Opinion

Hamas Is Desperate for a Deal With Israel. Here’s Proof

A Hebrew message Hamas sent Israelis wasn’t exactly a threat. It was a plea for a cease-fire before Gaza descends into chaos

Gazans firing slingshots at Israeli soldiers during 2018 protests at border fence dividing Gaza and Israel.
Adel Hana/AP

Last Sunday, Hamas’ armed wing, the Iz al-Din al-Qassam brigades, released an unusual message in Hebrew on Twitter, titled “When do we not fight the enemy?”

Aside from its old-fashioned, uninspiring rhetoric, the message explicitly highlights Hamas’ determination to achieve a cease-fire with Israel, through which life can return to normal in Gaza, and Israel’s security, particularly in the south, will be maintained.

In what looks like a desperate petition rather than a threatening ultimatum, the message reads: “Hamas doesn’t ever breach any agreement it signed, even if it’s with a traitorous enemy.”

Hamas’ political bureau usually conveys such messages to Israel through international mediators, but to involve Hamas’ sacred “virtuous Moqawama,” or resistance, in making such a declaration emphasizes the organization’s forceful pursuit of a hudna, or truce, before Gaza becomes uninhabitable and descends into uncontrollable chaos.

From Hamas’ religious viewpoint, a hudna is a sacred armistice that no Muslim is allowed to break. This new “tranquility for tranquility” equation of deterrence is becoming increasingly popular and more widely accepted inside Hamas – if it would mean easing Gaza’s suffocating misery.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet reportedly approved a cease-fire with Gaza last Wednesday, under which the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing was partially reopened to allow fuel and food into the Strip, in Gaza the announcement was taken as a unilateral political maneuver intended to bypass negotiations in Egypt. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad denied an agreement had been reached.

Israel’s unilateral cease-fire is based on a return to the 2014 understandings, which is more or less the status quo that perpetuated Gaza’s agony for 11 years, before the March of Return this spring. In contrast, current negotiations for a five- to seven-year hudna, which a Hamas source says are still brewing in Cairo, are centered on a comprehensive, multi-stage plan to reconstruct Gaza, ease the blockade, gradually expand the fishing zone and open an internationally-administered marine passage between Gaza and Cyprus, or alternatively Port Said in Egypt. In return, Hamas’ paramilitary activities would be frozen, and the group would block the launching of incendiary kites and keep protesters away from the fence. A prisoner swap would also be part of the agreement.

With no officially approved hudna yet, Hamas leaders have come to favor the use of limited yet showy escalations rather than costly wars. Hamas’ goal in the last three wars with Israel was to break through the latter’s blockade. This was always stipulated in cease-fire agreements, but it never really materialized. Interest in Gaza usually loses momentum shortly after the battles end, while the international community’s motivation to end the blockade also declines. What’s left are only relief projects aimed at keeping Gaza barely surviving.

Hamas views war as chaotic and uncontrollable; it’s impossible to predict the enemy’s next move. Above all, wars require massive donations to repair the damage, and this time, it seems nobody is interested in paying.

Hamas has now realized it might more efficiently achieve the same objective – provoking the international community to rush to Gaza’s rescue – by engaging in repeated limited escalations with Israel. This would keep Gaza on the international agenda by reawakening the international community with another round of escalation whenever interest wanes again.

Escalations have developed into a way of communicating messages to the other side and pushing each other’s boundaries to create more favorable deterrence. For instance, Hamas’ latest rocket attacks aimed to prevent Israel from targeting its personnel or bombing the young people who fly incendiary kites over Israeli communities bordering Gaza.

Qatar’s ambassador to Palestine stated in an interview with Al-Jazeera last month that Hamas and Israel “reached a tacit understanding to keep their military confrontation at low intensity and avoid a full-scale war,” while continuing to engage indirectly in “talks over multiple issues concerning the conflict.”

The week’s tweet from Iz al-Din al-Qassam ends by warning Israel not to be “carried away by delusion,” amid the news that Israel’s government has recently pondered the option of carrying out targeted assassinations of senior Hamas leaders.

In bold type and words that scream of panic, it warns that “any foolish act that comes from [Israel’s] direction will cause it destruction and an unbearable pain that it has never known, both in nature and magnitude.”

In such delicate times, Hamas would not go that far with its rhetoric except to defend its most fundamental rules of engagement – the first of which is shielding its leadership from assassination.

Through international mediators and as a result of previous wars and escalations, Hamas has succeeded in creating such mutual understandings with Israel. Thus, Hamas leaders could parade fearlessly down the streets of Gaza, IDF officers could take photos near Gaza’s fence, and, most recently, IDF snipers could walk back and forth in front of the fence as they take potshots into the crowd of Gazan protesters, all without fearing fatal fire in return. (Although more than 160 Gazans have been killed in protests so far this year, there have been only two sniper shootings from the Gazan side of the fence. Hamas denied involvement and promised to investigate.)

In return for its understandings with Israel, Hamas set up a field control unit specifically commissioned to thwart attempts by individuals and minor armed groups to attack Israel during cease-fires. Whenever an improvised rocket does escape Hamas’ attention, Israel holds Hamas responsible and targets Hamas positions in Gaza.

In 2012, Israel broke the rules of engagement and assassinated Qassam leader Ahmed al-Jabari. Hamas’ immediate response was to target Tel Aviv with improvised rockets for the first time since the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein launched 42 Scud missiles at Israel.

Hamas attacked Tel Aviv again on the first day of Israel’s operation Protective Edge in 2014, marking yet another mutual understanding by which Hamas and Israel “start their military confrontations from where they left off,” as a Hamas activist put it to me.

The 2014 war ended with Israel wiping out entire residential towers in Gaza, indicating what the first days of a new war would probably look like. Residential towers were also targeted by Israel during the peak of the last escalation two weeks ago; Israel bombed the Al-Meshal tower and cultural center in Gaza City. Thus Israel warned Hamas to cease its attacks – or there would be war.

The Qassam military council, as this week’s tweet shows, is desperate to avoid war. As Qassam leader Marwan Issa told senior Hamas figure Mahmoud Zahar in a late 2015 meeting, “We engaged in three wars and gained nothing from them.” Issa concluded, “Even if Israel takes any stupid actions against the leaders of the movement, Al-Qassam won’t start a war.”

Instead, if Netanyahu’s cabinet reinstates the assassination policy, Hamas is more likely to retaliate with a huge barrage of primitive J-80 projectiles on Tel Aviv, rather than start another war. A cease-fire, then, is essential to avoid such rounds of fighting and the never-ending trauma it causes the people on both sides.

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights.