Analysis

Hamas May Be Flattered by Hezbollah Comparisons, but the Challenges It Faces Are Far Greater

In comparison to Hezbollah, which faces no competition militarily, Hamas has armed competitors. The important similarity between the two organizations is that both have become part of the establishment

A Palestinian woman holds a picture of Hamas Chief Ismail Haniyeh as she celebrates the resignation of Israel's Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in Gaza City November 14, 2018.
REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

The praises Hezbollah heaped on Hamas for how it handled Israel in the recent confrontation amounted to patting “resistance groups" on the shoulder, as you would for an outstanding pupil. Israel also hastened to compare Hamas’ reaction to Israel's operation in Gaza with Hezbollah’s work. Lebanese military commentator Dr. Amir Hatit made a similar comparison; a retired general, Hatit was one of Lebanon’s monitors overseeing the Israeli troops' withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.

In an interview with Hamas’ Al-Rasala site, he pointed at four new aspects of Hamas’ work: Wise use of difficult and complex combat terrain, even more difficult than the Lebanese topography that protects fighters by permitting forces to hide; The organization fired hundreds of rockets and mortar bombs in all directions, thereby confusing the enemy; It succeeded in putting a lot of pressure on residents of Israel's Gaza border communities, similar to the pressure Hezbollah put on Israel's northern border towns; and it made sure its operations were closely covered by the media, showcasing the organization’s capabilities.

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It looked like a strategy born in the crucible of a Hezbollah school. But of all the “innovations” - which aren’t really so new - it seems that the decision “to shoot in all directions” as opposed to implementing a staged escalation, was intended to get Israel to make a quick decision either for all-out war or a cease-fire. Hamas took a big risk: As an organization closely following Israel’s political arena, it is very familiar with the disagreements between the prime minister, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett. Hamas is also aware of the IDF and Shin Bet positions against an all-out war. Lieberman’s resignation only proved to Hamas that it had read the political map correctly, which is why their leaders responded to the resignation by announcing that “Lieberman’s resignation was a recognition of defeat against the resistance.”

Gaza military analyst Mohammed Abu Harbid thinks Hamas proved itself both politically and diplomatically by agreeing before the recent clashes to negotiate for a cease-fire. In this way, it created an image of a rational organization capable of acting according to accepted rules. It could then present its response to the botched IDF operation as part of a legitimate self-defense policy. It seems these two tactics gave Egypt important diplomatic leverage for when its representatives pressed Israel for a cease-fire deal.

Palestinian sources told Haaretz that Egyptian intelligence tried to convince Israeli leaders that Hamas not only doesn’t wish to engage in more combat but wants to resume the cease-fire discussions, and that it’s capable of upholding its commitments. As evidence, Egyptian intelligence officials talked about the way Hamas handled the protests in the previous the two weekends. 

Egypt reminded Israel it too saw Hamas as a terrorist organization until two years ago and fought it tooth and nail. Egypt closed its borders with Gaza, destroyed most of the tunnels and brutally created an empty buffer zone of several kilometers between Gaza and Sinai. The pressure worked and Hamas was forced to agree to Egypt’s terms and prevented its people from infiltrating Sinai from Gaza while stopping Egyptian terrorists in Sinai from reaching Gaza. Now, as Egypt sees it, Hamas is an important factor in keeping its security, and it’s crucial to maintain its status for the sake of Israeli security, too.  

Egypt had no trouble persuading Hamas of the need for a cease-fire once it understood that the strategy behind the continuous and heavy fire of more than 400 rockets and mortar shells was aimed not at flexing Hamas' muscles but at “shutting the mouths” of its opponents. These include the popular committees and Islamic Jihad, Hamas’ partner in deal talks that fired off rockets at Israel a month ago. 

Palestinian demonstrators burn pictures of Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in front of the house of Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza on November 14, 2018.
MAHMUD HAMS / AFP

According to the Egyptians, Hamas' show of strength and its internal political considerations were easier to handle than a strategy of “self-destruction” by which Hamas would strive for an all-out war that would put international pressure on Israel and put Israel’s blockade of Gaza back on the agenda. Hamas had no reason to adhere to such a policy since it had already agreed to discuss a deal that would gradually free Gaza of the blockade. The Egyptians warned Hamas leaders that continuing the shooting would lead to a military occupation of Gaza, and that Netanyahu was under strong political pressure to wage a large-scale war that would destroy all chances for a deal and stop the flow of fuel and money from Qatar. A source in Gaza said that a member of Egypt’s delegation reminded Hamas of what Hazbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah said after the Second Lebanon War, that had he known how Israel would respond he wouldn’t have taken the soldiers. 

“You want to compare yourselves to Hezbollah, remember their failures and not only their successes in getting Israel out of Lebanon,” the Egyptian intelligence official said, according to the source.

The comparison to Hezbollah might flatter Hamas and might Israelis consider it an existential threat, but it’s a misleading comparison. Talking about its wise use of weapons, topography and the media as a basis for comparison is akin to comparing the IDF to the Palestinian police, in that both wear uniforms with ranks sewn on them. Hamas hasn’t the strategic depth of Hezbollah and has no mother country to supply it with weapons and money. As opposed to Hezbollah, which dictates the composition of Lebanon’s government and in this way determines its international standing (although it is not responsible for running its civilian affairs), Hamas is responsible for all aspects of life in Gaza and therefore the pressure it gets from below is much greater than that on Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In comparison to Hezbollah, which faces no competition militarily, Hamas has armed competitors that occasionally challenge the monopoly it holds in its relationship with Israel. The important similarity between the two organizations is that both have become part of the establishment. Hezbollah has transformed from a “resistance” organization to a part of the political and economic establishment in Lebanon while Hamas has transformed from a welfare organization acting on according to the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology to a national combat force that can compete with other organizations such as Fatah and Islamic Jihad. Like Hezbollah, it has become a governing force committed to a political and diplomatic strategy dictated by the public it controls, alongside its military tactics. 
Hence, drawing the conclusion that “beating Israel” and “government defeatism,” as Lieberman puts it, are liable to encourage other organizations, including Hezbollah, to challenge Israel, amounts mainly to political demagoguery.

The military and political ecology in which Hamas operates is different than that where “regular” terrorist organizations or semi-political groups such as Hezbollah operate. Hamas said it had agreed to restore the terms of the cease-fire reached after the 2014 Gaza War. From a military standpoint that means that “quiet will be met with quiet.” But Hamas is striving for implementation of economic promises that came along with these pledges, especially the promises by donor nations to provide 5.4 billion dollars to rebuild Gaza, as agreed at the Sharm el-Sheikh conference organized by Egypt. It is doubtful whether these commitments are still valid, but even if some of them will be carried out they would require Hamas to reconcile with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. This was Egypt's condition, and for this purpose it formulated some revised principles that could get the reconciliation process moving.

These principles determine that the Palestinian government, headed by Rami al-Hamdallah, will resume control in Gaza and be required to pay salaries of at least half the officials Hamas appointed. In addition, the executive committee established in 2017 to arrange the status of officials will need to complete its work within three months, while a legal committee headed by a neutral judge will examine all the laws Hamas passed in Gaza during its decade of rule and propose ways to integrate them into the Palestinian law books. Another committee will check the status of state lands in Gaza, some of which were sold off to finance the organization’s expenses. Finally, the principles state that within three months a Palestinian unity government will be established. 

As for the status of Hamas’ armed forces and their weapons, a critical demand for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - Egypt proposes to handle that separately. If Hamas were to accept this proposal, it would be the first time it was ready to negotiate the status of its military sing and its weaponry, after always insisting such matters cannot be open to negotiation.

Egypt’s attempts to bring about Palestinian reconciliation does not go hand in hand with Israeli policy, which has relied on the Hamas-Fatah split as an excuse to thwart any diplomatic process. But  if Egypt decides to sidestep its consent, Israel would have trouble torpedoing these steps, as these - as Hamas knows - will only work if there is calm in Gaza, an interest shared by Israel as well