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Analysis: Border violence remains Hamas’s pressure tactic of choice

Palestinian protesters take cover from teargas fired by Israeli troop as others burn tires near the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, during a protest east of Khan Younis, in the Gaza Strip, Friday, June 1, 2018.
AP Photo/Adel Hana

According to several reports, Egypt is making progress in its attempt to lead Gaza’s armed factions into a long-term truce arrangement with Israel. But such reports do not mean that Hamas will so quickly abandon its main and only pressure tactic against Israel -- that being the large-scale violence that it instigates on the Gaza-Israel border week after week.

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar has chosen the border violence as his principal tactic for preventing an economic collapse of the Gaza Strip -- a collapse that could lead to a popular uprising against his regime.

Sinwar’s message is ultimately simple: Lift restrictions on Gaza, and we’ll end the border violence. Sinwar has been consistently signaling to Israel that he is not interested in entering into a full-scale conflict with Israel at this time. But he has also warned that he would do so if an economic crash looked imminent.

If forced to choose, Hamas would prefer to sustain major damage from a war with Israel over scenes of a popular uprising in its home turf -- such is the fear of domestic turmoil among Hamas’s leadership.

AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra

Unrest at home would enable Hamas’s many foes to point to the failure of Hamas’s sovereignty experiment, and to the dangers of allowing the Muslim Brotherhood or its variants to seize power anywhere in the Middle East. It would serve as a major blow to Hamas’s image and credibility, which are already heavily eroded.

At the same time, Sinwar is genuine in his claim that he is avoiding the war option as much as he can, due to his cost-benefit analysis that putting Gaza through another period of destruction will achieve nothing for Hamas and leave him with nothing to present to Gazans when the dust settles.

But Sinwar is also aware that he needs not just Israel and Egypt to prevent a collapse in Gaza. He also needs his main internal Palestinian enemy, the Palestinian Authority (PA).

So far, one of the main sticking points preventing any progress in the Egyptian-mediated talks has been the parallel, yet interlinked conflict between Hamas and the PA. PA President Mahmoud Abbas has placed crippling sanctions on Gaza, edging the enclave closer to war with Israel.

In recent months, Sinwar approached the PA and tried to achieve a reconciliation, so that the international community could use the PA to inject Gaza with much needed investment and aid money. But Abbas has rebuffed that advance, saying that he would only be prepared to consider it if Hamas disbands its military wing in Gaza.

AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed

Now, according a report by Israel's Army Radio, the Egyptians are offering a gradual, phased Palestinian reconciliation program, under which the PA would first receive civilian responsibility over Gaza and control over the government there, then control over the police force and border crossings, and “within a few years, [it would receive] the Hamas military wing.”

Abbas is reportedly set to meet with Egyptian President Fattah Al-Sisi in Egypt in the coming days, a meeting in which the Egyptians will likely ply the PA with pressure to accept this arrangement.

Egypt’s attempt to untie the Gordian knot of the Hamas – PA conflict has been persistent and thoughtful. However, the chances of Hamas agreeing to truly place its military wing under the command of its internal Palestinian nemesis are slim to none, which is why this phase of the plan has been pushed back by years.

Abbas’s response to this offer will provide a major signal as to where Gaza will head from here: Escalation or arrangement. If he agrees to the offer, Hamas will achieve its goal of tactical reconciliation, opening the door to investment in Gaza, and it will no longer feel the need to orchestrate major border violence on the Israeli border.

MAHMUD HAMS (AFP)

If Abbas rejects the offer, Israel may still attempt to stabilize the Gazan arena by allowing Qatari money into the Strip, but this would probably not represent enough of a change to cause Sinwar to tone down the border violence.

Another critical aspect of any future potential arrangement with Hamas that remains unsolved is Hamas’s ambitious military build-up program in Gaza. This has seen the mass production of rockets and mortars, which place southern and central Israel in the range of Gaza’s projectile arsenal, and other offensive projects, many of them funded by Iran.

At the end of the day, Hamas will never relinquish its commitment to radical armed conflict against Israel, and all such arrangements, whether they materialize or not, are offers for temporary breaks from the fighting.

Still, Israel, which would prefer to focus on more powerful enemies to the north, and which does not see any viable alternative government in Gaza, has sufficient motivation to give Egypt’s efforts a chance.

Yaakov Lappin is an associate researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a correspondent for Jane’s Defense Weekly and the Jewish News Service.

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