Israel Believes Hamas Is Losing Control Over Gaza Youth

The younger generation is frustrated with how the organization is reining in the weekly March of Return demonstrations, and are abandoning Hamas for rogue groups

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Palestinian protesters flee from tear gas clouds during clashes with Israeli forces following a demonstration along the border in the central Gaza Strip, September 6, 2019.
Palestinian protesters flee from tear gas clouds during clashes with Israeli forces following a demonstration along the border in the central Gaza Strip, September 6, 2019. Credit: AFP

After twin suicide attacks hit Gaza City on August 27, killing three Palestinian security officials, Hamas understood that it was starting to lose control over the weekly March of Return demonstrations at the Israeli border – or more accurately, over the main activists behind the protests, senior Israeli security officials believe.

However, sources in the Gaza Strip say that the recent “isolated malfunctions” do not necessarily indicate a loss of control.

Many security incidents in Gaza recently, including the August attacks deep in the Strip, were the work of young people who were among the leaders of the demonstrations along the border with Israel. These were apparently an expression of their frustration at Hamas’ conduct, and what they consider meager achievements after hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries after confrontations with Israel during the nearly 18 months of protests. These young people, members of the Gaza Revolutionary Youth Forum, have been abandoning Hamas and working as small gangs under the aegis of Islamic Jihad and other rogue groups in Gaza.

Israeli security sources say the young activists are frustrated by the way Hamas has been acting toward Israel in an effort to prevent confrontations, which they say hasn’t done anything to improve Gaza’s economic situation. They have come to the conclusion that the organization no longer represents them.

>> Read more: Hamas takes extraordinary step to quell Gaza's 'angry youth' | Analysis

Palestinians check damage following an explosion targeted a Hamas checkpoint in Gaza City, August 27, 2019. Credit: Khalil Hamra,AP

Hamas has long been aware of the increasing agitation among the young people central to the marches and the violence that has accompanied them for the past year and a half. Members of this group were among the initiators of the protests against Israel even before Hamas assumed authority over them. These rogue activists are not only forum members, but also come from Hamas’ so-called nighttime unit, which conducts provocative acts against the Israel Defense Forces at night, as well as from the cells that launched incendiary kites and balloons.

To control the risk posed by these rogue activists, Hamas has started conducting security checks of people who come to the border demonstrations. The group has also confiscated bombs, grenades and other weapons from these activists to foil their attempts to use violence along the border and provoke Israel into responding.

On July 26, a protester named Mohammed Abdullah al-Qara was killed during a border demonstration. For the first time, Hamas did not report al-Qara’s death in real time, and did so only 24 hours later. The Revolutionary Youth Forum didn’t like this; there were a number of posts publicly lambasting Hamas on social media that day. In a video from al-Qara’s funeral, posted by former Hamas activists, there were calls against Hamas for not responding to his death. Other social media posts said things like, “Where is the promise of blood for blood?” and “Palestinian blood has become cheap.”

Hamas saw that day as a significant turning point, and accused the Palestinian Authority of inciting the outcry in the Strip. Hamas seized control of Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, which it identified as a hotbed of the social media activity. Hamas security forces confiscated cell phones and computers in an effort to discover who was behind the protest.

A surprise for Hamas

Israeli security sources believe that Hamas leaders were surprised by the August suicide attacks. The fact that people within Gaza, some of whom had been identified with Hamas in the past, had gotten help from Islamic Jihad to plan an attack that included suicide bombers embarrassed the organization. These security sources say the attacks posed the greatest challenge to Hamas’ leadership since it seized control of the Strip in 2007. Hamas is expected to publish a report on its investigation of the attacks.

כוחות השיטור של החמאס עוצרים רכב בחאן יונס בדרום רצועת עזהCredit: AFP

However, the organization didn’t launch mass arrests of senior Islamic Jihad figures, focusing instead on minor activists. Most of those arrested had until recently been involved in border confrontations with IDF soldiers.

Israeli sources believe the reason is that while Islamic Jihad may have provided the young defectors with the means to pressure Hamas to adopt a tougher stance toward Israel, Islamic Jihad leaders were not aware of the plan to commit a suicide attack against Hamas, and would have prevented the attack had known about it. This is what Islamic Jihad is claiming, and despite the tension between the two organizations, at this stage it appears that Hamas is prepared to accept that explanation.

Israel believes that in Hamas’ report on the attacks, expected within a week, the group will not issue broad charges against Islamic Jihad in an effort to lower the tension. This was also evident in Hamas’ response to the attacks: “What happened doesn’t serve anyone except the Israeli occupation,” said Hamas Spokesman Fawzi Barhoum at the time. “The bombings were meant to undermine Gaza’s stability, the security of its residents, and the base of support for Palestinian resistance.”

Merely a Band-Aid

Civilian activists and Hamas sources told Haaretz that many young Gazans are disappointed with what Hamas has managed to accomplish while trying to maintain a semblance of calm with Israel. Although Hamas had promised a drastic change in the humanitarian situation and an easing of the blockade, what has been achieved is like “A Band-Aid and tranquilizers for treating cancer,” one source said.

Hamas sources add that most of the young people who enlist in the Hamas military wing follow the organization’s ideology, which speaks of not recognizing the enemy (Israel) and waging the struggle to liberate all Palestinian land. Yet at the same time, Hamas is trying to reach equilibrium with the “enemy.” Under these circumstances, these sources said, Hamas owes an explanation about where it’s headed to the entire Palestinian public – but particularly to the younger generation in Gaza.

A recent social media campaign has Hamas more worried than the Israeli response to a drone launched from Gaza that dropped a bomb near an army vehicle near the border on Saturday. The posts indicate that on September 13, the anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords, there will be a protest against Hamas to demand that it toughen its stance against Israel. According to a security source, the young activists believe that only after a significant confrontation with Israel will Hamas be able to come to understandings that will improve Gazans’ economic lot.

The planned protest has spurred Hamas leaders to take measures that have already caused tension between the organization and the public that had served it faithfully in the clashes with the IDF over the past 18 months. Among other things, it has issued restraining orders against some of the main activists who are known to the Israeli security establishment as inciters at the border demonstrations. They’ve been ordered away from the perimeter fence area for a month and forbidden to come to the demonstrations or participate in any activity related to them.

Nevertheless, Hamas opponents in Gaza – those affiliated with Fatah or the Palestinian Authority, and those groups affiliated with the Salafi movement – aren’t hurrying to eulogize Hamas as the sovereign or to speak about a loss of control. A senior former officer in the PA’s security forces in the Strip explained that the organization has a strong security apparatus and governmental and police powers that none of the other factions, including Islamic Jihad, can challenge. Anyone who speaks of a loss of control or a weakening grip on power might wish it were so, but isn’t facing the facts. “It’s true that there are incidents and events here and there that testify to failures or lack of control,” he said. “But these are isolated incidents that still don’t indicate a trend that could threaten Hamas’ rule, at least in the foreseeable future.”

During the Eid al-Adha holiday in mid-August, Israeli security officials noticed that Hamas leaders were meeting with representatives of the public face-to-face in an effort to achieve quiet in the streets. The leaders met with the heads of the Strip’s powerful clans to demonstrate governance and to convey a clear message that it was worthwhile for all parties to preserve quiet and avoid problematic affiliations.

Hamas finds itself now between a rock and a hard place, both domestically and in terms of its foreign relations, with pressure from everywhere. Israel’s security establishment continues to assess that Hamas isn’t interested in an escalation. Based on this, the assessment last Friday was that the weekly demonstration would be relatively quiet.

But the struggle between Hamas and the rogue protesters and organizations have made the latter interested in escalating the violence at the border fence, to challenge both Hamas and Israel, who find themselves facing a common problem. Hamas must be concerned that its rule will be undermined, while Israel fears a situation of “Somaliazation,” in which every organization will decide to attack Israel however and whenever it sees fit, both to pressure Hamas and goad Israel into a confrontation that from their perspective will benefit Gazans in the long run, even if the conflict is particularly bloody.

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