First published by the Jerusalem Report
This article is based on an academic paper previously published by Dr. Ely Karmon 'Perspectives on Terrorism', Volume 7, Issue 5.
A STRING of regional developments over the past two years has left the Islamist Hamas government in Gaza in dire straits and opened up new opportunities for Israel and Palestinian moderates.In backing the Sunni rebels in the Syrian civil war, Hamas forfeited its special ties with its biggest arms supplier, Iran; the military ouster of its Muslim Brotherhood allies in Cairo put serious strains on its relationswith Egypt; and a change of leadership in Qatar left a big question mark over the extent of financial aid from the oil-rich Gulf state it can continue to count on.The “axis of resistance” – Shi’ite Iran, Alawite Syria, Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah and the Sunni Hamas – survived until the beginning of the uprising in Syria, in 2011. As the civil war intensified, Hamas found its Sunni identity increasingly at odds with the non-Sunni axis to which it belonged. In December 2011, under strong external Sunni pressure, the Hamas leadership and all military operatives left Damascus and relocated to Gaza, Egypt, Qatar and Sudan.The fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt in February that year had opened the way for Hamas to return to the natural embrace of its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, the rising power in post-revolutionary Egypt. With the Brotherhood’s backing, they hoped to be able first to challenge theFatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, and then Israel. At the same time, Hamas found a place in the Sunni coalition of Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia against the Assad regime in Damascus and its Iranian sponsor.The estrangement from Iran and Syria, however, came at a price. Military aid from Iran ground to a halt. Ghazi Hamad, the Hamas Deputy Foreign Minister, confirmed in May this year that relations with Iran were“bad” and that “for supporting the Syrian revolution, [Hamas] lost very much” in the field of military cooperation.Hamas had hoped that this strategic loss would be more than made up for by the new Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt. Initial signs were good. Although president Mohammed Morsi did not denounce the peace accords with Israel, he refused to deal directly with Israelis; moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme spiritual guide Sheikh Mohammed Badie called for “jihad to liberate Jerusalem from the Israeli occupation”;and during the IDF Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, in November 2012, Morsi’s prime minister Hesham Kandil made a solidarity visit to Gaza declaring, “The cause of Palestinians is the cause of all Arabs and Muslims.”However, the Muslim Brotherhood failed to deliver the goods. It failed to meet Gaza’s energy needs, and after 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed in Sinai by jihadist militants from Gaza in August 2012, Morsi’s Egyptclosed down many of the Sinai-Gaza smuggling tunnels, dealing a severe blow to the Gazan economy. Indeed, in late September, large protests in Gaza against rising prices of construction materials and fuel were directed at Egypt as much as at Israel. Apart from symbolic support, Morsi was careful not to provide Hamas with any material aid or to threaten Israel with active Egyptian involvement – even during Israel’s Pillar of Defense operation against Gaza.Nevertheless, the military takeover in Egypt in early July left Hamas in a state of shock. The campaign against Hamas by the new military-backed government, the state media and public opinion intensified in proportion to the growing violence of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations across Egypt. Egyptian state television accused Hamas of training people to undertake car-bombing operations and the leading Egyptian state paper, Al-Ahram, cited high-ranking security sources who accused Hamas of involvement in the abortive assassination attempt against Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim in September.Over the past three months the Egyptian army has destroyed most of the smuggling tunnels underneath the Sinai border with Gaza. For all intents and purposes, it has created a buffer zone by clearing buildings deemed a security threat up to one kilometer from the border.Egyptian military, economic and media pressure has also impacted on Hamas’s political standing. In August, a Gazan version of the Egyptian Tamarud – the rebel movement that led the popular protests against Morsi in the run-up to his removal by the military – began preparations for mass demonstrations against Hamas on November 11, the anniversary of former Fatah leader Yasser Arafat’s death. Over the past two months, Hamas security agencies arrested dozens of Fatah activists and journalists charged withbelonging to Tamarud.MOREOVER, SAUDI Arabia, Kuwait and the Emirates support the Egyptian military crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and show no inclination to help its Palestinian branch in Gaza. In September, Jordan too turned down a request from Hamas to reopen its offices in Amman. And in Qatar, which had supported Hamas with donations, grants and field projects (not cash) to compensate for the cessation of Iranian support, there was a change in leadership. In June, the emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani stepped aside for his son Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. The new ruler seems more likely to focus on domestic issues and will probably be more circumspect in his regional policies. There have already been reports of worsening ties between Hamas and Qatar – although senior Hamas officials deny this, and insist that Iran has not made a resumption of relations with Hamas conditional on its severing ties with Qatar.Hamas’s staunchest diplomatic supporter is Turkey, but when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan planned a high profile solidarity visit to Gaza, he was barred by Egypt’s new rulers. Hamas is also challenged in the Palestinian arena by the strengthening of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s standing and the possibility of progress in the PA’s peace talks with Israel. This could lead it to attempt to sabotage the negotiations through major terrorist attacks in the West Bank or in Israel proper, or through a campaign of missile and rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. This could elicit popular Egyptian pressure on the military regime in Cairo to support Hamas in the event of a major Israeli retaliation.Hamas Political Bureau Chief Khaled Mashaal recently called for a unified Palestinian strategy to confront hat he called “Israeli schemes of Judaization” in Jerusalem. This would be achieved by building an Arab, Islamic and Palestinian military capability to follow a widespread popular uprising designed to drain Israel on a daily basis.Hamas also keeps open the option of renewed fighting against Israel by strengthening its alliance with the Gaza Salafist groups. Contacts between Hamas and the Salafists over the past few months, mediated by clerics from Kuwait and the influential Egyptian religious leader Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, led to an agreement which reportedly grants the Salafists “freedom to operate in politics, the military arena, religious advocacy, as well as civil and social organizations.” In return, the Salafist factions “will commit to the cease-fire and other decisions made by the ruling Hamas movement.” Arrests and harassment of Salafists have ceased recently and many detainees have been released.Ali Baraka, the chief Hamas representative in Lebanon, recently summarized the organization’s strategy concerning relations with its former allies. The fact that Hamas and Iran differ over how best to achieve a peaceful settlement in Syria does not mean they differ on everything else, he said. Hamas and Iran share the same positions on a number of key issues, including standing “against Israel and Zionist actions in the Middle East.” And he added that Hamas hopes the Syrian crisis will come to an end soon and allow the restoration of “the axis of resistance,” which “was seriously damaged by the Arab Spring.”However, given Iran’s overtures to the West since Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration as president in August, Tehran will probably be very cautious in its regional conduct, especially towards a rogue organization like Hamas.I have long held that the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations have little chance of success as long as the PA does not rule Gaza. There is now a window of opportunity to exploit Hamas’s weakness, Egypt’s goodwill and Tehran’s restraint to advance the peace negotiations. The idea would be to impose PA control over Gaza, divide the Hamas movement by giving the more pragmatic Hamas leaders incentives to be part of a new joint regime, and by offering the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza better economic and territorial conditions in the short-term, and, in the long-term, a clear compromise acceptable to all parties.
In spite of its evident political weakness and regional isolation Hamas keeps open the option of renewed fighting against Israel. This is one of the main reasons of its return to Iran's (and Hezbollah) embrace, the main providers of military hardware, training and strategic advice.
This also explains Hamas's recent strengthening of its alliance with the Gaza Salafist groups.The strategy of challenging Israel's might in the next military clash through the expansion of an underground infrastructure of bunkers and tunnels has been confirmed at the beginning of October 2013, when the IDF uncovered a massive Hamas attack tunnel leading from Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, into Israel.It is the most well-designed tunnel found by the IDF to date, buried some 20 meters underground. It took Hamas probably a year and a half to complete, its height allows people to stand fully upright as they use it. (See at http://www.jpost.com/National-News/IDF-discovers-Palestinian-terrorist-tunnel-leading-from-Gaza-to-Kibbutz-in-Israel-328584) The tunnel was constructed using approximately 24,000 Israeli concrete slabs which the IDF had permitted into Gaza to ease the crisis in the civilian construction sector. As a result, Israel has stopped allowing concrete into Gaza. This shows again that Hamas's priority is the struggle against Israel and not Gaza's population basic economic needs.The strategic tunnel could be used for a major terrorist attack inside Israel by possibly several dozen militants or kidnapping soldiers or civilians for negotiating the release of the Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails.[By the way, the Hamas used in the past underground tunnels to try to assassinate Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president in June 2007. At the time The Palestinian Authority released a video of what it said was the Hamas assassination attempt. See athttp://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2007/06/2008525125054538883.html] Hamas leaders not only boasted about the construction of the tunnels but a few weeks later Hamas's military wing revealed a unit that specializes in digging offensive tunnels. An Al-Jazeera television report aired on the one-year anniversary of Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza showed Hamas operatives digging a tunnel and preparing infrastructure for launching rockets from below ground. The tunnel is equipped with electricity, used to light the facility and power the electric jackhammers used to dig. The Hamas operatives described their preparation for the inevitable next round of hostilities with Israel. They can spend weeks at a time underground without being detected, one operative explained.
On November 11, Hamas held a huge military rally in the Gaza Strip marking the anniversary of Operation Pillar of Defense. Several thousand well-equipped fighters from Hamas’ military wing paraded M75 missile and multiple-rocket launchers. Senior Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Zahar declared that the Hamas military would “reach out for all of Palestine.” (See http://www.i24news.tv/en/news/israel/diplomacy-defense/131119-israeli-jets-target-terror-targets-in-gaza) The discovery of the tunnel and the IDF's operation to destroy it provoked several incidents in which five Israeli soldiers were wounded and four Hamas members were killed. Then Israeli planes attacked two rocket launchers in Gaza in response to the firing of rockets in the direction of Ashkelon and the firing of mortars at the Eshkol region.Mustafa Ibrahim, from the Independent Commission for Human Rights in Gaza, told Al Jazeera he had warned Hamas not to rely too much on the tunnels, because it removed the responsibility of Israel as an occupying power to ensure all humanitarian needs. Ibrahim said he fears mounting pressure on the government will result in Hamas seeking to direct Gazan animosity towards Israel by provoking an escalation in violence. "It's a hard choice for Hamas but if this crisis continues, the only solution they will have is to start a violent crisis in order to solve this one," Ibrahim said.It will be interesting to follow the behavior of the Tehran regime towards Hamas's bellicose strategy on the background of its improved relations with the West following the recent Geneva nuclear deal.