The decision by Hamas’ leadership to respond almost immediately to a call for restraint and a cease-fire after a very tense 24 hours didn’t stem solely from deterrence, or out of an Israeli military response. Also at play were strategic considerations that are quite congruent with the policy of Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar.
In a rare, comprehensive interview with Al Jazeera following Nakba Day, Sinwar explained that this is the time for a nonviolent popular struggle and not for an armed struggle, despite the dozens of fatalities since the beginning of marches along the border fence. Sinwar explained that every era has its own tools and this is not the time for live weapons. This position didn’t suddenly change within two weeks, despite the pressure in Gaza to respond with rocket fire.
From Hamas’ point of view, the March of Return and the pictures being broadcast every weekend from along the fence have brought the siege and the humanitarian distress in Gaza back to center stage, both internationally and in the Middle East, including in Israel. Not surprisingly, reports are appearing about Arab and international initiatives to help the Gaza Strip, without demanding that Hamas disarm or relinquish its rule and return the Palestinian Authority to power. From this Sinwar and the organization’s leadership in the Strip understand that the Quartet, the United Nations, Egypt and Israel regard them as a stabilizing factor in the absence of any formula on the horizon for the PA’s return.
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Hamas is interested in preserving this advantage, not losing it. If the organization opens up a front against Israel and starts firing rockets into Israeli population centers, it would put the group in a very weak position militarily and from a public relations perspective before the international community.
At the same time, Hamas can read the internal Palestinian and Arab map. The organization's leaders have heard the calls for revenge within Gaza, but understand that this would drag them into a military confrontation that is more convenient for Israel, and without Arab backing. Therefore the response was in accordance with Sinwar’s strategy not to enter the fray fully, but to let Islamic Jihad initiate the fire, then adopt the move with a joint statement by the military wings of the two organizations. The decision to keep the fire short-range, aimed at the communities adjacent to the Gaza Strip, and not to fire at Tel Aviv, was also made so as not to force Israel into launching a major operation.
Unlike in previous operations, Hamas wasn’t seeking any victory photos. The pictures from the fence are doing the job, so they sufficed with a general statement about Israel adopting quiet in return for quiet, as if there was an equal balance of deterrence.
This policy will be tested in the coming weeks and months. Hamas hopes to succeed in making political and diplomatic gains and bring about some practical improvement in the humanitarian situation in Gaza, even if it is indirect, through private enterprise or UN institutions, and thus further secure its control. Otherwise, the scenario of the past two days could become a recurring one, with the next confrontation only a matter of time.