Israel and Hamas would probably rather not go to war again this summer, but rogue Hamas factions may push the two into conflict again.
Hamas’s Gaza-based political leaders, who have failed to attract funding to rebuild homes and other key civilian needs after Israel laid waste to much of their military infrastructure, understand that another war would be devastating. Likewise, Israel would rather keep its powder dry for more serious threats, including Hezbollah to its north, Islamic State in Syria, and possibly even Iran.
Of the two, Hamas’s political leadership is probably more wary. The regime in Egypt, which sees Hamas as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood movement it toppled in 2013, has destroyed an estimated 2,000 smuggling tunnels – and even flooded some with tear gas – thereby cutting off Hamas’s access to weapons, cash and goods. Hamas leaders know that if they are ever to convince Egypt to open its borders, they will need to charm Cairo’s financial patrons in Saudi Arabia, who are busy leading an air campaign in Yemen against the Iranbacked Houthis in Yemen.
Hamas knows that another war with Israel, especially one fought with Iranian weapons, will not necessarily earn the favor of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the other Sunni states. Between the Iranian nuclear threat, the expansion of the Islamic State and other regional threats, the Sunnis don’t want any more conflict in the region – even against Israel – if it can yield Iran any more leverage than it currently has.
This might explain why Hamas has defied its own principles by engaging in behind-the-scenes cease-fire negotiations with Israel.
Senior Hamas official Ahmed Youssef recently acknowledged the Islamist group was in indirect “chats” with Israel via international mediation.
Though both Israeli and Hamas officials denied the report, the indirect track appears to be making progress.
Israeli analysts suspect the internationally-mediated negotiations – which are rumored to include officials from the UN, Europe and Qatar – could yield a three- to five-year cease-fire, and potentially even prompt the Israelis to ease their blockade of Gaza.
But even if some Hamas members want to sue for calm, others may not be inclined to go along. Israeli radio recently shocked listeners when it announced that Mohammad Deif, Hamas’s top military commander, was in fact alive and operational in Gaza.
Deif, who oversees Hamas’s military operations in Gaza, was believed to be dead after an Israeli strike last summer killed his wife and child.
Deif has already started preparing for another round. He has deep ties with Iran, which is now poised to receive some $120 billion in sanctions relief.
It’s a certainty that Deif has already applied for some of those funds. Along with general funds and training, Deif will undoubtedly look to Iran to restock his rocket supply, and possibly even to acquire Iranian drones. It’s also a safe bet that we will see an encore of the roughly 40 tunnels that prompted last summer’s Israeli ground invasion. Deif was the brains behind those tunnels. And now reports suggest that, with Deif back in business, Hamas is rebuilding them – often at the expense of fighters’ lives.
The Israelis are trying to keep one step ahead of Hamas’ military mastermind. They are currently developing countermeasures to detect and destroy these tunnels. The pioneers of the remarkable Iron Dome technology that successfully downed 735 Hamas rockets last summer have been hard at work on anti-tunnel technology ever since the war concluded last August.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is hopeful that such countermeasures will deter Hamas from launching the next round. Indeed, the Israeli leader stopped short of re-taking all of Gaza last summer for fear of a “Fallujah-style” battle, and he was hammered by politicians on both his left and his right during the March elections for his decision. Isaac Herzog, the leader of the dovish Zionist Union party, even accused Netanyahu of “strengthening” Hamas.
The Israeli military knows that another conflict may be looming. This is why recent training exercises have been conducted to prepare for a full conquest of the Gaza Strip. But while the IDF could easily re-take the territory, holding it is the hard part. The price of administration and control would be a tough sell to the Israeli public that was only too eager to withdraw from the territory in 2005. This is exactly why the Israelis, much like many Gazans, may be content letting this summer pass without another conflict.
The wild card will be the internal fissures within Hamas. This is an issue that has garnered quite a bit of attention in recent weeks. Amid the political upheaval of the Arab Spring, which has resulted in ad-hoc sponsorship from states and donors from around the Middle East, the group has multiple patrons with competing regional agendas, and is irredeemably fractured as a result. The group’s Iran-backed military wing, the West Bank leaders, Gaza leaders and political-wing figures in places like Qatar, Turkey and Egypt are far from aligned.
Unilateral decisions taken by one or more of these figures can have deadly implications.
Last summer, it was Hamas’s external military leadership in Turkey that ordered the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. That operation sparked an Israeli reprisal that soon led to escalation and then all-out war. Tellingly, in an interview two months after the end of the Gaza war, Qatar-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal admitted he had no foreknowledge of this operation.
An uneasy calm exists now between Hamas and Israel, punctuated by the predictable cantankerous rhetoric and an occasional rocket testing. None of that has come close to sparking another conflict, primarily because neither side really wants one. But what Israelis and Palestinians want may not matter now that actors like Mohammed Deif are back in the rocket-making business, digging tunnels for the next round.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Grant Rumley is a research analyst focusing on Palestinian politics.