Analysis

Israel Beat Hamas. Now It May Lose Its Victory

The group that rules Gaza has realized its limitations and changed tactics accordingly. Israel is getting left behind and risks a defeat in the next round

Hamas' Yahya Sinwar, center, takes part in a protest near Jabalya in northern Gaza, March 30, 2018.
Mohammed Abed/ AFP

Since the Gaza conflict in the summer of 2014, on any visit to the kibbutzim near the Gaza Strip or talk with officers stationed there, the conversations have been dominated by one issue: When would Hamas use the tunnels it had dug under the border to launch an attack on a civilian or military target?

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It was never any secret. Israel was deploying a new underground system to detect and destroy the tunnels. Hamas military chief Mohammed Deif would watch how this tactical asset, on which Hamas had expended so much funding, valuable building materials and the lives of workers buried in cave-ins, was taken from him. “I’m ready at any moment for a squad of Hamas fighters to emerge, perhaps even on my own base,” said a commanding officer of the Gaza Division.

In recent months, you hear a very different tone from Israeli officers and intelligence analysts. Hamas’ leadership has made peace with losing the cross-border tunnels, which now are estimated to number less than 10, with the Israel Defense Forces expecting to finish destroying them by the end of this year, perhaps earlier. The forces are still on alert, but the assessment is that Hamas won’t use its last tunnels to attack.

That doesn’t mean Hamas has any intention for now to give up on its offensive assets; its arsenal of mortar shells and rockets and its teams of frogmen are still there. After over a decade Hamas has rapidly built up its military capabilities, which have ranged from makeshift mortars in the early years of the second intifada to rockets with ranges topping a hundred kilometers, and armed drones smuggled in through the tunnels under Rafah and built in Gaza, based on blueprints supplied by Iran. But there's  a tacit acceptance in the Hamas leadership, now headed by Yahya Sinwar in Gaza, that using them against Israel is no longer in the movement’s interest.

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Israel has won. Hamas, at least for now, has given up on military confrontation from its Gaza stronghold. It has realized that it is too costly; the people of Gaza that it controls hold it jointly responsible for the massive damage wrought by Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge and the previous rounds of warfare. Hamas is isolated like never before in the Arab and Muslim world, with even its allies Qatar and Turkey limiting its freedom to maintain “political bureaus” there. It has been outgunned, not only by Israel’s overwhelming firepower but by Israeli technology in the form of the Iron Dome system that intercepts its rockets and the new anti-tunnel system.

Savvy Sinwar

That the Hamas leadership has reached this conclusion did not come to a surprise to a usually overlooked member of the Israeli intelligence community – the prison service. Sinwar sat in Israeli prisons for 22 years for killing both Israeli soldiers and Palestinians accused by Hamas of cooperating with Israel. He was released in 2011 in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange, and with his elevation to become the commander of Hamas’ military wing, and recent election as its prime minister in Gaza, many Israeli observers believed it would mean a further militarization of Hamas’ policies.

But a senior prison service intelligence officer who had dozens of conversations with Sinwar during his incarceration believes otherwise. “He’s a hardliner, make no mistake,” the officer said. “But what many didn’t realize was that in prison, as leader of his fellow inmates and meeting Israelis up close for so long, he also became a pragmatic politician. I’m not surprised that he may be taking Hamas in a different direction. He wants to be a Palestinian leader and he’ll do what it takes to reach the top.”

A Palestinian wearing an Anonymous mask holds a knife during clashes with Israeli security forces near the border at Khan Yunis, Gaza, April 1, 2018.
Said Khatib / AFP

Sinwar and like-minded colleagues don’t necessarily represent an ideological shift in Hamas. The group is still a relatively young movement, founded in 1987, and Sinwar’s generation was among its founders. The changes made recently to the Hamas charter are mainly cosmetic and for foreign consumption, not a formal recognition of Israel’s existence or a rejection of the “armed struggle.”

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Hamas has recognized its limits and a historic opportunity to grasp the leadership of the Palestinian cause from its rivals in Fatah, as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at 83, with his popularity plumbing new depths, may soon be leaving the scene. That’s why Hamas in the last three and a half years has stuck to the cease-fire with Israel, tried to enforce it on other factions in Gaza, and searched for a diplomatic way out of its and Gaza’s isolation.

So far the results have been poor. Overtures to the Egyptian leadership, which included a repudiation of Hamas’ Islamic Brotherhood heritage, have yielded little more than the occasional opening of the Rafah crossing. The reconciliation agreement with Fatah, which included a relinquishing of civilian control of Gaza (but not military assets) has foundered, and Abbas once again plans to impose crippling economic sanctions on Gaza.

Some Hamas leaders favor a return to Iran’s patronage, but that’s not as simple as it was before Hamas fell out with Tehran in the early days of the Syrian civil war. The smuggling routes that Iran used to supply Gaza’s arsenals have mostly been destroyed, and so have many of the methods for transferring funds. Besides, Hamas craves recognition from the Sunni Arab states, and an alliance with Iran isn’t the way to go about that.

Nonviolence not the issue

The Hamas leadership will never say so publicly but it realizes it has lost every single round since the bloody coup in which it took over Gaza in 2007. With few options remaining, it has changed tactics, and its behind-the-scenes organizing of the “Great March of Return” that began Friday reflects this, more than a sudden embrace of nonviolence. Sinwar and his comrades who came of age in the early days of the first intifada are returning to that ethos of “popular uprising,” not because they plan on dismantling their impressive arsenal but because they understand the old ethos is more effective at present.

Putting aside whether it was a victory that was worth the terrible cost to Gazans and Israelis, or whether Israel should have been fighting this war to begin with, Israel has won. And if the way the IDF responded Friday on Gaza’s borders is anything to go by, it could well lose its victory.

The debate over whether it’s legal or moral to shoot someone trying to break through the border fence is an important one that sadly is barely taking place in today’s Israel. But beyond the considerations of international law and morals, it’s hardly a viable policy in the long term. If Hamas can keep up the momentum, bringing tens of thousands every week or so to the border and encouraging hundreds among them to risk their lives by rushing the fence, the casualty numbers will continue to rise as long as Israel’s policy remains the same.

Israel is now playing into Hamas’ hands by creating a new and constant source of friction that will put Hamas and Gaza back on the agenda of the international media and diplomacy. The government may feel that it’s shielded from criticism thanks to the support of the Trump administration, but that could soon prove an illusion. In any case, this isn’t only about deaths at the fence and bad headlines.

Hamas is adapting to the new situation and taking the initiative. Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, have steadfastly refused to discuss any long-term solution for Gaza’s predicament, though they have been urged to do so by the IDF’s commanders, as well as by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who has proposed revolutionizing Gaza’s infrastructure with his “floating island” plan. Now they are hiding behind tough statements and backing the soldiers, leaving them to deal with a situation they’re not equipped to solve in the field.

With no forward thinking on Gaza’s future, Israel’s leadership is squandering Israel’s victory over Hamas and giving it the opportunity to win the next round.