The Gaza Conundrum – will Restrainers or Catalysts of Violence Win?

Since the Hamas Islamist terror organization seized the Gaza Strip from Fatah in a violent coup in 2007, it has fought four significant armed conflicts, and several smaller rounds of escalations, with Israel.

Today, one year after the end of Operation Guardian of the Walls (a conflict Hamas initiated by firing mid-range rockets from Gaza at Jerusalem) observers in Israel and abroad are wondering how long the current Gaza quiet can remain.

In the search for possible answers to this question, the basic formula of sizing up catalysts for violence and comparing those to restraining elements forms an assessment tool.

When restraining elements play a greater influencing role in the Gazan arena compared to catalysts for violence, periods of calm take hold, and Hamas and Israel find ways of navigating tensions without going to war. When catalysts become more influential, the path to explosive conflict is short.

 Despite Hamas’s long-term uncompromising Islamist ideology, which is dedicated to destroying Israel and replacing it with a Palestinian-Islamic state, Hamas views tactical breaks as positive periods of time to regroup, rearm, rebuild its military capabilities, and give Gazan civilians breathing space to recuperate, while giving Gaza’s battered economy a chance to grow.

And yet, past events have proven that when Hamas has to choose between its governing responsibilities towards the two million people that it rules in its enclave and its ideological radical interests, Hamas chooses the latter, sometimes to the surprise of decision-makers in Israel. Hamas’s choices can defy Western thinking, and its Gazan leadership, led by Yahya Sinwar, has already proven that he can upset previous assessments.

In light of the above, it can be said that although the restraining factors are, at this time, clearly more powerful than catalysts for violence in Gaza, this formula can prove deceptive – any number of sudden, unexpected tactical changes on the ground, such as casualties in clashes on the Temple Mount, can change Hamas’s preference for quiet.

The importance that Sinwar and Hamas in Gaza attach to their objective of marketing themselves as the ‘defender of Jerusalem’ and of the Al Aqsa Mosque cannot be overstated. It is this very marketing drive that led Hamas to initiate hostilities last year, based on the calculation that the gains Hamas would make on the Palestinian street in terms of boosted support would be worth the battering that Hamas would take from the IDF’s considerable firepower.

On April 30th, Sinwar continued to reap the benefits from that very calculation.

“We must prepare for a big war if Israel does not stop harming the Al Aqsa mosque,” the Hamas leader said in a fiery speech. Notably, this time, Hamas is not matching its talk with action, in order to protect its home turf from Israeli military capabilities. But Sinwar is still cashing out on the credit that Hamas earned in the Palestinian arena from its decision to go into an armed conflict with Israel ‘over Jerusalem’ in 2021.

Sinwar during his speech (April 30, 2022)

Sinwar praised the spate of Arab Israeli and Palestinian terrorists who massacred Israeli civilians indiscriminately in recent weeks – a reminder of Hamas’s commitment to jihadist terror atrocities, even when they are committed by ISIS affiliates, whose ideology frowns on Hamas’s combination of Palestinian nationalism and Islamist concepts.

“The recent heroic attacks in Israel proved that it is weaker than a spider’s web,” claimed Sinwar, echoing rhetoric used by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah.

 IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ran Kochav said Sinwar’s speech was “arrogant” and “pathetic.”

“He is trying to heat up the ground. He is frightened and deterred by what we did to him in Gaza exactly one year ago during ‘Operation Guardian of the Walls,’ and since then,” said Kochav. “Due to our capabilities, he is trying to circumvent the IDF and to heat up the Temple Mount and Judea and Samaria.”

According to this assessment, Hamas is deterred by the damage it sustained from Israel in last year’s conflict.

While this reasoning may be correct, it is also reminiscent of assessments made on the eve of the 2021 conflict, and therefore, claims over the extent of Israel’s deterrence over Hamas need to be ‘seasoned’ with caution and should feature more question marks than exclamation marks.

Hamas is constantly juggling its governmental role and its ideological radical objectives, seeking a kind of balancing act between them that, to outside observers, may seem almost incoherent.

Still, there is no governing alternative to Hamas in Gaza that can be discerned at this time (Fatah has already demonstrated that it is incapable of holding onto power there), and Israel has no desire to go back to direct rule over two million hostile Gazans.

Therefore, Israel remains committed to conflict prevention wherever possible, and to managing the terrorist regime by offering it a calculated combination of sticks and carrots.

Those carrots are economic-civilian measures to ease the pressure on ordinary Gazans and improve Gaza’s civilian infrastructure. They do affect Hamas’s short-term calculations, and they have a temporary moderating effect.

In a recent interview with Israel Hayom, the head of the IDF’s Research Division in Military Intelligence, Brig. Gen. Amit Sa’ar, said that creating a better fabric of life in Gaza is an Israeli security interest.

“The significance of one Gazan working in Israel is six families relying on the money that he earns. Our interest is to enable as many normative Palestinians to cross and work in Israel,” he said.

As a result, Israel allows 12,000 Gazans to enter Israel for work daily, after thorough security screening.

Economic-civilian gestures – described by Sa’ar as “shock absorbers” – therefore form a key restraining factor, counter-acting catalysts of violence. Hamas is aware of its need to give Gazan civilians time to recuperate and earn a living – and Hamas can use that same time to restock its rocket arsenals too (just as the IDF continues to prepare new future attack plans and capabilities to downgrade Hamas in future escalations).

An additional restraining factor is Egypt’s growing – and welcome – role in the Gaza Strip.

“Egypt is a central restraining factor in the Gaza Strip,” said Sa’ar in his interview. While Israel was once the sole “oxygen pipe” to the Strip, today, he said, Egypt is no less important, and sometimes even more important.

Egypt is rebuilding neighborhoods in northern Gaza and roads in Gaza. It also controls Rafah Crossing, which is a key gateway to the outside world for Gaza. It can therefore apply its own sticks and carrots to Hamas, which it views with suspicion due to Hamas’s ideological ties to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the penultimate adversary of the Al-Sisi government in Cairo. Nevertheless, Egypt has developed its own ‘management’ approach to Hamas, seeking to cut off Gaza and its many weapons from the jihadists that Egypt fights in Sinai.

They  [the Egyptians] certainly act as a stabilizing factor and they do not allow weapons to move into Gaza. This is a common interest because they have had a bad experience with elements from Gaza that joined ISIS in Egypt. They don’t want weapons passing through them,” Sa’ar explained.

Qatar, with its monthly funding for Gazan poor families, for Gaza’s power plant, and for Hamas’s civilian government employees, also plays a stabilizing role, despite its closeness to Islamists and the double game it often plays.

Ultimately, Sa’ar argued, Hamas does not want a war at this time. “That’s not an assessment, that’s very strong information.”

And yet, Hamas is working tirelessly to set the West Bank and East Jerusalem on fire with violence and terrorism. Destabilizing the West Bank weakens the rule of Hamas’s internal rival, Fatah, and it also serves Hamas’s ideology of killing Israelis wherever it can.

Hamas does this through pervasive incitement and conspiracy theories that it spreads on media and social media networks, seeking to convince Palestinians that the Al Aqsa Mosque “is in danger.” And Hamas does this through orchestrating, remotely, terror cells in the West Bank, which the Shin Bet intelligence agency breaks up with great precision and speed.

The conflict with Hamas, in whatever form it may take, is not due to end any time soon.

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Yaakov Lappin

Yaakov Lappin

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