Analysis

Hamas Arrests and Tortures Salafi Militants to Curb Gaza Rocket Fire Into Israel

The group has sent messages to Israel saying it does not seek an escalation, but Israel’s opposition parties are playing a dangerous game

Hamas supporters rally in Gaza, December 14, 2017.
Khalil Hamra / AP

The Hamas government in Gaza has in recent days arrested many Salafi militants, apparently with the aim of halting their groups' rocket fire into Israel. Hamas has sent a message through several channels, above all Egyptian intelligence, that it seeks to avoid a an escalation of the recent violence with Israel.

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According to Hamas, among those arrested were operatives responsible for the recent rocket launches. It seems that some of these men were tortured by Hamas’ security people.

Ever since U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on December 6, nearly 30 rockets have been fired into the Negev. Around half fell short and landed in Gaza, but twice – on Sunday and last week – rockets landed in populated areas south of Ashkelon and in Sderot. There were no casualties but there was damage.

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The Israeli intelligence community is sticking to the assessment that Hamas doesn’t seek a conflict with Israel that would deteriorate into a broader war. Still, the fact that Hamas hasn’t stopped the periodic fire for nearly two weeks raises the question of whether the launches stem from Hamas’ inability to enforce quiet or from its security forces’ lack of motivation to do so.

A possible explanation for Hamas’ slow response and mixed success is the overall atmosphere in the territories. Trump’s declaration was greeted by sharp denunciations by the Hamas government in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, as well as by Arab and Muslim countries. Thus Hamas might fear it’s putting itself in a position that seems to oppose the “resistance” – that is, the battle against Israel.

One can assume the group seeks to direct the protest to more comfortable channels, like terror attacks in the West Bank (where control is divided between Israel and the PA) and demonstrations near the fence surrounding the Gaza Strip.

Rocket fire is more risky for Hamas because it has no control over the results and the attacks could lead to a harsh Israeli response. So far Israel’s response has been pretty restrained; mostly just nighttime air raids on headquarters and training facilities belonging to Hamas’ military wing, which were usually empty at the time.

Meanwhile, in Israel criticism has increased of what is being described as the government’s helplessness against the rocket fire at Gaza border communities. On Monday the heads of two opposition parties, Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Avi Gabbay (Zionist Union), attacked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for Israel’s restraint in Gaza and demanded a strong military response against Hamas.

Netanyahu’s right-wing cabinet, which on Monday debated the situation in the south, is taking a restrained approach. It seems that for now there’s still a broad cabinet consensus against an extensive military operation in the Strip. Most ministers assume such an action wouldn’t serve much purpose other than mutual bloodletting, while the rocket threat from Gaza to the residents of the border areas hasn’t yet become intolerable.

Another consideration is Israel’s construction of its underground barrier against the tunnels leading from Gaza. The work on the barrier is expected to continue for another year, and in the past month and a half the army has discovered two tunnels dug by Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

The cabinet tends to accept the army’s position that the work will gradually deny the Palestinians their main offensive asset, so it would be best not to be dragged into a confrontation now, when Gaza terror groups could use the attack tunnels that remain.

Lapid and Gabbay have identified Netanyahu’s policy in the Strip as a comfortable target, given that the rocket fire is continuing. In the background, of course, is the progress being made in the corruption investigations against the prime minister and the lack of stability in the governing coalition.

Still, the opposition chiefs should ask themselves what exactly they seek to achieve by punishing Hamas. Are they interested in defeating it? Should Israel prefer to govern 2 million Palestinians, or hope that the Palestinian Authority will agree to take responsibility for them?

In the absence of a thought-out Gaza plan from the opposition, the calls for an iron fist look like populism. Also remember that twice in the past Netanyahu was forced into Gaza operations that brought only limited results – Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014 – because he was caught in the pincer of Hamas provocations in Gaza and political criticism at home.