Hamas’s decision to refrain from firing rockets or mortars from Gaza into Israel on May 29, when Israeli flag marchers walked throughout the Old City of Jerusalem, seems to provide a valuable clue into the terror faction’s long-term strategy.
After topping up its ‘credentials’ as ‘Jerusalem’s defender’ by initiating an armed conflict against Israel in May 2021, during nearly identical circumstances, Hamas and its Gazan leader, Yahya Sinwar, did not repeat this decision in May 2022, this time making do with issuing inflammatory rhetoric and fierce condemnations of the Israeli flag march.
This is due to the fact that despite the 2021 conflict, Hamas is pursuing a strategy of ‘separation,’ designed to create immunity for its Gazan regime, while allowing Hamas to continue to try to destabilize Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Arab Israeli community with violence, radical ideology, incitement, and terrorism – all without its Gazan home base paying a price for these actions.
Thus, Sinwar’s strategy is to continue to consolidate Hamas’s standing in the Palestinian street, undermine the stability of his rival, the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and initiate terrorism against Israeli civilians, while keeping the Islamist government of Gaza ‘safe’ from Israel’s firepower.
Israel too is interested in separating the main arenas of conflict between itself and Hamas from one another, but in different ways. Israel’s separation strategy is aimed at undermining Hamas efforts to ‘escape’ Gaza and spread to the West Bank.
This means that Israel accepts the idea that an escalation in the West Bank, Jerusalem, or Israel proper does not automatically translate into military strikes on Hamas in Gaza. Instead, Israel seeks to prevent Hamas from sending out its tentacles of terrorism and incitement to violence from Gaza out into the other arenas.
In terms of evaluating its success, Israel, particularly the Shin Bet and the IDF, have been highly successful at preventing Hamas from activating terror cells in the West Bank from Gaza, but Israel has been far less successful in disrupting the unending flow of incitement from Gaza on established and social media. This incitement helped contribute to a wave of terrorism this year in Israel and the West Bank, which took months for the Israeli defense establishment to extinguish. Hamas in Gaza paid no discernable price for its role in ‘filling the room with gasoline,’ through its incitement.
For Israel, the main interest is to keep Hamas caged in Gaza, contained, isolated, and unwilling to act from the Strip on its radical Islamist ideology and commitment to war with Israel. Israel does this by using a mix of economic carrots – such as allowing 14,000 Gazans (soon to be 20,000) to work in Israel, providing economically for more than 100,000 family members, and by allowing for Qatari investment in Gazan reconstruction efforts and energy requirements.
Egypt, meanwhile, is conducting reconstruction projects in northern Gaza, and its influence is growing in the Strip – which is good news for Israel.
But Hamas has proven that it is prepared to sacrifice all of this stability in an instant when it identifies what it sees as a ‘golden opportunity’ to strengthen its standing and promote its ideology at the expense of the PA and Fatah. As such, all of this newfound stability needs to be taken with a major pinch of salt. It can collapse into conflict in an instant. Hamas knows that Israel seeks the status quo, and that it retains the advantage of initiative.
Meanwhile, if Israel is intent on sticking to its own separation strategy, which has secured a significant period of quiet and prosperity for southern Israeli communities, it will need to consider new measures that would be designed to weaken Hamas’s standing in the West Bank, east Jerusalem, and among a radical minority of the Arab Israeli community.
The time for more intensive Israeli action to stabilize the West Bank is now, since Hamas has identified an opportunity to boost its foothold there, due to growing power struggles within Fatah over the question of who will succeed the aging PA President, Mahmoud Abbas.
In mid-June, Israel’s Channel 12 reported that PA security forces uncovered a Hamas bomb lab in the town of Beitunia, near Ramallah.
A mysterious blast drew Palestinian security forces to that area, and a subsequent investigation found that the lab was part of a plot to attack the PA’s government headquarters in Ramallah, known as the Mukataa. The PA arrested five Hamas operatives, including a relative of the deputy chairman of Hamas’s political bureau, Saleh Al-Arouri, who is based in Lebanon and who is in charge of promoting West Bank terror cells from Hamas’s Lebanon headquarters.
The timing of the plot is likely not coincidental, but rather, a reflection of Hamas’s assessment that Fatah’s power struggles create a new opportunity to promote its gradual takeover program in the West Bank.
Both the PA and Israel have a joint common interest in preventing this aspiration, and this explains the ongoing security coordination that occurs between them on the ground, irrespective of the bitter diplomatic conflict they are engaged in against each other.
Both Israel and Hamas are applying their versions of separation strategies as the conflict between them continues on a ‘low flame’ for the time being.
Hamas has been able to acquire a degree of immunity for its ‘Hamastan,’ the autonomous political-military territory it rules in Gaza, while Israel has been able to establish a degree of stability and quiet for its southern communities.
Hamas’s military wing rebuilds its capabilities in the form of rockets, mortars, RPGs, anti-tank missiles, and other military-terrorist mean – but it does not activate them with every flare-up in Jerusalem or the West Bank. Instead, Hamas seeks to gradually repeat its Gazan takeover, by toppling Fatah from power in the West Bank, and in the meantime, weakening it through ‘a thousand cuts.’
Israel and the PA work, quietly, together to prevent this from happening.
However, the status quo may not be enough to keep Hamas contained in Gaza, as political instability within the PA could create a new opening for the Islamist faction.
In order to counteract this, Israel will need to consider launching a new diplomatic initiative with the PA. Such an initiative is highly unlikely to lead to an actual agreement, but could nudge Israel and the PA towards intermediate understandings that would result in new economic and political benefits for the PA.
This would make PA rule more attractive for Palestinians compared to life in the isolated and impoverished ‘Hamastan,’ where the future of two million Gazans is held hostage by the Islamist ideology of Hamas.
An improvement in the PA’s standing would prove damaging to Hamas’s infiltration efforts in the West Bank. This does not cancel out the need for continued Israeli and international pressure on the PA to cease its payment scheme for families of terrorists and for imprisoned terrorists, and its own incitement to violence. All of these efforts can occur in a coordinated manner simultaneously.
Meanwhile, the ongoing and increasingly intensive coordination between Israel and moderate Sunni Arab countries – Gulf states plus Jordan and Egypt – can also be leveraged to further isolate Hamas while injecting new funds and an improved standing for the PA.
The moderate Arab states are threatened by Hamas’s Muslim Brotherhood ideology, which ultimately views most Arab governments as agents of the West, and have every interest in seeing the PA grow stronger at the expense of Hamas. They can therefore be recruited to this long-term strategic goal, just as they have found new ways to work with Israel against Iran.
Such efforts represent a far more preferrable path when it comes to dealing with Hamas than fighting yet another armed conflict with it, which will likely result in a return to the current status quo after a significant loss of life and damage in Gaza and Israel.
Nevertheless, Hamas’s conduct since its 2007 rise to power in Gaza reminds us that no matter what Israel does, Hamas can always revert back to direct conflict with Israel, and the IDF will need to remain on the highest alert for a rapid return to war in Gaza at any time.