating a unified Palestinian position, but if the reconciliation agreement is declared a failure then the main restraint preventing another military conflict with Israel will be removed.
Lessons from first intifada
December 1987 was a month filled with historic events for the Palestinians: Not just the founding of Hamas, but five days earlier the first intifada broke out, sparked by a traffic accident in which an Israeli truck driver killed four Palestinians in Gaza.
In the Palestinian narrative, this intifada is a source of national pride in which children with rocks stood courageously against Israeli tanks, and against the bone-breaking batons of Israel Defense Forces soldiers and Border Police.
In the Fatah camp, at least, the uprising was at first presented as what set in motion a number of processes whose continuation was the Madrid peace conference and the Oslo process – in the years in which the PA still considered the Oslo Accords to be an achievement.
But the time that has passed now seems to have allowed soul-searching and a more sober look at what was achieved – and what was not. In a article published last week in the Al-Ayyam newspaper published in Ramallah, whose owners are considered close to the Palestinian Authority, Abdel Rani Salameh wrote that the first intifada may have been a “unique event, a noble expression of the movement of the struggle,” but he also listed the mistakes made and the lessons that he thinks can be learned from them. The Palestinian people, he argues, need to begin to learn from the experience they have accumulated and conduct a process of constructive self-criticism.
According to Salameh, the first intifada it was led properly in its first two years. But the arrests of the leaders of the uprising and the transfer of the leadership of the struggle to a younger and inexperienced generation brought with it many problems. He blames the split between Hamas and Fatah and the onset of conflicting commands and plans of operation for the first intifada’s failure to fully achieve its goals.
Salameh also lists the sins of the intifada. He mentions the numerous commercial strikes that destroyed the Palestinian economy and placed an unbearable burden on the Palestinian public. Security “fauda” (anarchy) reigned in the territories during which instead of continuing and fighting the IDF, Palestinian youths turned against an easier target and began murdering those suspected of collaborating with Israel, he wrote. The territories were swept up in a witch hunt after collaborators, many of whom were innocent, triggering blood feuds and revenge.
Another harmful development was damage to the Palestinian educational system. The many school strikes caused years of damage and left behind a generation of young people who took part in the struggle as a “generation of ignoramuses,” says Salameh.
The atmosphere of mourning and the solemnity the Palestinian organizations imposed on the public, because of the struggle against Israel and the great many losses, was accompanied by stricter religious enforcement. That put a stop to the day-to-day life in the territories and allowed the rise to power of the extremist Islamic movements.
Salameh’s article displays rare honesty in analyzing the Palestinian struggle and its failures. Its publication, in these days of renewed tensions, raises the question of how the mistakes of both sides are making today will look in retrospect.