Analysis |

Hamas Is Back to Threatening Israel, but That Doesn't Mean It's in Control

Hamas' confidence rhetoric is reminiscent of its approach leading up to the May conflict ■ Israel knows its impact on the Iran nuke talks is limited

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A march marking the 34th anniversary of the founding of Hamas, last week.
A march marking the 34th anniversary of the founding of Hamas, last week.Credit: Khalil Hamra/AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Is the basic Israeli assumption that the Hamas leadership wants a continuation of the quiet in the Gaza Strip still valid? A number of recent statements by some of the top people in Hamas indicate that they may now be re-evaluating the situation along the Gazan border.

On Tuesday evening, Hamas announced it was prepared to establish a new “equation” regarding Israel because of the recent incidents in Israeli security prisons. The atmosphere in the prisons is deteriorating, partly in light of the steps initiated by the Israel Prison Service following the disorder revealed by the escape of Palestinian inmates from Gilboa Prison. In Damon Prison there was the unusual incident of female Palestinian prisoners complaining that female guards conducted a violent search for mobile phones hidden in their cells. The Palestinian media also reported that the prisoners were forced to remove their head scarves (hijab), which stirred agitation in the territories.

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Things reached a peak when an imprisoned Hamas activist stabbed an Israeli guard in Nafha Prison, wounding him mildly. Prison Service sources said the stabbing was preceded by a number of intelligence warnings about expected attempts by prisoners to attack guards. The incident may have stemmed from laxity in keeping to security procedures in the prison, such as guards not wearing protective gear or entering cells individually instead of in pairs.

The spot from which Palestinian inmates escaped from Gilboa Prison.

The language Hamas is using lately is reminiscent of the days prior to the previous escalation in the territories, Operation Guardian of the Walls, in May. At that time the Hamas leadership chose to throw itself into the tension that was swelling on the Temple Mount and at Damascus Gate, making threats and finally launching a rocket from Gaza at Jerusalem. The result was a sharp Israeli response, and in its wake the worst round of fighting in the Strip since Operation Protective Edge in summer 2014. This time Hamas is saying it will not hesitate to act as it did in May, and that the prisoners’ conditions are an important consideration, no less so than the situation in Jerusalem was earlier in the year.

There were additional threats voiced this past week surrounding the visit to Gaza by a delegation from Egyptian intelligence. The Egyptians are trying to advance three aims: projects to rehabilitate Gaza, practical talks on a prisoner and MIA exchange deal with Israel, and long-term quiet along the border. The gap between the sides on the exchange is making it difficult to achieve the other two goals.

At the moment, it seems the government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has very little room to maneuver to reach a deal. There is no real pressure from the Israeli public for the return of the two civilians and the remains of the two soldiers held in Gaza, and there is no real support for paying the high price Hamas is demanding: the release of hundreds of prisoners, among them murderers of Israelis.

Hamas is making threats because of the accumulation of burning issues from its perspective: stagnation in the negotiations on the exchange, complaints by the prisoners in Israel, slow implementation of the reconstruction process, the start of winter that is expected, as usual, to bring flooding and disruptions of the electricity supply, and fear of a renewed spread of the coronavirus with the arrival of the omicron variant.

Hamas representatives told the Egyptian mediators that they would like to increase the number of Gazan workers allowed to enter Israel. The Bennett government has given its unusual approval for 10,000 such workers. In Hamas they want three times that number, at least.

The recent threats are being interpreted in Israel as evidence of distress in Hamas, yet among the organization’s leaders, there is a feeling of power. From its perspective, it won in Operation Guardian of the Walls and it is not afraid to risk another conflagration. The organization undertook a similar tactic in the past as well, when it hoped to pursue controlled escalation on the ground that would force Israel into economic and social measures. However, Hamas’ control of what happens is far from total. If, for example, it gives freer rein to the dissident groups and lets them send a rocket or two into the Israeli communities across the border, there’s no certainty the matter will end there.

In the background, the tension between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority is heating up again. The latter is showing weakness in the West Bank, while Hamas and Islamic Jihad are ratcheting up attacks against Israelis. These attacks are eroding the PA’s control on the ground and increasing public dissatisfaction with it as a corrupt collaborator with Israel. In recent days the Palestinian media have been reporting that Israel has transmitted threats, via the Egyptians, that if the PA does not stop the Hamas leadership in Turkey and Lebanon from directing attacks in the West Bank, Israel will assassinate Saleh Aruri, a top Hamas official who moves back and forth between Turkey and Lebanon. It appears that these threats have increased the tension in Hamas and contributed to the harshening of its tone towards Israel.

Moreover, the intra-Palestinian conflict has spilled over into Lebanon: After the mysterious explosion that occurred last week in a Hamas arms depot under a mosque in a refugee camp in Tyre, exchanges of fire erupted at the funeral of the man killed in the incident, a Hamas member. Three Palestinians were killed in the explosion, and others were wounded, from both Fatah and Hamas. One of the wounded is a top Hamas man, Zaher Jabarin, who holds the prisoners’ portfolio in the organization.

Money time

The nuclear talks in Vienna between Iran and the world powers are approaching what diplomatic sources in Jerusalem, who adore the English language no less than their colleagues in the previous government, are calling “money time.” This expression is relevant in its original sense, meaning decision time, but also because there is literally quite a lot of money on the table. Israel is warning the United States that lifting sanctions in return for Iranian concessions will bring a deluge of dollars to the Revolutionary Guards, and the money will find its way into the hands of terror and guerrilla organizations throughout the region, including Hezbollah, which is in desperate need of economic aid.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in Jerusalem, on Wednesday.Credit: Haim Tzach/GPO

Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, made a swift visit to Israel on the eve of the Christmas vacation. In an interview with Jonathan Lis on Wednesday, he said the United Sates has set a deadline of “within weeks” for completing the talks with Tehran. Other top American officials have spoken recently about a few months. Sullivan met here with Bennett and top diplomatic and security officials. As usual, Israeli sources criticized the world powers’ conduct in the talks.

In Israel they are always astonished anew at the Iranians’ success in maintaining a tough line at the talks, even while holding cards that Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz think are far from great. Despite an almost unprecedented domestic crisis – only last week the American media reported on tremendous difficulties in the Iranian water supply and massive emigration from the country – in Israel it seems Iran is the side dictating the direction of the talks.

Nonetheless, Israeli officials acknowledge that the extent of their possible influence on the United States and the other powers in the talks is limited. Moreover, the Biden administration’s agenda has changed in a way that is not to Israel’s benefit. Added now to the list of international issues on the president’s agenda – the climate crisis, coronavirus and competition with China – is another urgent issue: the worsening hostility between Russia and Ukraine. In Washington they aren’t ruling out the possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin will ignite a war with Ukraine. The efforts to rein in Putin’s moves are now central to the administration’s agenda.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Switzerland, in June.Credit: Sputnik/Reuters

In the midst of all this, the flood of belligerent statements about the possibility (which is very unrealistic) of an attack in the near future on the Iranian nuclear sites persists. The most recent to fall into this trap, this week, is the head of the IDF General Staff Planning Directorate, Tomer Bar, who in a front-page headline in Yediot Aharonot declared, “There is no way we will not act in Iran and carry out the mission.” Bar, who becomes commander of the air force next year, will certainly fill that position no less well than his excellent predecessors. However, even pilots need some instruction on how to talk to the media. These headlines aren’t contributing anything to Israel’s diplomatic efforts and are perceived, by the Europeans as well, as empty boasting. Bennett, who was surprised by the headline on Wednesday, thinks so too.

Israel is hoping that Iran’s hard line in the talks will lead down the road to America once again imposing harsh sanctions. Dr. Udi Levy, formerly a top Mossad official and the head of the Israeli team that dealt with the economic battle against Iran and the terror organizations, is not optimistic. In an article he published this week on the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security website, he wrote that despite Iran’s dire economic situation, the international sanctions have not succeeded in forcing it to compromise over its nuclear program.

Representatives of the EU and Iran in Vienna, in December.Credit: Handout/EU delegation in Vienna

According to Levy, to date the aim of the sanctions – toppling the regime or applying pressure that will lead to Iranian concessions in the talks – has not been defined. Levy writes that there has been a decrease in the ability to enforce the sanctions and that they are losing their effectiveness. In light of the tension between the United States and China and Russia, China has become Iran’s lifeline in the sanctions war. The Iranian leaders, wrote Levy, have learned to adapt themselves to the sanctions regime by building “an economy within the economy.” At a time when Iranian society is suffering from the sanctions, the Revolutionary Guards are flourishing and exploiting a large part of the weakening economy for their own needs.

Levy told Haaretz that in his assessment, there is not much chance that the United States will agree to Israel’s proposal to impose more sanctions. He urges the U.S. administration to focus on imposing personal economic sanctions on top people in the regime and the Revolutionary Guards. However, he says, the Achilles heel of the American campaign remains the crisis with Russia and China that is blocking international diplomatic coordination against Iran. Here, though, he sees a source for a possible solution. Maybe, he wrote, the Americans and the Chinese will ultimately reach a compromise in the economic struggle they are waging against each other, and in such circumstances Beijing would be prepared to sacrifice its relations with Iran.

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