There has been a marked escalation in violence on the border with the Gaza Strip in recent days. But the factors leading up to a spate of rocket attacks – including two shot toward the western Negev during Ariel Sharon’s funeral on Sycamore Ranch last week – have their source in developments that began months, even years, ago.
More than anything, the renewed rocket attacks are a sign that Hamas’s hold on Gaza is loosening and terrorist organizations like Islamic Jihad are feeling bolder.
Hamas has experienced a number of setbacks in recent years.
The first setback was Hamas’s decision not to support Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2011 when opposition forces launched a revolt. Hamas had no choice but to stay out of the conflict. Fighting on the side of Assad against the Sunni forces was not an option. Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and in the diaspora are in general opposed to Assad.
As a result, Hamas’s Syria headquarters were closed and the Hamas leadership was expelled. Relations between Hamas and Iran, Syria’s biggest supporter, deteriorated rapidly as well, and the Hamas government in Gaza lost the Islamic Republic’s significant financial support, which has been estimated at about $20 million a month.
Another setback was the coup launched by the military junta in Egypt that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government, an important Hamas ally, about seven months ago. Since its takeover, the military government has closed hundreds of tunnels that had been the lifeline to Gaza’s economy. A shortage of goods and materials of all kinds has created a real crisis. And in an interview with Reuters last week, several Egyptian government officials said that soon they would be setting their sights on toppling the Hamas government as part of a wider battle against the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist forces operating in the Sinai Peninsula.
Also, the negotiations being conducted under the orchestration of US Secretary of State John Kerry between Fatah and Israel are marginalizing Hamas, which is seen as increasingly irrelevant.
Hamas has been seriously weakened by all these developments, and terrorist organizations such as Islamic Jihad have begun escalating the situation, while Hamas, which is either unwilling or unable to aggressively confront them, stands by.
Dr. Anat Kurz and Dr. Benedetta Berti, analysts at the Institute for National Security Studies, have noted that Hamas does not have many options.
Hamas’s conciliatory gestures to the Egyptian government have been rebuffed. Rehabilitating relations with Iran is no easy matter. The Islamic Republic, which has its own economic problems, would probably make rapprochement conditional on Hamas declaring its support for Assad. Doing so would hurt Hamas’s standing in the eyes of Palestinians both in Gaza and the West Bank and in the refugee camps of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, who in general are opposed to Assad.
Another option would be reconciliation with Fatah.
Indeed, as the doors are closed to external ties with Egypt and Iran, the pressure to renew a unity government increases. But even this option hardly seems viable right now. With Fatah conducting peace talks, Hamas, which is adamantly opposed to negotiating with Israel, would make reconciliation conditional on stopping the talks.
Fatah, meanwhile, would be wary of striking a deal with Hamas right now. Doing so would allow Israel to blame it for torpedoing Kerry’s attempts at peace.
For its part, Israel must rehabilitate military deterrence by making it clear to Hamas that, as the de facto ruler of Gaza, it will be held responsible for all rocket attacks against Israel. Each attack from Gaza must be met by a strong and swift Israeli response.
The message should also be conveyed to Hamas that if it succeeds in maintaining quiet, Israel will provide relief to the Gaza economy by reopening the border with Israel to allow for the movement of food and goods in and out. A Hamas-enforced cease-fire, after all, is preferable to a situation of quasi-anarchy in which terrorist organizations like Islamic Jihad attack Israel with impunity.
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