Analysis: Hamas regroups

Like a symphony where each instrument plays a part, a number of elements forced Hamas to back off – at least for the time being.

One of the major imponderables in the days leading up to the withdrawal from Gaza was how Israel would react once Kassam rockets hit Sderot after the IDF soldiers had left Gaza. Since disengagement was not a peace agreement, and few people had any illusions that it would end Hamas attacks on Israel, it was clear to most that it was just a matter of time before Hamas would act like Hamas and try to kill Israeli civilians. And, true to form, Hamas did just that, sending a salvo of rocket fire into Sderot late last month. This would go down as a crucial test. Would Israel, as both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz warned, use a degree of force not employed before in order to set a new price tag for every Kassam rocket on Sderot? Or would life carry on as before tough talk but not nearly the type of action needed to deter the terrorists. Sharon chose the middle path. On the one hand he pulled out of his arsenal weapons he had used before targeted assassinations, massive arrests, and bombings of terrorist warehouses and workplaces. On the other, by rolling the cannons to the border with Gaza and firing artillery shells into empty spaces in northern Gaza, he hinted at what might come were the enemy not to cry "uncle." What was different about this response was not the firepower used, but that it was sustained, day in and day out for more than a week, without any significant protest to speak of from the world. If Hamas didn't understand that the rules had changed when the IDF left Gaza, the US and Europe, at last, seemed to internalize that this was not the same old "cycle of violence." And if Hamas did not exactly cry uncle, it did at least cry "unc," with Hamas's most senior leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, announcing "an end to its operations from the Gaza Strip against the Israeli occupation." Islamic Jihad followed a couple of days later, and as a result the skies over the western Negev have been quiet for a few days. Quiet enough, indeed, for the military to scale down its sustained operations; quiet enough, also, for Sharon to re-schedule a meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas that was cancelled on October 2 when Israel signaled it had no interest in holding such a meeting as violence from Gaza surged. Mofaz told the cabinet on Sunday at its pre-Rosh Hashana meeting that the IDF operation "had caused waves" among the Palestinians, and that the operation had caused Hamas notable damage and led some but not all of the Palestinian terrorist elements to understand that the rules of the game had changed. But it was not only IDF might that led Hamas to declare that it would stop firing on Israel from Gaza. Like a symphony where each instrument plays a part in bringing out a final melody, so too were there a number of elements playing on Hamas to get it to call off its fire at least for the time being.
  • IDF Pressure: The IDF action Operation First Rain did have an undeniable impact. The arrest of more than 400 suspects including 200 Hamas activists, among them leading Hamas military and political figures is widely believed in Jerusalem to have "moved Hamas." According to assessments in Jerusalem, the sustained IDF pressure threatened to weaken the operational infrastructure Hamas has tried so hard to rebuild following previous IDF actions. At the same time, and this is a new factor, the military action also threatened to undermine Hamas preparations for municipal elections one round of which was held on September 29, with another round scheduled for December. Among those arrested were major Hamas political figures such as the West Bank's Hasan Yusuf. You can't run in an election, let alone win it, if your major political activists are in jail and Hamas realized this.
  • The Palestinian Street: With Palestinian legislative elections scheduled for January 25, Hamas according to one governmental appraisal of the situation is now very much in tune with, and influenced by, popular Palestinian sentiment. The "Palestinian street" has come out against recent Hamas actions from the organization's responsibility for the blast during a military parade in the Jabalya refugee camp that killed 19 people, to the "anarchy" in the streets that is widely seen as Hamas's fault. According to these assessments, there was a real "electoral" consideration behind Hamas's decision to declare an end to the attacks from Gaza, attacks which are not seen right now as winning the group much popularity among Palestinians.
  • The Palestinian Authority: As a result of the recent violence, the PA's image was clearly damaged, both among Palestinians as well as in the international community. This image already took a huge hit by the anarchy on the Gaza-Egypt border that followed Israel's pull-out from the area. According to diplomatic sources, these two occurrences portrayed the PA as extremely week and ineffectual, unable to control the situation on the ground and assert its authority. This also led some international players to the conclusion that the Palestinians were chronically infected by terrorism and unable to rise to the occasion and govern effectively. The result of this perception was a large degree of international pressure on Abbas to take some action and stand up to the terrorist organizations. Abbas, moreover, does not want to go to his meeting with US President George W. Bush on October 20 with a reputation for being unable to take control. He needed to do something. When he did, and the Palestinian police tried to confiscate illegal weapons in Gaza City on Sunday, it led to a gun battle that left three people dead, and more than 40 wounded.
  • Egyptian interests: Egypt is very concerned by the recent escalation, which came so shortly after the chaos on its border with Gaza. The Egyptians fear anarchy and violence could leap the border into Egypt if the PA and the terrorist organizations do not take steps to control matters. As a result, the Egyptians, according to diplomatic sources in Jerusalem, were interested in tightening coordination both with the Palestinians and with Israel. Over the last two weeks Egypt has sent Israel messages, both publicly and privately, asking for it to show restraint. It also turned to the international community to push Israel toward a moderate response to Palestinian violence. At the same time, Egypt was very busy with the Palestinians trying to get the various factions to agree to extend their cease-fire, and working for another factional meeting in mid-November, after Ramadan. But that was not all. While Egypt did not publicly blame Hamas or point an accusatory finger in its direction, it did convince Hamas through talks between Egypt's Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal to declare an end to attacks from Gaza. And, at the same time, Egypt turned to Islamic Jihad in Gaza and Damascus to convince it to continue abiding by the truce. Egypt was also unhappy with the PA's performance and let Abbas know as much during his meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on September 28.
  • Syrian dealing: Syria, according to Israeli government appraisals of the situation, saw the upsurge violence in Gaza, and the Israeli response to it, as vindication of its claim that disengagement would change little for the Palestinians. Damascus also blamed the US for giving Israel a free hand to act after the attacks on Sderot. Even before the upsurge of violence in Gaza, Syrian President Bashar Assad met with the heads of the terrorist organizations in Damascus and pledged support for their continued fight against Israel. The meeting, and the fact it was made public, was seen in Jerusalem as designed to signal to the US, the international community and the states in the region, that if Syria was pushed into the corner, it could cause a great deal of mischief and disturb regional stability. However, sources in Jerusalem speculate that getting Islamic Jihad to abide by the cease-fire was one of the subjects of discussion when Mubarak and Assad met in Cairo on September 25. According to this school of thought, Egypt will try to reduce Syria's international isolation an isolation expected to increase when the UN releases its report next month on the assassination of Rafik Harari, a report expected to be damning of Syria in return for Syrian support for Egyptian efforts to rein in Palestinian terror organizations. The end result of all these factors coming into play was a quiet Rosh Hashana in Sderot. The IDF can certainly take some of the credit for bringing about this situation. But there are a myriad of interests and considerations at play. Too many, in fact, to even bet safely that the current quiet will last until the end of the holiday season. Then Sharon will again face the same crucial test how to respond to violence now that the IDF is no longer in Gaza.