Analysis

Gaza Tunnel Strike: Hamas Puts Palestinian Unity Before Revenge – for Now

Despite the strong reaction of top Islamic Jihad figures to the attack, Hamas calls the shots in the Gaza Strip – and a new war with Israel isn't its current priority

Armed Hamas militants outside a in Deir el-Balah, in central Gaza, on October 31, 2017, during the funeral of Palestinians killed in an Israeli strike on a cross-border tunnel.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

Israel’s destruction of a cross-border tunnel in the Gaza Strip on Monday left the Palestinian factions there, specifically Hamas and Islamic Jihad, facing a tricky dilemma.

On the one hand, the results of the Israeli army's destruction of the attack tunnel and the heavy price paid by the Palestinians – particularly Islamic Jihad, which lost at least eight militants, including senior field commanders – require any organization that defines itself as a popular resistance movement to respond, to avenge the death of combatants as well as making a statement to the Palestinian public.

>> Israeli strike on cross-border Gaza tunnel may have been too successful | Analysis

But the timing of Israel’s attack and the prevailing atmosphere in Gaza and the region require both factions to carefully weigh their actions, to the point of showing restraint or even not responding at all.

The dilemma these groups face was seen in their responses to the attack. Hamas was more moderate, saying the attack was an attempt to harm its reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority. Islamic Jihad, meanwhile, called for a general mobilization and its spokesmen threatened to take revenge – without detailing how this would happen.

People carrying the body of a Palestinian who was killed near the border between Israel and central Gaza Strip, October 30, 2017.
IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS

Despite the sharp reactions by senior Islamic Jihad figures, Gazans know that the rules of the game concerning the nature of the response are determined by Hamas, particularly its military wing.

Hamas doesn't seem interested in an escalation at this point. The organization is determined to continue the reconciliation process with the PA. On Wednesday, the PA will take control of border crossings into Israel, and in coming weeks, talks will be completed on transferring control of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian government.

Hamas doesn’t want to be portrayed as the one that undermined the reconciliation and played into Israel’s hands.

Hamas’ restraint is mainly tactical. The organization is determined to hand over responsibility for the civilian population in Gaza, aware that it only limits its maneuverability and blurs the distinction between being a guerilla-style popular resistance movement and an administration that needs to find solutions for its people.

A painful blow from Israel, such as the one it received Monday, will not deflect Hamas' leaders – especially its most powerful figure in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar – from their path, with the understanding that an act of vengeance doesn’t always need to be delivered immediately. This principle was adopted in Lebanon by Hezbollah, which showed restraint after some of its leaders were assassinated by Israel. Its line has been that it would respond at a time and place of its choosing.

Moreover, Hamas has no interest in damaging its ties with Egypt, which is sponsoring the reconciliation process while maintaining contact with both the PA and Israel. Right after the attack, Egypt contacted the faction heads in Gaza, principally Hamas, in an attempt to prevent a retaliatory act.

Egypt and Hamas both know that opening a front against Israel at this time will lead to a harsh response and total devastation of the Strip. In addition, it would scupper the reconciliation – which is counter to the interests of both Palestinian sides.

Another point relates to attempts to reach understandings on any strategic decision, such as opening a front against Israel. Any escalation and response are binding on all factions in the Gaza Strip, not just Hamas. It seems Hamas will respond with furious words, but it’s doubtful it will look to trigger a war.