Israel must update its policy on Hamas, Gaza - opinion

The decision by Hamas to launch a military conflict last year was not, in reality, a tactical event but the planting of the seeds of a new Hamas strategy, which remains in place to this day.

 HAMAS HAS not stopped, even for a minute, its preparations for the day PA head Mahmoud Abbas departs the scene, says the writer. (photo credit: FLASH90)
HAMAS HAS not stopped, even for a minute, its preparations for the day PA head Mahmoud Abbas departs the scene, says the writer.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

Jerusalem Day, marked this year on May 28-29, brought with it predictable threats and tensions with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. These tensions came close but stopped short of bringing the region to a new round of conflict, exactly one year after the last.

Now that Israel got past this potential flashpoint on the calendar without a significant escalation, it will need to update its policy regarding Hamas in Gaza immediately going forward.

Ever since Hamas fired multiple rockets at Jerusalem at the end of Ramadan in 2021, sparking the 12-day Guardian of the Walls conflict during the start of a Jerusalem Day flag march, it has been pursuing a new game plan.

The rocket fire came after days in which Hamas warned Israel about events underway in east Jerusalem, including at the Al Aqsa Mosque, and disputes over homes in the Sheikh Jarah neighborhood.

Jerusalem strategy

The decision by Hamas to launch a military conflict last year was not, in reality, a tactical event but the planting of the seeds of a new Hamas strategy, which remains in place to this day.

People hold Hamas flags as Palestinians gather after performing the last Friday of Ramadan to protest over the possible eviction of several Palestinian families from homes on land claimed by Jewish settlers in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, May 7, 2021.  (credit: JAMAL AWAD/FLASH90)People hold Hamas flags as Palestinians gather after performing the last Friday of Ramadan to protest over the possible eviction of several Palestinian families from homes on land claimed by Jewish settlers in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, May 7, 2021. (credit: JAMAL AWAD/FLASH90)

According to this strategy, Hamas will do whatever is necessary to market itself as the guardian of Jerusalem to Palestinians and the wider Muslim world.

Its target audience is first and foremost Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as Arab-Israelis, and its marketing strategy is designed to promote the idea that Hamas is the defender of Jerusalem and al-Aqsa Mosque.

More recently, this same strategy found expression in the form of rockets fired into Israel from Lebanon. The rockets turned out to have been fired by Hamas operatives, likely from the Tyre region.

Through this strategy, Hamas is expanding its activities away from its core area in Gaza and seeking to boost its foothold in the West Bank, where it relies on support from the general population. Hamas is stepping up incitement to violence on social media, creating the conditions for a wave of terrorism that has thus far claimed the lives of 19 people.

Thus, Hamas is engineering a broader atmosphere of terrorism among Palestinians in the West Bank who do not formally belong to the faction.

As Hamas continues to build up its military force in Gaza, it’s also building terror cells in the West Bank and enjoys the backing of Turkey, Qatar, and Hezbollah – despite Sunni-Shi’ite complexities.

Hamas maintains an open channel with Iran, which enables it to benefit from weapons, know-how and financial support.

When Hamas began applying its new strategy in May 2021, Israel chose a military response against Hamas targets in Gaza. The Israeli operation was mainly directed at the power and status of Hamas in Gaza, as the second-largest military-terror threat to Israel in the region, after Hezbollah.

During Operation Guardian of the Walls, Israel caused significant damage to Hamas, disrupted its capabilities and somewhat damaged the organization’s sovereignty in Gaza, but it did not do much more than that.

At the end of the conflict, the region saw the return of a familiar mechanism: Egypt filled, and continues to fill, a central mediating role between Hamas and Israel, and, taking advantage of the fact that it is the only outlet that Hamas has to the world via the Rafah border crossing, Egypt even worked with its hated rival Qatar to stabilize the Gaza Strip. Over the past year, quiet was, for the most part, preserved in this manner.

IN EXCHANGE for not launching attacks from Gaza, Hamas received humanitarian concessions from Israel for the residents of Gaza, as well as the start of the reconstruction of buildings and infrastructure in the Gaza Strip damaged in the 2021 conflict.

Israel then went a step further and enabled 12,000 Gazans to enter Israel for work, creating direct economic relief for Gaza’s population – and indirect assistance to Hamas’s sovereignty.

In doing so, Israel gave up on the pre-conditions it previously set for such relief, such as the release of two Israeli civilians illegally held captive by Hamas and the return of the bodies of two IDF personnel killed in the 2014 Hamas-Israel conflict.

Yet, Israel’s approach has not been effective in combating Hamas’s new strategy of building itself up as the defender of Jerusalem and increasing its influence in the courtyard of al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem, and the West Bank.

Hamas is also fighting for the attention and affiliation of younger Israeli Arabs, albeit in relatively small numbers.

In the West Bank, a generation has grown up that does not remember the traumas of the Second Intifada and Operation Defensive Shield, in 2002. This generation has adopted the Hamas-led narrative that connects religious faith, nationalism and a confrontational approach with Israel, leading to a spike in murderous attacks by terrorists that have various affiliations.

All the while, Hamas is enjoying the calm Israel is enabling in Gaza and taking the advantage to build up new capabilities, such as UAVs, and ground and sea commando cells.

Hamas has not stopped, for even a minute, its maneuvering and preparations for the day Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas departs the scene.

In response to all of this, Israel has chosen a policy based on differentiating Hamas Gaza from the West Bank. In the latter, Israel launched a series of counter-terrorism operations. In Lebanon, Israel is working in a minor way against Hamas, and diplomatically, it is working individually with Turkey and Qatar to search for formulas to contain Hamas.

Yet, this does not deal with the dangerous connection Hamas has been able to create between religious war cries under the banner of al-Aqsa Mosque and the confrontational attitude it has instilled in Palestinians beyond Gaza.

Now that Jerusalem Day has passed without major escalation, Israel must recalculate its route and adopt a proactive stance against Hamas’s religious-nationalist incitement.

Israel’s toolkit must include a renewal of targeted assassinations of senior Hamas personnel, such as Salah Al-Arouri, who heads the West Bank terror file and is mostly based in Lebanon. Initiating moves against Hamas and taking it by surprise is crucial. The more this is done covertly, the better.

This change will not lead to instant solutions, but rather, to a process in which Israel will damage Hamas’s centers of gravity, including its leadership structure, and will go beyond just responding to Hamas as a Gazan territorial unit.

In any case, Hamas will end up escalating the situation, so Israel should choose to take the initiative and go beyond what Jerusalem has done in the past.

This also means maintaining total sovereignty over Jerusalem, while ensuring Muslim freedom of worship, and cooperating with moderate Arab elements that can help stabilize the Temple Mount, including Jordan, despite its weakening presence there.

The PA, too, is increasingly weak and losing power, and is already transitioning to the post-Abbas era. Israel has to strengthen the PA in various ways, as part of a bigger effort to prevent its collapse on the day after Abbas’s departure.

The writer is a publishing Expert at The MirYam Institute. He concluded his extensive career as the coordinator of government activities in the territories (C.O.G.A.T.), in 2014.