Analysis

Hamas Stopped Gaza Escalation This Time — but Israel Should Know There Are No Free Gifts

Israel knows it needs to preserve Hamas as the force blocking Iran. If the current round ends without the group's intervention, it will have to let it wield its political influence

Hamas gunmen march with their weapons in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, November 11, 2019.
Hatem Moussa,AP

Israelis and Gazan civilians were caught in an absurd paradox this week. Both populations and their leaders were trying to guess if and when Hamas would join the military operation against Islamic Jihad. It’s been years since Israel made such a sharp distinction between these two movements. Both are categorized as terrorist organizations. Israel is at all-out war with both (and with the other organizations in the Gaza Strip). Israel consistently holds Hamas accountable for everything that happens in the Strip. That help explains Israel’s history of mounting a sweeping response to provocation in the Strip, where actions against it by one organization pulled in the other organization.

This time, however, the government, the army, the Shin Bet security service and Israeli citizens are all hoping that Hamas will act in a responsible and rational manner and calm down Islamic Jihad or at least hold its own fire. If Hamas does persist in its policy of restraint and does not expand the scope of the fighting — possibly causing it to escalate even more dangerously — Israel will have to reexamine its playbook vis-a-vis Hamas. The change in the rules could mean letting Hamas use instruments of control, management and, above all, financing, so that the organization can more substantially fulfill its standing as an autonomous local regime, in a way that will oblige it to take Israel’s security needs into account without forgoing the ideology of the armed resistance. In other words, the ideology would continue to be held up as the organization’s banner, while the implementation would happen “in other ways,” as Hamas leaders have stated in recent years.

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Hamas’s top standing in the Gaza Strip is due to more than just the amount of weaponry in its possession and its intensive policing of the population. As a player in several international arenas, Hamas conducts an independent foreign policy as if it were a state.

Since 2012, when its high command left Syria over its critical stance against the Assad regime, a step that led to a long break with Iran, the organizations has had to scrounge for other sources of support and funding. Egypt under President Mohammed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood, whom Hamas helped escape from an Egyptian prison, opened Egypt up to the organization. Turkey gave it a strong financial framework, as did Qatar.

Though Islamic Jihad joined the anti-Syrian camp that same year, it maintained ties with Iran up until the end of 2015, when Tehran reduced its aid to the organization by 90 percent and informed it that it was no longer a vital partner. This was because Islamic Jihad refrained from expressing support for the Houthis in Yemen and refused to send auxiliary forces and military instructors to the Yemeni arena. In Iran’s view, this placed Islamic Jihad squarely in the Saudi coalition that, with the ascension of King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman to the Saudi throne, launched an all-out war in Yemen.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants attend the funeral of a comrade in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip November 14, 2019.
AFP

In contrast to Hamas, Islamic Jihad has not been able to create a network of political and economic ties with states in the region; it relies on private donations and the meager aid it continues to receive from Iran. Granted, it also doesn’t have the expenses of Hamas, which is also responsible for operating the civil services in Gaza. When Morsi was ousted and Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi took over as president of Egypt in July 2013, the official pipeline for money and supplies from Egypt was shut off. Hamas found itself facing a hostile administration in Cairo that declared all-out war on the Muslim Brotherhood and its partners, including Hamas and the terrorist organizations in Sinai. Egypt’s closing of the Rafah crossing and continued efforts to destroy the smuggling tunnels between Sinai and the Gaza Strip, its erection of a wide ground barrier, the blockade imposed by Israel and Operation Protective Edge, the war in the summer of 2014, trapped Hamas in a political dead end and an economic paralysis that stirred up criticism and civil protest within the Strip.

Two years later, with mediation by Hezbollah, relations between Islamic Jihad and Iran were repaired, and Tehran gave it a new cash infusion, though not as large as it was before the break with Tehran. At the same time, Iran embraced the Shi’ite group Harakat al-Sabireen, led by Hisham Salem, who left Islamic Jihad in 2010 over personal and ideological differences.

Iran sought to gain itself another foothold in Gaza given what it saw as Islamic Jihad’s dubious loyalty, after it joined Hamas in its political moves versus Egypt in wake of the 2014 Gaza war. Iran tried to force Islamic Jihad to join Harakat al-Sabireen and appoint its commanders to senior positions as a condition for increasing the aid, but then Hamas entered the picture and began a campaign to uproot the small organization’s bases. Salem and several of his loyalists were arrested by Hamas, the charity organization he headed and which served as a source of funding for his activity was closed down, and Hamas thus served the interests of Islamic Jihad which rightly feared that Iran was trying to replace it with Harakat al-Sabireen or at least create an alternative for itself should Islamic Jihad turn out to be less obedient.

There was apparently some basis for this fear, as voices were already being heard within the Islamic Jihad ranks that were opposed to the close relationship with Iran. The Israeli insistence that Islamic Jihad and Iran are essentially one and the same requires some reexamination.

Hamas, meanwhile, kept developing its relations with Egypt, culminating in the near-full reopening of the Rafah crossing. Hamas delegations were invited to Cairo for meetings with top Egyptian intelligence officials, including Maj. Gen. Abbas Kamel, the head of Egyptian intelligence and President Sissi’s chief of Palestinian affairs.

Hamas sources say these discussions were not limited to the question of rocket fire from Gaza and the conflicts with Israel. “They also had extensive political discussions, concerning things like Hamas’ relations with Turkey and Qatar, the possibility of reconciliation between Hamas and Saudi Arabia and, above all, how to block Iran’s influence in Gaza,” a Hamas source there says. “The Hamas leadership felt that Egypt was treating it not just as an organization with a local agenda but as one that could aid Egypt’s regional political agenda.” The Hamas leadership’s pledge to prevent the passage of militants from the Sinai terror groups into Gaza, where they had previously been given refuge and aid, and its strict inspection of those entering and leaving via the Rafah crossing, created something like a security pact between Hamas and Egypt, despite the criticism from Salafi organizations in Gaza that Hamas had become the Egyptian border patrol while Egypt meanwhile maintained close security cooperation with Israel.

Palestinians wait at a makeshift station for travel permits to cross into Egypt through the Rafah crossing after it was reopened by Egyptian authorities, in Khan Younis, Southern Gaza Strip, February 21, 2018.
Wissam Nassar / dpa Picture-Alli

A paradox

Hamas told Egypt that it could not ravel the ties between Islamic Jihad and Iran because Islamic Jihad has no alternative to Iran, but it also suggested that Cairo increase its ties with Islamic Jihad and view it as a partner, mainly because it is vital for Hamas’ ability to impose its authority in Gaza. The paradox is that the convergence of interests between Egypt and Hamas made Israel an ally of Hamas in the fight against Iran, when both Israel and Egypt recognized the need to preserve the Hamas leadership as the most effective means of curbing Iran. Egypt even agreed to grit its teeth and consent to the transfer of millions of dollars from Qatar – Egypt’s enemy and the key source of support for the Muslim Brotherhood – into Gaza so that Hamas could stabilize its government which was on the verge of collapse as a local civil protest under the slogan “We want to live” was beginning to build.

Hamas has continued all along to maintain a relationship with the Iranian leadership, and last July it sent a large delegation to Tehran led by Saleh al-Arouri, Ismail Haniyeh’s deputy, but in his public statements, Al-Arouri was careful not to portray this meeting as a turning point in relations. “This meeting is not against any Arab or Muslim state. Our ties with Iran are part of all the ties we have with countries that are opposed to the Zionist project.” For the sake of comparison, when Ziad al-Nakhalah, Islamic Jihad’s chief, went to Iran in December 2018, he was given a formal state welcome as well as a practical commitment from Hossein Ashtari, Iran’s chief of police, that Iran would be ready to train the Palestinian factions. Nakhalah said in response that Islamic Jihad stands fully beside Iran in the struggle against the West and the Zionist enemy. In October, when an Islamic Jihad delegation came to Egypt (Baha Abu al-Ata was a part of it too) to discuss the cease-fire with Israel, the Iranian matter came up for discussion as well. It seems that the leadership that was elected to Islamic Jihad’s political bureau in 2018 was a more amenable one with which to examine the relationship with Iran, or at least one that was not unanimous in its views about Iran.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants attend the funeral of a comrade in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, November 14, 2019.
AFP

To this end, Egypt agreed to reward Islamic Jihad with an important gesture by releasing from prison 25 Islamic Jihad militants who then returned to Gaza with the Islamic Jihad delegation. While Nakhalah is seen as a backer of the relationship with Iran, Palestinian analysts say he is not in any country’s pocket. Someone who opposes exclusive ties with Iran is Mohammed al-Hindi who, though he was not appointed as Nakhalah’s deputy due to Iranian pressure, is still a dominant figure and a close friend of Nakhalah, and an advocate of expanding ties with Turkey, Qatar and other countries. Out of the 11 members of the political bureau, five are Gaza residents, one is from the West Bank and one represents the prisoners. In the past, Gaza had only two representatives. The increase in internal representation could also possibly be a moderating influence regarding ties with Iran.

These diplomatic considerations have a lot of influence on developments in the field, including the scope of the latest flare-up. Hamas, which over the years has made itself into a regional diplomatic player cannot afford to be dependent on the veto of Islamic Jihad. This time, for the first time, it let Islamic Jihad know that the “brotherhood of resistance” is not automatic and, moreover, that without Hamas, there is no way that Islamic Jihad can stand alone in this battle.

Essentially, what we saw here was an important show of political power by Hamas and a clear message to Iran. This position could serve it well in the election for the Palestinian Legislative Council, and Hamas will also be insisting on due compensation for it from Egypt and Israel both.