Hamas is striving to change the rules of the game with Israel

By Dr. Michael Milshtein​ | September, 2021

Photo: BackbiteMidnight | CC BY-SA 4.0

As he sees it, Yahya Sinwar is moving closer to realizing the goal he set for himself on the eve of Operation "Guardian of the Walls" (10-21 May) - to change the rules of the equation vis-à-vis Israel. In this context, he has thus far succeeded in actualizing maximum achievements with minimum damage.

Sinwar initiated a military campaign that resulted in relatively limited damage to Hamas; he obtained strategic achievements, such as strengthening Hamas’s public standing and its image as a national leader, in addition to fomenting unrest among Israel’s Arab population to an unprecedented degree; he succeeded in restoring most of the civilian assets that were in his possession before the outbreak of the campaign and in re-establishing the “old arrangement,” which he himself had flagrantly violated; he continued the violent friction with Israel, which may indicate that the most recent campaign has not sufficiently deterred him; and he accomplished all this without giving in to any demands to make significant concessions, especially concerning the issue of the POWs and missing civilians.

To put it another way, Sinwar seeks to prove that he has the ability to initiate an offensive and respond to developments in the West Bank – even without a specific provocation involving friction in the Gaza Strip – and that he can do so without suffering severe strategic damage.

Moreover, Operation "Guardian of the Walls" and the ongoing friction emanating from the Gaza Strip since the operation ended betray a deep chasm between Israel’s perception of the situation and that of Hamas. Israel considers an arrangement with Hamas the formula for long-term calm and takes the view that Hamas is at the stage where it is ripe to endorse such an arrangement (an assumption already highlighted by the assassination of Baha Abu al-Ata, a leader of the Islamic Jihad Movement in Gaza in November 2019, who was presented as an obstacle preventing Hamas from adopting the idea of an arrangement with Israel).

Hamas, on the other hand, considers an arrangement no more than a temporary lull aimed at further establishing its control and building its military force, but not as a course of action that should be considered binding, certainly not as a turning point in the ongoing conflict with Israel.

In other words, the ongoing reality since May of this year up to the present evinces the collapse of the "arrangement doctrine" in Gaza, underlying which is the assumption that continual improvement to the fabric of life in Gaza will inevitably diminish Hamas’s motivation to pursue violence. The gestures extended to Gaza in recent weeks – despite the continued violence perpetrated by Hamas, which peaked with the killing of the Border Police soldier on the border with Gaza and the rockets launched at Israel – largely reflect a willingness on Israel’s part to continue and even intensify an effort that has proved to be a failure.

This gap also reflects Israel’s difficulty in plumbing the logic and intentions of Hamas, which has demonstrated that it is willing to endanger the arrangement in order to advance its ideological goals, the first of which is armed resistance. Recent weeks have seen the movement display its readiness to wage a fierce struggle, albeit at varying levels of intensity – particularly the incendiary balloon terrorism, friction in the border-fence area and the almost nightly rockets, which Hamas seems to perceive as the campaign between the wars – aimed at restoring to Hamas all the civilian assets it held up until Operation "Guardian of the Walls".

In this context, especially striking is the Qatari financial assistance, in view of the fact that there is no real significance to the identity of the party providing it or how it is distributed. Moreover, this kind of reality further strengthens the status of Hamas’s government, leaving in place Qatar’s profound influence on Gaza without giving the Palestinian Authority any real foothold in the region.

Hamas as a governing factor thus faces a more complex range of constraints, but has not necessarily become more “moderate” or restrained as a result. It is rather a radical entity that from its new status dominates greater means, granting it the ability to more effectively advance the ideological goals it never forsook.

The events of the past week bolster the likelihood that the possibility of escalation in Gaza developing is greater than that of arriving at an arrangement. In the background is the combination of the considerable tension created in wake of the escape of the six terrorist prisoners, which was accompanied by the launching of rockets from Gaza and an effort on the part of Hamas to inflame the atmosphere in the West Bank, on the one hand, and the decision by the Palestinian Authority not to assist with the transfer of salary payments to Hamas officials (paid for by Qatar), which Sinwar views as the last element that might enable him to return to the situation that existed before Operation "Guardian of the Walls". In this situation, it is likely that Hamas will allow incidents involving ongoing friction with Israel to continue in order to ensure the transfer of all the Qatari assistance funds, further to expressing support for the Palestinian prisoners.

Israel must draw two main conclusions from the events of the recent months. The first is that Israel’s deterrence has eroded in Sinwar’s eyes because he is convinced that Israel’s focus on the corona pandemic and the Iranian nuclear project, further to its domestic political crisis, makes it difficult for Israel to launch a major campaign in the Gaza Strip and that consequently, it can extract concessions from Israel. Sinwar’s behavior towards Israel is largely governed by a trial-and-error method with an accurate reading of Israel, in contrast to the claim that he has become messianic and irrational.

Second, Israel must accept that its room to maneuver has been reduced. It currently faces only two alternatives. The first is to fully adopt Sinwar’s terms, i.e., to return to the old arrangement and concede everything that has been defined as “red lines” (that there will be no civilian concessions without first seeing progress on the subject of the POWs and missing civilians and that the launching of balloons will be treated like the launching of rockets). In this reality, Sinwar may agree to a relatively prolonged lull, but at the same time, he will be constantly trying to see if he can impose the new rules of the game, that is to initiate forceful action in response to developments in the West Bank , Jerusalem or even in Arab society in Israel.

If Israel wishes to avoid embroiling itself in this scenario, it must consider the second alternative, that of initiating a fiercely powerful campaign similar to the three campaigns waged in 2008-2014. If this stratagem is accompanied by attacks on certain elements within Hamas leadership, it may allow Israel to shape a more favorable strategic reality on the “day after.”

In practical terms, this may include a complete cessation of violent friction or a dramatic drop in its scope, just like the reality that prevailed in Gaza in the years following Operation "Protective Edge", and perhaps even more flexibility on the part of Hamas on the subject of the POWs and missing civilians. This will be possible if Israel takes a tough stance towards Gaza and does not make significant civilian concessions towards it in the absence of a breakthrough in that area.

Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.

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