BY OMAR SHABAN
The Gaza crisis may provide opportunities for political players, but victims on both sides are paying the price.
Israel has launched three wars in under six years. This is what the blockaded Gaza Strip has been subjected to since Hamas took over in June 2007. The stated objective of the two previous wars — Operations Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense in 2008-09 and 2012, respectively — was to destroy underground tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. According Israel, tunnels were used to smuggle weapons for Hamas and other Palestinian resistance movements in Gaza. However, both conflicts failed to destroy the tunnels until the new Egyptian regime came to power after July 3, 2013, when President Mohammed Morsi was ousted by the military.
Since then, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, the former Egyptian general, has pursued an aggressive campaign, which has succeeded in destroying 90% of tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. For Hamas members, Cairo’s actions have made it unsafe to smuggle anything underground. As a result, Hamas has been unable to pay the salaries of its 40,000 employees for the past seven months — the government faction’s budget for 2014 reached $894 million. Since then, Hamas has found itself in an unprecedented situation.
Hamas’ problems began with the removal of Morsi, who was supportive of the Palestinian faction as it is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The new Egyptian regime under Sisi destroyed the tunnels, which were considered to be Hamas’ main source of income, weapons and aid assistance; they also provided free access for its members to travel outside Gaza. Following Morsi’s ouster, Hamas lost a key supporter of its government, as well as regional backing and access to aid convoys.
However, within this context, we can assess that, despite the instability and destruction, the Israeli government’s “Operation Protective Edge” may actually come as an opportunity for both Israel and Hamas, but for different reasons.
The Right Time for Israel
Israel has, in the strongest terms, condemned the latest reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah — the latter being the main faction in the Palestinian Authority (PA). Regarding the establishment of a Palestinian national unity government, Israel has declared its opposition several times by rejecting the normalization of ties between the two warring factions. Consequently, Israel prevented Gaza-based ministers from traveling to the West Bank, making any unity government unsustainable.
With this in mind, Israel found that the time was right to wage a third war against Hamas. Tel Aviv realizes that Hamas is stuck in a crisis due to Egypt’s policies and the lack of regional support. Hence, it was interpreted to be the best time to enter a conflict without triggering strong reactions from neighboring Arab states. Syria, busy with its civil war, has maintained its distance from Hamas since the flight of its leadership from Damascus. Iran and Hezbollah, while maintaining their official commitment to the Palestinian cause, have also been embroiled in Syria conflict.
Knowing the strategy of Hamas when it finds itself in a crisis, the faction has nothing to lose by engaging in a war with Israel. Although Hamas was not interested in another confrontation in principle, the unbearable circumstances have left few options on the table.
According to Israel’s assessments, the timing was ripe for war on Gaza and Hamas for two reasons. First, the Israeli government seeks to reverse the latest reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas, as both factions moved to form a technocratic government. Second, Israel’s aim is to decrease the military capacity of Hamas, knowing full-well that it will not be able to replenish weapons due to Egypt’s destruction of tunnels.
However, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his government expected an easy victory, assuming that Hamas would easily give in amid aerial bombardment and a ground offensive — the latter of which began late on July 17. Instead, Hamas has showed a far greater amount of resilience by maintaining a steady flow of rockets.
And the Right Time for Hamas
Since Sisi’s rise in Egypt, the military wing of Hamas, the Qassam Brigades, has become the real ruler in Gaza. Although the political wing continues to make appearances, it has less influence than before. Over the past few years, there have been several indicators that prove the gap between the political and military wings has been increasing. The faction’s military wing has been unsatisfied with the performance of the Hamas government, especially during the reconciliation process with Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah. The political leadership of Hamas is perceived as having failed to achieve any concrete results or benefits. Due to this, the group’s military wing believes the political leadership “sold” its members cheaply.
Knowing the strategy of Hamas when it finds itself in a crisis, the faction has nothing to lose by engaging in a war with Israel. Although Hamas was not interested in another confrontation in principle, the unbearable circumstances have left few options on the table. There is no money for government employee salaries; the reconciliation with Fatah has been untenable under the current situation; border crossings have remained closed; the siege of Gaza has persisted since 2007; and Israel has conducted a concerted campaign against Hamas supporters in the West Bank, and arrested its Palestinian Legislative Council members.
Amid these developments, the military wing has been left with no option other than to confront Israel, in hope it would prove the following:
1) Hamas is still strong and can destabilize the “status quo”
2) Hamas is still a key player and Israel will need to take its demands seriously
3) The PA and President Abbas maintain a security alliance with Israel, while Hamas focuses on the path of Palestinian resistance
4) There is a need to update and refresh the ceasefire agreement, which was signed in Cairo in 2012 under the mediation of Morsi
By brokering a new agreement with President Sisi, Hamas would compel the new leadership in Egypt to recognize the faction and, possibly, allow for it to maintain its clout in regional politics. Israel’s offensive on Gaza will provide better opportunities for all regional parties to reposition themselves — apart from the victims on both sides, who must bear the brunt of ceaseless violence.