Hamas’ two-front strategy

Israeli security sources believe Hamas has been working to restore its operational infrastructure in the West Bank in anticipation of the day after its operations are curtailed in Gaza due to a possible arrangement with Israel to prevent the enclave's collapse.

al-monitor Hamas fighters take part in the funeral of their comrade Mahmoud al-Nabaheen in the central Gaza Strip, Jan. 23, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa.

Mar 22, 2019

Israeli security forces have noticed increased efforts by Hamas over the last few months to restore and reinvigorate its operational infrastructure in the West Bank. These include the resurrection of cells under the control of the movement’s military wing in Gaza and the establishment of a command hierarchy similar to what it had there during the second intifada (2000-05). Assessments that the West Bank is heating up have gained momentum in the wake of recent events.

On March 19, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) killed Omar Abu-Laila, who two days before had shot and killed Sergeant First Class Gal Keidan and Rabbi Achiad Ettinger in an attack near the Ariel settlement. On March 20, IDF soldiers shot to death two Palestinian youths after they tossed explosive devices from a vehicle at Israeli troops near Joseph’s Tomb, in Nablus. In addition, at the entrance to the village of al-Khadr, near Bethlehem, IDF soldiers killed a Palestinian youth whose family later said that he was not involved in any hostile activities and had been killed in cold blood. The IDF claimed that the young man had been throwing rocks at passing vehicles and says that the incident is under investigation. Even before this last incident, the various Palestinian factions had already called for a “day of rage” on the West Bank on March 22 and encouraged Palestinian youths to demonstrate and clash with IDF troops.

According to IDF data, there were fewer terror attacks in the West Bank in 2018 (87) than in 2017 (97) and 2016 (169). There was also a slight drop in the number of Israeli casualties as a result of such attacks in 2018 (16) compared to in 2017 (20) and 2016 (17). Most attacks in 2018 were by groups of young people acting without organizational oversight or direction, though the leaderships of Hamas and Islamic Jihad provided some with moral support. As a rule, the attacks launched over the last few years involved no support, training, guidance, or equipment from Hamas' military wing.

There has been no comprehensive overhaul or reorganization of Hamas' operational infrastructure in the West Bank since the end of the second intifada. Every so often, on important anniversaries, Hamas' leadership has called for a new intifada in the cities of the West Bank, but without any active involvement by the movement’s military wing. There are many different reasons for this, but the main one seems to be successful cooperation between the IDF and the security forces of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in thwarting attacks. The PA regards Hamas as an enemy striving to overthrow President Mahmoud Abbas' government, which means that it has two distinct reasons for preventing such violence: to avert an escalation in the struggle against Israel in the West Bank and to keep Hamas from reestablishing itself in the West Bank for fear it could lash out at the PA itself.

Israeli security forces believe that despite occasional calls by Hamas to launch a new intifada, the movement did little to upgrade the infrastructure of its military wing in the West Bank. The main concern in Hamas has been that if it were to assume responsibility for a series of mass attacks on the West Bank, it might not only lead to war with the PA, but could also result in a harsh Israeli response in Gaza. This led to a strategic decision by Hamas to limit attacks, so as not to put Gaza and its senior leadership at risk. Over the last few months, however, something changed.

Last October, the Shin Bet uncovered new Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank created specifically for launching attacks. This February, a Hamas unit in Gaza was exposed attempting to recruit activists in the West Bank to engage in terrorist activity against Israel. The Israeli security establishment believes that Hamas' leaders now realize that their efforts to save Gaza from collapse by agreeing to some kind of arrangement with Israel, when implemented, will restrict its military activity for years to come. Even now, Hamas is coming under fire for abandoning jihad in exchange for Qatari dollars or to preserve its dubious power.

The movement that once waved the banner of jihad and drew strength and support from that will have a hard time justifying its existence to the Palestinian public if it abandons armed struggle; it will certainly be hard-pressed to explain why it folded. If the movement reaches an agreement with Israel, Palestinians are likely to respond that there is no further need for Hamas. They could even argue that they would be better off under the PA since they would experience some degree of economic growth at the least.

Daniel Sirioti reported in Yisrael HaYom on March 20 that one of the Egyptian proposals in the most recent round of talks on a Hamas-Israeli arrangement was the near-total demilitarization of Gaza in exchange for Israel and Egypt lifting their closures and initiating programs to improve the situation in the enclave. There has been no official confirmation of the report, and it is reasonable to assume that Hamas will reject such a far-reaching offer, which it would consider tantamount to declaring defeat. Nevertheless, it is clear to everyone that any arrangement and any easing of the closure would only go into effect if there is a total cessation of attacks against Israel and of demonstrations along the border fence. That is why, as far as Hamas is concerned, the right thing to do now is to bolster its organizational and operational infrastructure in the West Bank in preparation for the day after the arrangement.

Even as the PA ridicules Hamas for folding in Gaza, the organization’s military wing could defend its battered image. Nothing is more important than image to Hamas' leadership, and while it has lost its luster considerably, Hamas is still perceived as having led the armed struggle against Israel. Without that, there can be no justification for the movement's continued existence. If it loses its raison d’être, it will be hard-pressed to recover.

On March 30, Gaza will mark the one-year anniversary of the demonstrations along the border fence. Hamas is planning a huge rally at which it will highlight its achievements to date. No one can deny the organization the accomplishment represented by the series of demonstrations, which succeeded in expediting finding a long-term solution for Gaza. Hamas regards the demonstrations as a nonviolent popular uprising and is marketing them to the Palestinian public as the people’s struggle against an army that has no reservations about firing at and even killing unarmed demonstrators.

The West Bank is a totally different story. As far as Hamas is concerned, that is where it will keep the flame of jihad against Israel alive after reaching an arrangement for Gaza. Will Hamas be strong enough to face off against the PA? How will Israel react to Hamas attacks in the West Bank after an arrangement for Gaza is in place?

When dealing with Hamas, it is important to remember the one consideration that guides the movement’s leaders: Everything depends on the level of force and their ability to control the intensity of the flame. Within Hamas, this is called “sabar,” which means demonstrating patience and restraint but not conceding or surrendering. Never.

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