Independence in Gaza means terror groups have more to lose - opinion

Hamas has also discreetly signaled to Iran that Hamas needs to be taken into consideration before escalations are embarked upon.

 A MURAL in Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip, depicts Hamas fighters firing rockets. (photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)
A MURAL in Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip, depicts Hamas fighters firing rockets.
(photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)

Despite often repeated statements in Israel made in recent days that the five-day escalation between Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and the IDF this month changed the situation in the Gaza Strip to Hamas’s detriment, the terrorist Islamic group that rules the Gaza Strip has, in fact, emerged as the biggest victor from the clash.

This is due to two primary factors. The first is that Israel officially set itself the goal of keeping Hamas out of the conflict – Israeli commentators celebrated the fact that Hamas, indeed, stayed out of the fighting – signifying the fact that Hamas has figured out how to deter Israel, rather than the other way around.

The second factor is PIJ’s relatively poor performance against Israel, which, on the Palestinian street, enabled Hamas to once again market itself as the most effective resistance force in the Palestinian arena. The implicit message is that only Hamas knows when and how to fight Israel.

This operation alerts us to the fact that Israel will have to deal not only with the Hamas threat triangle on three fronts – the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Lebanon, but also with the larger threat triangle made up of all factions in Lebanon/Syria, the Gaza Strip, and Iran – a double triangle of threats.

As a result of this double-triple catch, Hamas believes that Israel is reluctant to attack it. This is the third time that Israel has struck PIJ alone while leaving Hamas out of the fighting, a decision that serves Hamas’s deterrence, even if the Israeli narrative is different.

New opportunities for Hamas?

Meanwhile, Hamas has identified an opportunity, with the expected departure – sooner or later – of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, to topple the Fatah-run entity, which it portrays as weak and collaborating with Israel.

To be sure, not all is smooth sailing for Hamas. The latest escalation has enabled PIJ to challenge, to a certain degree, Hamas’s narrative of being the lead combat force against Israel, and the fury of the PIJ leadership over Hamas’s refusal to join the fighting could be seen in the way that the organization’s leader, Ziad al-Nakhalah, failed to thank Hamas in his speech summarizing the escalation while thanking Iran and Hezbollah.

Just as Hamas, over the years, undermined Fatah’s rule and initiated escalations with Israel, so too is PIJ now doing the same to Hamas, with Iranian encouragement.

Still, Hamas has been able to respond to this challenge with sophistication and success.

On the one hand, it openly welcomed and backed PIJ’s escalatory steps, thereby promoting the message of Palestinian unity – a useful ticket for it, up ahead of its goal of taking over the West Bank. On the other hand, it did not lift a finger as Israel’s considerable air power and intelligence pummeled PIJ in one strike after another in the Gaza Strip.

HAMAS NOT only made it clear that it would not be dragged into wars by PIJ and Iran, it has also discreetly signaled to Iran that Hamas needs to be taken into consideration before escalations are embarked upon.

Meanwhile, on the flip side of the equation, the Israeli sigh of relief over Hamas’s non-involvement topped up Hamas’s deterrence and promoted its ability to threaten future escalations against Israel and call upon Iran for assistance as a member of the Iranian Axis, which can activate multiple arenas.

Thus, in the final score, Hamas came out on top, despite the minor damage it incurred to its street credibility by failing to go into battle alongside PIJ.

Even PIJ, despite its heavy losses, gained long-term points in this conflict, due to its ability to fight Israel, a major regional military power, on equal footing, sending millions of Israelis running for shelter with projectile attacks and air-raid sirens.

In PIJ’s worldview, that in itself is a victory, regardless of how this is viewed in Israel or the West.

It is therefore vital to understand how Israel’s adversaries truly understand and interpret Operation Shield and Arrow, and to avoid the temptation of being enamored with one’s own military prowess and tactical achievements. As impressive as these are, strategically, the Gaza Strip operation brings little good news for Israel because there is no long-term Israeli strategy for countering Hamas’s own calculated and sophisticated maneuvers.

One thing that Israel should consider is responding to the strategic Hamas challenge by formulating a well-thought-out strategy, which could involve weakening Hamas’s future ability to pursue terrorism and armed conflict by saddling it even further with the responsibilities and the privilege of power.

In effect, this would mean pushing for the Gaza Strip’s independence, giving it a port, full control over its borders and major economic assets, thus giving the Gazan population and the Hamas regime a great deal to lose in a future war against Israel.

The status quo of a Gaza Strip dependent on Israel for its economic needs, such as the sending of 17,000 workers from the Gaza Strip into Israel, the hundreds of trucks that deliver basic supplies via Israeli crossings every day, and Israel’s role in arranging electricity and fuel means that Gaza Strip remains interlinked and dependent on Israel. Hamas and Gazans feel they have much to lose.

The more independent and prosperous the Gaza Strip is, the more targets Israel will have in a future conflict, the more Hamas and the Gaza Strip will have to lose, and the weaker Hamas becomes. In addition, Egypt should be given as much influence as possible over events in the Gaza Strip, freeing Israel from this painful geostrategic bone that has been stuck in its throat for too many years.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, turning the Gaza Strip into a de facto independent Palestinian state is one of the most effective ways of neutralizing Hamas’s ability to wage war and terrorize Israel’s civilians.

The writer, a retired IDF colonel, is a publishing expert at The MirYam Institute. He concluded his military service in 2016 as the head of the civil department for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories.