Hamas is looking for battles with Israel away from Gaza

While Hamas and Gazan Palestinians don't want another round of fighting with Israel, Hamas is planning the next war elsewhere.

 MEMBERS OF The Palestinian Islamic Jihad take part in a military parade, in Rafah in the Southern Gaza Strip, last week.  (photo credit: Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images)
MEMBERS OF The Palestinian Islamic Jihad take part in a military parade, in Rafah in the Southern Gaza Strip, last week.
(photo credit: Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images)

Since the May 2021 war with Israel, Hamas’s main goal has been to make sure that the flames do not spread to the Gaza Strip. That’s why it has been focusing its efforts on instigating and encouraging violence in Jerusalem, the West Bank and among the Israeli-Arabs, while maintaining calm with Israel on the Gaza Strip front.

Despite the belligerent statements and threats of Hamas leaders and spokesmen over the past few weeks, it’s obvious that the terrorist group is not interested in, or prepared for, another round of fighting with Israel.

The price Hamas and the Palestinians living under its control paid during the last war was so heavy that no one in the Gaza Strip wants to hear about another outbreak of hostilities, especially not when the Egyptians, the Qataris and some international agencies are making a big effort to help rebuild the damaged buildings and infrastructure in the coastal enclave.

This does not mean, of course, that Hamas is not preparing for the next war with Israel. Nor does it mean that Hamas and the other groups in the Gaza Strip, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), have lost motivation to pursue the fight against Israel.

Instead, the Gaza-based groups are saying that, for now, they want to see the battle against Israel take place elsewhere.

 A BORDER POLICE officer argues with a Palestinian protester during clashes between security forces and Palestinians at Damascus Gate earlier this week, at the beginning of Ramadan.  (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
A BORDER POLICE officer argues with a Palestinian protester during clashes between security forces and Palestinians at Damascus Gate earlier this week, at the beginning of Ramadan. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

Hamas believes that it has already succeeded in securing itself the title of the “Defender of Jerusalem” by initiating last year’s war over Israel’s practices in Jerusalem, particularly the threat to evict a number of Arab families from their homes in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and security measures in the Old City, including the al-Aqsa Mosque compound (Temple Mount).

Hamas has even called the war “Sword of Jerusalem,” corresponding to the Israeli label “Guardian of the Walls.” This is Hamas’s way of telling the Palestinians that it was the only group that dared to stand up to Israel over the issue of Jerusalem. Now, Hamas is telling the Palestinians outside of the Gaza Strip and the Israeli-Arabs that it’s their turn to confront Israel.

Hamas has made no secret of its plan and desire to instigate violence on the streets of the West Bank, Jerusalem and other parts of Israel.

The group’s leaders and officials have repeatedly called on Palestinians to converge on the al-Aqsa Mosque compound to protect it against alleged Israeli assaults, including routine tours by Jews. Hardly a day passes without Hamas inciting Palestinians to “thwart Israeli schemes to Judaize Jerusalem.” Hamas wants to appear as if it’s solely responsible for the clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in the city, thus bolstering its image as the “Defender of Jerusalem.”

Hamas is also well aware that scenes of violence on the streets of Jerusalem draw more attention from the international media and community than would another round of fighting in the Gaza Strip.

As for the West Bank, Hamas leaders have recently been talking about the need for a third intifada against IDF soldiers and settlers. The goal is twofold: to inflict more harm on Israel while, at the same time, undermining Hamas’s rivals in the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas is clearly unhappy with the apparent rapprochement between the PA and some members of the Israeli coalition, including Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Needless to say, Hamas remains strongly opposed to, and worried about, the ongoing security coordination between the PA security forces and the IDF in the West Bank.

Hamas knows that each terrorist attack in the West Bank contributes to its effort to drive a wedge between the PA leadership in Ramallah and Israel. Additionally, it is aware that many Israelis do not distinguish between a terrorist attack that is carried out by a Hamas, PIJ or Fatah terrorist. In fact, many Israelis hold the PA responsible for failing to stop terrorist attacks emanating from areas under its control in the West Bank and for continuing its campaign of incitement against Israel.

The violence that erupted inside Israel during the last Gaza war has encouraged Hamas and prompted it to increase its attempts to drag the Israeli-Arabs into an all-out confrontation with Israel. Hamas media outlets have since been reporting extensively on tensions between Jews and Arabs inside Israel, as part of an attempt to create the impression that the Israeli-Arabs, whom it refers to as the “Palestinians of 1948,” are also embroiled in the “struggle against the occupation.”

Last month, Hamas and several groups in the Gaza Strip announced the formation of a new body, called The National Commission to Support the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories of 1948.”

The commission consists of members of PIJ, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, in addition to Hamas.

Leaders of the groups said that the commission aims to show that the Israeli-Arabs “are not alone in facing the occupation and its violations and policies aimed at Judaizing everything that is Palestinian.”

Addressing the Bedouin community in the Negev, senior PIJ official Khaled al-Batsh said: “All attempts by the occupation to Judaize, annex and rob the land will not pass. You are not alone; we, our souls and our bodies and the resistance are with you; we will not allow anyone to harm our dignity or obliterate our identity.”

THE BIGGEST challenge facing Hamas comes from within the Gaza Strip, specifically from PIJ, the second largest terrorist group there.

While both Hamas and PIJ have a common interest in igniting a fire inside Israel (including Jerusalem) and in the West Bank, PIJ and other terrorist groups do not seem to be satisfied with the continuation of the current period of calm with Israel.

According to sources in the Gaza Strip, Hamas has on a number of occasions stopped these groups from breaking the ceasefire by launching rockets into Israel.

After last week’s killing of three PIJ gunmen near Jenin, the group’s leaders in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon instructed their men to get ready for retaliation, the sources said.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh reportedly managed to persuade PIJ secretary-general Ziyad al-Nakhalah to call off plans to fire a number of rockets into Israel in retaliation for the deaths of the three gunmen, who were killed in a shoot-out with Israeli security forces while they were on their way to carry out a terrorist attack against Israelis.

Other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip that are much smaller than PIJ are reluctant to initiate rocket and missile attacks on Israel without the prior approval of Hamas.

Another challenge facing Hamas is the increasing division and disputes among its top brass, particularly between the “inside and outside leadership.” This split is seen as another reason Hamas is not keen, at least under the current circumstances, to enter into another war with Israel.

In the past two years, several senior Hamas officials have left the Gaza Strip in favor of a comfortable life in Qatar and other Arab and Islamic countries. Some Palestinians claim that these officials chose to leave the Strip because they do not wish to tolerate Yahya Sinwar, the group’s unchallenged and ruthless leader in the coastal enclave.

But Hamas’s short-term strategy of maintaining the ceasefire with Israel could end with the first rocket fired from the Gaza Strip toward an Israeli town or city. Hamas may be able to enforce its will on its men, but it is impossible to predict whether its security forces and armed wing, Izaddin al-Qassam, will be able to control other terrorist groups.

The question, therefore, is not whether there will be another war with Hamas, but when.