Hamas one year on

On the first anniversary of OPE, the organization is moving closer to Saudi Arabia, is deterred from attacking Israel and is seeking reconciliation with Egypt.

Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In a surprise move Khaled Mashaal, the head of the political arm of the militant Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas (which had previously been in the Iranian camp), met mid- July with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and other top officials in Riyadh. The meeting came a few days after the six world powers signed a historic deal in Vienna to reduce Iran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for a gradual lifting of sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
The meeting can be interpreted as another attempt by the Arab Sunni states to form a united front against Shi’ite Iran’s expansionism, especially after the agreement. The immediate result of the meeting was reportedly the decision by Saudi authorities to release a number of Hamas activists detained months earlier for money laundering.
Iran, which is considered to be Saudi Arabia’s major rival in the region, has supported Hamas over the years. But, recently, the two sides had a falling out and Iran stopped funding Hamas. There are two main reasons for this. First, Hamas’s refusal to support beleaguered Tehran’s ally Syrian president Bashar Assad, who is steadily losing ground in the country’s bloody civil war, now well into its fifth year. Secondly, Hamas snubbed Iran’s “advice” to violate the cease-fire with Israel reached a year ago at the end of the 50-day war in Gaza, code-named in Israel “Operation Protective Edge.”
In his meetings in the Saudi capital, Mashaal was joined by his deputy Moussa Abu Marzuk and, more surprisingly, Saleh al-Aruri. Originally from Ramallah in the West Bank, al-Aruri spent 15 years in Israeli jails for involvement in terrorist acts and was later deported. After fleeing the civil war in Syria, he found sanctuary in Turkey.
According to the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), al-Aruri runs Hamas’s efforts to set up terrorist cells and a network in the Pal - estinian Authority-ruled West Bank. Al-Aruri was also behind the June 2014 Hamas operation to kidnap three young yeshiva students, whose murder eventually triggered the Gaza war. Despite being part of the Izzadin Kassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, al-Aruri doesn’t report to the Gaza-based military headquarters led by Mohammed Deif, but directly to Mashaal.
The meetings indicate not only Saudi Arabian diplomatic efforts to isolate Iran, but also moves to modify the positions of the Palestinian Islamic movement and reconcile it with Egypt.
These efforts could subsequently lead to a long-term agreement between Hamas and Israel, and hopefully generate a prisoner and body swap ‒ although the chances for both, a diplomatic deal and the release of prisoners and bodies, are seen as slim.
On July 8, a year ago, the Israel Defense Forces launched their third and longest military campaign against Hamas and its junior partner the Islamic Jihad in Gaza. During the fierce battles, more than 2,000 Palestinians ‒ around half of them civilians by Israel’s reckoning ‒ and 66 Israeli servicemen and seven civilians were killed. Thousands of buildings and extensive infrastructure were destroyed.
Hamas and its ally fired nearly 4,800 rockets against Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv and in the direction of Jerusalem and Haifa ‒ the heaviest ever barrage inflicted on Israel. The war also unveiled the extensive efforts by Hamas to move the battle to Israeli territory by using 30 long and impressively construct - ed tunnels that crossed into Israel and by send - ing naval commandos and using drones.
Hamas also tried hard during the war to kidnap live Israeli troops, but failed. It now holds body parts of two IDF soldiers. Two weeks after the war ended with a cease-fire, Avera Megistu, a young Israeli civilian of Ethiopian descent who suffers from depression and family problems, climbed the fence and entered Gaza. Around March of this year, another Israeli citizen from a Bedouin community in the south, also with a long, unstable history, followed suit.
The fate of the two remains unknown. Hamas has refused to shed any light on their situation and has not even said if they are still alive. Israel has declared that it won’t release jailed Hamas terrorists in exchange for the two civilians, which it considers a purely humanitarian issue. On the other hand, Israel may agree to release a small number of Hamas prisoners for the bodies of the IDF soldiers, who were declared as killed in action.
Now, marking the first anniversary of the conflict, the two sides have marked their “victories” by releasing new footage and interviews with commanders to enhance their narratives.
Both sides were unintentionally sucked into the war. Despite Israel’s limited goals ‒ it had no intention of reoccupying the Gaza Strip ‒ and the asymmetrical nature of the capabilities of the warring parties that deprived Hamas from the outset of having any chance to stand up to the mighty IDF, it is still fair to argue that Hamas was defeated.
Why this conclusion? Because the siege is still on. Hamas has been deterred and has no appetite for a new round of hostilities. In the 12 months since the war, only 12 rockets have been launched from Gaza to Israel – the lowest number of missiles fired in between the three wars ‒ 2009, 2012 and 2014 ‒ and all 12 of them were launched against Hamas’s wishes by small factions identified with ISIS.
During the war, Israel exposed and destroyed all 30 tunnels constructed by Hamas, which were supposed to be used as the movement’s “strategic weapon” in its failed attempt to surprise Israel.
Once it found itself at war, Hamas hoped to emerge with at least one major achievement ‒ to break the land siege and naval blockade that had been imposed first by Israel and later supplemented by Egypt. So far, that hasn’t happened.
On the contrary, the wedge between Hamas and Egypt has widened. Egypt, led by President Fattah al-Sisi and backed by the military, perceives Hamas as an extension of the hated and outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Furthermore, the Egyptian grip on Hamas is even stronger than the Israeli strangulation. Egyptian security forces are aggressively battling the Hamas-based smuggling industry and systematically have destroyed hundreds of tunnels between Gaza and Sinai. While all supplies to Gaza – oil, cement, food, and medicine – arrive via Israeli border crossings, Egypt rarely opens its own Rafah crossing, even for humanitarian purposes.
Egypt has also accused Hamas of cooperating with and supporting Ansar Bayt al- Maqdis a local terror group that switched its allegiance from al-Qaida to ISIS.
But, in recent weeks, there are indications that the reality is changing. With the Saudi mediation, Egypt and Hamas are engaged in secret talks to see if they can reconcile and find common ground. In June, Abu Marzuk met in Cairo with Egyptian intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Farid Al-Tuha - mi and other top officials.
Israeli military sources tell The Jerusalem Report that Hamas has tentatively begun to cooperate with Egyptian intelligence. But the same military sources told other journalists that Hamas actually continues to cooperate with Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis.
How can these contradictory Israeli explanations be reconciled? One explanation is that this is an attempt to besmirch Hamas. A more convincing explanation is that while some elements of Hamas, mainly the political echelon, try to appease Egypt and cooperate with it, others, mostly the Izzadin Kassam military wing are opposed and continue to se - cretly assist and cooperate with ISIS. It seems that since the war, the military wing, with its mythological commander Deif, who escaped another Israeli attempt to kill him during the war, has been flexing its muscles against the supremacy and authority of its political masters.
The schism has reached such a level that it may paralyze any chance of Hamas reconciling with Egypt and would block any serious attempts to broker a long-term deal with Israel.
In Israel, too, there are differences between the government and the IDF regarding how to deal with and approach Hamas. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and to a lesser degree Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon oppose making any major concessions to Hamas ‒ such as lifting the siege and allowing the Islamic movement to build a port ‒ the military is in favor of such steps as confidence-building measures.
All in all, despite some moves behind the scenes by the parties involved, a long-term Israel-Hamas deal involving a cease-fire does not appear to be on the horizon.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security com - mentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com  and tweets at yossi_melman.