Israel Pulse

Hamas losing deterrence against IDF

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Article Summary
Hamas' decision to deploy snipers against Israeli soldiers after months of border protests and growing international attention highlights the internal divide in the movement and threatens to shatter previous achievements.

“Yesterday was one of the calmest days, perhaps, since March 30,” Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said on July 22 as he toured the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Gaza after yet another tense weekend. If the calm is preserved, Liberman promised, Israel would reopen the crossing on July 24 and restore the transfer of goods and raw material into the Strip. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the crossing closed two weeks ago in response to the wave of arson kites and balloons into Israel that have laid waste to extensive border areas. “The key to all this is quiet, calm, zero incendiary balloons, zero clashes on the fence and zero rockets or, heaven forbid, gunfire,” Liberman warned. He was referring to a promise Hamas conveyed to Israel through Egyptian mediators after Israel’s massive punitive July 20 airstrikes on Gaza in response to the killing of Israeli soldier Aviv Levi by Palestinian snipers.

There is no record in memory of such an urgent, unconditional Hamas cease-fire offer without preconditions. Hamas committed to stop Palestinian protest demonstrations along the Gaza fence and the ongoing kite and balloon arson campaign. In fact, events over the weekend once again reflected how Hamas leadership miscalculated the limits of its power. Deploying snipers in the highly charged border area and killing an Israeli soldier for the first time since the 2014 Israel-Gaza war instantly set back all of the movement’s achievements of recent months.

Since March 30, when the massive protests began along the fence, followed by the launching of incendiary kites and balloons into Israel, Hamas has succeeded in restoring international interest in Israel’s 11-year blockade of the Strip and to exert real pressure on Israel to forge a deal that would ease life for the Strip’s 2 million Palestinians. Using primitive methods, Hamas managed to challenge Israel perhaps more than it did with tens of thousands of rockets and artillery shells it has fired at Israel since it forcibly took over control of Gaza in 2006. Israel had virtually no effective response to these “popular” methods engendered by the suffering of local residents — methods that were considered by Gaza residents and, to some extent, by the international community as well as legitimate resistance. However, Hamas lost the advantage of this popular protest when it moved snipers into the arena and substituted live fire for the kite and balloon fire.

Al-Monitor tried to obtain the reaction of Hamas activists to the events of the past weekend, but nobody was willing to admit that Hamas had pleaded with Egypt to arrange a cease-fire. There is nothing more humiliating for them than to admit they do not have the upper hand. After each armed clash with Israel, Hamas has always bragged that its “resistance forces” had taught the “Zionist enemy” a lesson. This time, they were collectively silent.

A Gaza journalist close to Hamas confirmed to Al-Monitor that Egypt conveyed a request that Israel open the Kerem Shalom passage in order to generate an atmosphere conducive to maintaining the fragile truce. “The Hamas appeal this past weekend was so urgent that it can be defined as surrender,” a security source in the Palestinian Authority (PA) told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. The source, who is familiar with the three-way contacts between Hamas, Egypt and Israel, added, “Within the [Hamas] leadership, there is deep disagreement about the next stage in the struggle against Israel.” Despite their militant declarations, Yahya Sinwar, who heads Hamas in Gaza, and Ismail Haniyeh, who leads the movement’s political wing, understand the need for an agreement to ease tensions and avert a broader clash with Israel, said the source. Until the sniper killing of the Israeli soldier, Hamas had sought to capitalize on the achievements of the popular protests of recent months. They tried to buy time, claiming the airborne arson would stop gradually, but since it was a spontaneous, widespread campaign, time was needed to control it. They also claimed that the border demonstrations were a popular protest led by “volunteers” and not by Hamas, but promised to make an effort to push them away from the fence. “In fact, they tried to squeeze the lemon dry in order to keep all their options open,” the source summed up.

When Hamas introduced snipers into the arena, the struggle stopped being a popular uprising, bringing into play Israel’s tremendous advantage over Hamas. That was when Hamas’ weekend turned black. “Zero incendiary balloons, zero clashes on the fence and zero rockets or, heaven forbid, gunfire,” Liberman warned, and Hamas understood that going to war with Israel at this point could end its rule over Gaza.

Exaggerating its operational capacity is a familiar Hamas behavior pattern. It did the same thing during the 2014 war that Israel calls Operation Protective Edge. Drunk with power and an illusion of might, instead of taking advantage of their first-week gains and accepting the cease-fire Israel offered, Hamas sought additional achievements and brought about a calamity for Gaza and its inhabitants. Even after 50 days of fighting, the death and injury of thousands, and extensive destruction, they still boasted of “victory.” Nevertheless, it was a Pyrrhic victory. It did not result in a lifting of the Israeli siege. Instead, it worsened the humanitarian crisis in the Strip as well as Hamas’ standing.

Adhering to that same pattern, Hamas has now lost the upper hand it gained in recent months. Currently, Hamas must respond to Egyptian-mediated proposals for an understanding with Israel and for a reconciliation deal with Fatah. The later would entail a deployment of PA forces along the Gaza border with Israel as the first phase of rehabilitating the Gaza Strip. But Hamas has now taken a step too far and lost the deterrence it created regarding Israel.

Once again, the Hamas military wing has proven that it runs the show. Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, as the armed wing is known, simply ignored the strategic decision adopted by the political heads of the movement, Haniyeh and Sinwar, to prioritize the Egyptian channel. Its leaders appear to have decided to avenge the July 19 killing of one of its militants near the border with Israel. However, it is hard to believe they did not consider that killing an Israeli soldier amid the hair-trigger tensions with Israel could spark the war that Haniyeh, Sinwar and other Hamas political leaders had taken pains to avert for the past month.

This mindset reflects yet again Hamas’ situation as a body led by several heads, each pulling in a different direction and fighting with the other, fueled by power plays and egos. And so, it is easy to understand why Gaza and its 2 million residents are on the verge of disaster.

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Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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