This week, the Hamas rulers of Gaza chose to abruptly shatter the fragile
framework of assumptions which have governed relations between Israel and Gaza
since the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead in early 2009. By taking
responsibility for the launch of a barrage of Kassam rockets into the Negev,
Hamas essentially announced the birth of a new phase in its long war of
attrition with Israel.
Operation Cast Lead purchased a period of relative
quiet for Israel, through the imposition of deterrence upon Hamas-controlled
Gaza. The movement, however, has now indicated that it considers that period to
be at an end. What led it to this decision, and what may it portend? The Arab
upheavals of 2011 posed particular dilemmas for Hamas and have produced
significant changes in the balance of power within the movement. These changes
underlie the current decision toward greater militancy in Gaza.
be considered both a winner and a loser from the Arab Spring. The Hamas
leadership in Gaza and in particular the leaders of the armed wing, the Kassam
Brigades, however, have derived only benefit from the changes.
movement’s external leadership, formerly centered in Damascus, has now scattered
across the region.
Hamas’s supposed leader, Khaled Mashaal, is in Doha,
Qatar. His main rival, Moussa Abu Marzouk, is in Cairo.
former Hamas residents of Damascus are now as far afield as Istanbul and
Khartoum. One important Mashaal rival and advocate of armed militancy, Imad
Alami, has taken up residence in Gaza.
A veiled power struggle between
the Gaza leaders and Mashaal has resulted. Each side holds to a particular
preferred strategy which, while presented in terms of principle, would serve to
maximize its own power and influence.
Mashaal’s power has been much
compromised by the disappearance of the Damascus base and the reduction of
Iranian funding as a result of the failure to back Syrian President Bashar
Assad. His preferred strategy for a return to relevance has been to push for
reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority in the hope of achieving a
political triumph for Hamas.
The Gaza leadership understands that this
direction would require reconciliation with the Ramallah-based PA, and therefore
the ceding of their independent power base in the Gaza Strip.
advocate a rival strategy of holding on to “fortress Gaza,” maintaining links
both with Iran and with the growing Muslim Brotherhood power in Egypt and thus
enabling Hamas to play a central role in a new era of expected ongoing
confrontation between Israel and an Egypt led by Hamas’s natural allies in the
In recent internal elections in Hamas, the Gaza
leaders scored significant gains. Very few Mashaal-associated figures in the
strip attained positions on the district shura councils, the Gaza shura council
and the 15-member Gaza Political Bureau. Senior figures within the Kassam
Brigades, such as Ahmed Jabari and Marwan Issa, meanwhile, were elected to the
Gaza Political Bureau.
Mashaal’s control over the budget of the Kassam
Brigades is reported to have been removed.
Gaza-based leaders have
consequently felt able to simply ignore his supposed reconciliation agreement
with Mahmoud Abbas, signed in Doha in February.
Despite a flurry of
recent media reports suggesting that the Gaza leadership had begun moves to help
facilitate elections, nothing concrete has happened. Informed sources suggest
that the talks on reconciliation have hit stalemate again. Simply put, giving up
tangible power isn’t on the agenda of the ascendant Gaza Hamas
The Iranians appear to be firmly backing the Gaza leaders and
their strategy of confrontation.
Fatah leaders have in fact alleged that
the Gaza Hamas leadership was paid by Iran to prevent reconciliation.
Iranians are interested in tangible geographical areas from which to exert proxy
military pressure on Israel. They have little use or interest for long political
campaigns in which the Palestinians debate and argue over their preferred path.
They appear for now at least to have gotten what they wanted.
confident, militarized Hamas leadership in Gaza has retained the support of
Iran. It is looking forward to a new era of militancy, in which it will maintain
a direct land link to Egypt, where it expects its fellow Muslim Brothers to soon
be in control.
This will open up new possibilities in which, far from
being under Israeli siege, Gaza Hamas hopes to itself form an advance element in
a siege to be imposed upon Israel.
The first confident shots in this new
phase were fired this week.
The fact that the Hamas Gaza leadership
appears to have maintained the Iranian link while keeping its ties to the Muslim
Brothers in Cairo should concern Israeli planners.
It should serve to
dispel any easy assumption that Shia and Sunni Islamists will continue
indefinitely to tear one another apart, conveniently leaving Israel to enjoy the
role of spectator.
It should also be remembered that on at least one
occasion in the past (in 1956), war between Egypt and Israel became inevitable
as a result of a process begun by terrorist activity emerging from
The lull in conflict between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza was
made possible because of Israel’s imposition of a balance of terror in Operation
Cast Lead. The rise of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and the decline of the Hamas
external leadership have reset this balance.
The birth tremors of this
new phase were felt in southern Israel this week.