The enemy Israel and Hamas once shared

Until now, the one goal Israel and Hamas shared was preventing a Hamas-PA reconciliation. Wednesday’s reunification announcement indicates that Hamas has changed its game plan. The question is, will Netanyahu change his?

Haniyeh  and Abbas waving 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Haniyeh and Abbas waving 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Here’s one definition of tragic irony: in March and April, Hamas fired rockets at Israeli civilians as a way to counter the will of its own citizens in Gaza, who have increasingly been calling for governmental reforms and unity with the West Bank.  
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Welcome to the Arab Spring in Israel and the Palestinian territories, where disaffected Gazans clamoring for Palestinian unity have unwittingly driven Hamas – itching for a fight from without rather than from within – to unconscionably target Israeli school children.
And welcome to the entire region’s Arab Spring, where Israel – interested in preventing Palestinian unity – obliged Hamas by shelling the Gaza Strip.
The escalation of violence in recent months arrived suddenly after two years of relative calm, in which only sporadic skirmishes broke out between Hamas and Israeli forces. However, March and April of this year saw a precipitous increase in rocket attacks launched by Hamas militants into Israel. The tipping point was reached when, on Thursday, April 7, militants fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli school bus, injuring several students.
Israel responded with fierce, targeted air strikes, and both sides for a time threatened further escalation.
Why did this occur without warning? Why, according to the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), did the month of March see “more rocket and mortar attacks fired into Israel” than at any point since the Gaza War ended in 2009?
The answer: in the past month, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been trying to bridge the rift between Gaza and the West Bank that has existed since 2007, when Abbas’s PA loyalists were expelled from the strip by Hamas. He has been pressing for Palestinian reconciliation with an eye toward September, when the UN is scheduled to discuss recognition of a unilaterally-declared Palestinian state. Abbas knows that, unless Hamas is on board with such a declaration – unless there is unity between the ruling factions in the West Bank and Gaza – unilateral moves approved by the UN will carry little practical weight.
During this push for reconciliation by Abbas, protesters in Gaza have been loudly demanding that Hamas form a unity government with the PA. The only problem: it is a reconciliation Hamas does not truly desire, having no interest in ceding its power over the entirety of Gaza. So it turned its missiles loose on Israel as a strategic misdirection, a bait and switch. The goal? To transform protestors’ calls for reform into raised fists of resistance. 
Remarkably, as Israel shelled Gaza in response, the protesters in Gaza remained vigilant, their calls for reconciliation unwavering as bombs fell around them. Now, Hamas – implicitly acknowledging that the diversion has failed –appears on the cusp of a historic reconciliation with the PA. (This despite deep rifts that remain within Hamas, particularly in its military wing, about the wisdom of such a move.)
Israel, in a bizarre twist, has long shared Hamas’s opposition to reconciliation. On the surface, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has publicly presented his reason for opposing PA unity efforts with Hamas. Namely, the terror organization’s refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Recently, upon learning of Abbas’s plans, Netanyahu publicly told the Palestinian President, “You can't have peace with both Israel and Hamas,” effectively warning him to break off unity talks.
However, there is another reason Israel fears Palestinian reconciliation: the same UN September date upon which Abbas is so focused. Since 2009, Netanyahu has been leaning heavily on Palestinian disunity – it is one of the principal elements that has allowed him to invest so lightly in peace negotiations with Abbas. Netanyahu understands that without unity on the Palestinian side, a brokered two-state solution would mean nothing.
Palestinian reconciliation, though, would change everything. Which is why Netanyahu recently threatened that Israel would counter any unilateral declarations with unilateral moves of its own.
This partially explains the speed and strength of Israel’s recent retaliation against Hamas, for it too would benefit from drawing Hamas out into a protracted fight, thus minimizing the chance for unity between Hamas and the PA.
To be clear, Israel has a right – a requirement – to defend its citizens. When a school bus is intentionally hit by an anti-tank missile, nobody (including Hamas) expects Israel to stand down. And organizations, such as ICT, argue that targeted strikes against terror cells in the Gaza Strip are the most effective way to prevent future terror strikes in the short term.
However, it would be a mistake to view Israeli air strikes in early April as a simple matter of defense, for Netanyahu has a vested interest in preventing Palestinian unity.
Tragically, it is an interest Hamas has long shared. Amazingly, despite this fact, it appears both the popular will of the Gazan people as well as movement from Abbas may have finally pushed Hamas leaders to the brink of a reconciliation agreement.
If such a unity holds, Israel will stand in isolation, carrying the banner against Palestinian reconciliation without a plan or vision for how to proceed.
But at least it will no longer share the banner with Hamas.     The writer is the author of Shrapnel: A Memoir.