Thursday, December 2News That Matters

Hamas gambles Gaza’s future on rocket barrage

Smoke billows after an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City targeted the Ansar compound, linked to the Hamas movement, in the Gaza Strip - MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

Smoke billows after an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City targeted the Ansar compound, linked to the Hamas movement, in the Gaza Strip – MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

In 2018 Yehiya Sinwar, the Hamas veteran who effectively rules Gaza, made an unusual announcement.

Speaking two days after Israeli soldiers killed 60 Palestinian protesters and militants at the Gaza border fence, he said that his group would pursue “peaceful, popular resistance”.

It was a remarkable thing for a leader of the proscribed terrorist group to say in the face of hardliners calling for vengeance.

Sinwar is widely considered a ruthless and brilliant political mind whose two decades in Israeli prisons gave him fluent Hebrew and an intimate understanding of his enemy’s politics and society. And his strategy of “negotiation by rocket” had previously brought tangible successes.

But his reluctance in 2018 to seek blood for blood signalled a softening. The next three years saw an easing of the blockade around Gaza, and economic and humanitarian relief. It appeared as though Hamas were seeking legitimisation.

“Basically Hamas in recent years was pursuing a more pragmatic strategy with regard to Israel,” said Neri Zilber, an Israeli-American journalist who closely follows events in Gaza.

 Firefighters put out a fire after a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip Firefighters put out a fire after a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip

Firefighters put out a fire after a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip

This week, the group seemed to throw that entire strategy of calibration to the winds. And no one is quite sure why.

Instead of firing a few dozen rockets in response to Israeli police heavy-handedness in Jerusalem, it launched over a thousand in a ferocious and unprecedented barrage over a single night this week.

Instead of confining the bombardment to southern Israel, it fired at targets deeper inside Israel than ever before including, for the first time since 2014, Jerusalem itself.

And instead of rapidly de-escalating, it seems encouraged by the unrest in mixed Arab-Jewish towns inside Israel to keep up the pressure.

All of this came at the price of a massive Israeli response that has devastated Gaza, killed dozens of Palestinian civilians, and likely dealt grave blows to Hamas’ own manpower and infrastructure.

“I cannot believe that they did not think this through,” said Michael Stephens, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “I just can’t work it out.”

Palestinians inspect ruins after Israeli warplanes continued pounding attacks on Gaza Strip - Ali Jadallah/AnadoluPalestinians inspect ruins after Israeli warplanes continued pounding attacks on Gaza Strip - Ali Jadallah/Anadolu

Palestinians inspect ruins after Israeli warplanes continued pounding attacks on Gaza Strip – Ali Jadallah/Anadolu

A clue may lie in recent political developments inside Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel may have upset that delicate balance.

In March, Sinwar’s authority was badly shaken during the terror group’s rather opaque internal elections.

In the end, he scraped a victory – but the strength of the challenge from more traditional and militant rivals revealed growing dissatisfaction with his rule and an apparent resurgence of the wing of the group with more traditional ideas about destruction of the Jewish state.

Then, on April 29 Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, postponed the first elections in 15 years on the grounds that Israel was refusing to guarantee that Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem would be allowed to take part.

Most observers believe the real reason is because his fractured Fatah party, widely perceived by ordinary Palestinians as corrupt, authoritarian, and ineffective, was expected to take a mauling at the hands of Hamas.

With the electoral avenue to defeating Fatah and claiming leadership shut, the hardliners inside Hamas may have argued that there was less to lose from military escalation.

The third electoral vector was in Israel itself.

Until the beginning of last week, Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12 years as Israeli’s prime minister appeared to be over.

An unlikely coalition of right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Arab Islamist parties was poised to take power with a “government for change” focused on reconciliation and civilian affairs.

It would have been the first time one of Israel’s minority Arab parties was in government, and represented a tantalising opportunity to up-end a status quo from which Hamas has benefitted, and resurrect long-neglected ideals of co-existence and integration it opposes.

It is not clear that Hamas’ objective was to sabotage that coalition and save Benjamin Netanyahu’s government – but that it was certainly one of the consequences of the past week’s escalation.

Members of Israeli security and emergency services work on a site hit by a rocket in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv - Oren ZIV/AFPMembers of Israeli security and emergency services work on a site hit by a rocket in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv - Oren ZIV/AFP

Members of Israeli security and emergency services work on a site hit by a rocket in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv – Oren ZIV/AFP

With the political scene completely destabilised, and tensions building during Ramadan over Israeli police heavy-handedness around the Al-Aqsa mosque and the looming legal battle over the eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, someone inside the Hamas apparently decided the time was right to attempt to reignite to general conflict.

“It was a golden opportunity to make the connection between defending Jerusalem and Gaza,” said Yossi Mekelberg, an expert at Chatham House.

“They also distinguished themselves from Abbas, who appears to be doing nothing or helping Israel.”

Hamas is not directing the rioting in mixed Jewish Arab cities inside Israel, but its leaders may well think that they inspired it, and see it as vindication of their strategy.

Have they miscalculated?

It is difficult in the fog of war to work out whether the bloody costs Hamas and ordinary Gazans have paid will justify the fruits of this gamble, even on the terror group’s own terms.

But if their goal was to sow chaos, and throw Israel and Palestine into the jaws of conflict, they can certainly congratulate themselves.