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Gaza quiet shows Hamas' pragmatism

Despite violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank, for the past three months Hamas has maintained calm on the Gaza border — curbing rocket-fire against Israel.

By Aaron Magid

A Palestinian youth holds a mock rocket as thousands of Palestinians celebrate Hamas' 25th anniversary in the West Bank city of Hebron, December 14, 2012. This is the first time since 2007 that the Palestinian Authority has allowed Hamas to celebrate its anniversary in the West Bank. (photo by: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

A Palestinian youth holds a mock rocket as thousands of Palestinians celebrate Hamas’ 25th anniversary in the West Bank city of Hebron, December 14, 2012.
This is the first time since 2007 that the Palestinian Authority has allowed Hamas to celebrate its anniversary in the West Bank. (photo by: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

Opponents of Hamas often accuse the Islamist organization of acting irrationally. In a National Review article titled, “Hamas’ Suicidal Tendencies,” the author writes, “[w]hy is Hamas pursuing such a self-destructive strategy? Ideology.” Yet, in the months since the Gaza war, Hamas’ leadership in Gaza has repeated its pragmatic approach by not launching rockets into Israel, instead choosing to downgrade its ideology so that it may fight Israel more effectively in the next war.

After the bloody summer war, the Gaza-Israel border has remained remarkably quiet. Hamas has deployed a special unit to guard its border with Israel and prevent smaller militant groups from shooting rockets at Israel. A Hamas security source told Al-Monitor, “Gaza’s border will not be violated by group firing rockets at Israel in light of a national consensus for a cease-fire.” Hamas security forces have been successful in preserving the calm — only one rocket has been fired in three months at Israel — despite the growing unrest in Jerusalem and the West Bank. After this rare cease-fire violation on October 31, Hamas criticized those responsible and quickly arrested the five suspected individuals. This dramatic reduction in Gaza attacks dispels another myth: that Hamas is incapable of cracking down on other Gaza militants.

Read also: How Israel taught Hamas that violence is effective

Although Hamas leaders have offered mixed appraisals about future violence, senior official Ahmad Yousef emphasized that with the growing reconstruction needs, the current situation “mandates a cessation of armed operations for two or three years in order to close the door on Israeli excuses and lift the people from the catastrophe that fell upon them.”

This calm is hardly fortuitous. The year following the November 2012 conflict saw the fewest amount of rockets launched into Israel since 2003. Following that conflict as well, Hamas established a police force near the Gaza border to prevent rocket fire and preserve the shaky cease-fire.

An Israeli police officer and reporters take cover during a rocket attack in the southern town of Sderot, Israel on December 30, 2008 (photo: Amir Farshad Ebrahim / CC BY-SA 2.0)

An Israeli police officer and reporters take cover during a rocket attack in the southern town of Sderot, Israel on December 30, 2008 (photo: Amir Farshad Ebrahim / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Hamas’ realism was apparent when in September its deputy chairman, Mousa Abu-Marzouk, surprisingly suggested direct talks with Israel for the first time due to the difficulties of Egyptian mediation during post-war negotiations in Cairo. Although others in the organization rejected his idea, Abu-Marzouk broke a taboo within Hamas on a sensitive topic, preferring pragmatism over ideology. Similarly, former Hamas Prime Minister Ishmael Haniyeh sent his daughter into Israel for emergency medical treatment last month. While Haniyeh previously praised Hamas fighters in their battle with the “enemy” Israel, this did not stop him from making a cold-calculated move to save his daughter’s life.

PHOTOS: In Gaza, rebuilding is still over the horizon

Hamas’ current rational approach stands in stark contrast to the movement’s previous hardline record. Hamas and other militant groups launched approximately 1,035 rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel from January to mid-November 2012 before Operation Pillar of Defense.

Some would suggest launching a massive war against Israel this past summer contradicts the thesis that Hamas acts pragmatically. Nonetheless, Israel repeatedly shows that it rewards those who utilize violence efficiently. Only after the 2014 war when Hamas managed to mainly shut down Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport for one day and kill over 70 Israelis did Israel considerably ease the siege around Gaza. For the first time since 2007, Gazans were permitted to sell sweet potatoes to Europe in addition to allowing the transfer of more goods to the West Bank. Furthermore, only after the summer war did Israel permit the Palestinian reconciliation government to meet in Gaza, despite Netanyahu’s earlier declarations that this same government “strengthens terror.” Similarly, by October for the first time in seven years Gazans were allowed to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Although Israelis declare that they won’t reward “terrorism,” Hamas understands that only after painful violence will Israel ease its siege.

Palestinians walk through the Shujayea neighborhood of Gaza City, nearly three months since a cease fire ended Operation Protective Edge, November 16, 2014. (Photo by Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Palestinians walk through the Shujayea neighborhood of Gaza City, nearly three months since a cease fire ended Operation Protective Edge, November 16, 2014. (Photo by Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Hamas’ refrain from using violence from Gaza does not mean that the movement has become conciliatory. After a stabbing last week in Tel Aviv, Hamas spokesman Husam Badran exclaimed, “the attack is part of a welcome plan that reflects the tenacity of our people to resist the occupation.” Following the recent Gaza war, Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar has repeatedly called for armed resistance to spread to the West Bank. Hamas leaders in Gaza understand that despite all of its inflammatory rhetoric supporting attacks in the West Bank, Israel has yet to target Hamas officials in Gaza. While Israel has increasingly arrested West Bank suspects — after the painful summer — Israel has no interest in opening up another front in Gaza due to the growing deterrence Hamas established.

Hamas leaders say they are rebuilding its tunnels to attack Israel following the summer war. Yet, one cannot ignore the massive Israeli damage inflicted on the movement’s military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, and its arsenal. Hamas found itself further isolated after Egypt established a buffer zone along its own border with Gaza this month, dramatically impacting Hamas’ supply routes for weapons. The Islamist movement needs time to refurbish its long-range rocket supply along with restoring its tunnels to a pre-war levels. Otherwise, a weak military performance would lead to declining support from Gazans and no meaningful reduction of the siege.

Following the 2012 conflict when Hamas only killed six Israelis, Netanyahu did not significantly alter the Gaza siege, all while increasing Israeli incursions into the territory. With such limited military success in 2012, Hamas was unable to establish deterrence vis-a-vis Israel. Hamas leaders realize that only by again staging an especially lethal operation like this summer’s, in contrast to 2012, will Hamas receive tangible concessions from Israel. In order to obtain such military achievements, Hamas requires additional time without disruption by Israeli attacks, which would be the case if it shot rockets into Israel. The current cessation of rockets into Israel is part of Hamas’ more sophisticated planning.

With violence spiking across Israel and the West Bank through stabbings and car attacks, ironically the volatile Israel-Gaza border is one of the only locations experiencing calm. Hamas’ intentional choice abstaining from launching rockets during these tensions demonstrates the movement’s pragmatism in its continued clash with Israel — at least until it gains enough strength to powerfully confront the Jewish state.

Aaron Magid is a graduate student at Harvard University specializing in Middle Eastern Studies. He has written articles on Middle Eastern politics for The New Republic, Al-Monitor and Lebanon’s Daily Star. He tweets at @AaronMagid.

Related:
How Israel taught Hamas that violence is effective
A siege of inertia: Israel’s non-policy on Gaza
Space for perpetuating the conflict: Tunnels, deterrence and profits

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    COMMENTS

    1. Baladi Akka 1948

      “Some would suggest launching a massive war against Israel this past summer contradicts the thesis that Hamas acts pragmatically.”

      Yeah, and some (I among others) would suggest that this ‘graduate student’ study the chronology of the events this summer. Isn’t it just amazing how Hasbara manages to brainwash people into believing that Hamas started the hostilities.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Whiplash

      Welcome to the 972mag Hamas fan club.

      Hamas was not too pragmatic when it kidnapped and killed three Israeli teenagers in June, 2014. Hamas lost many of its assets in the West Bank as a result of that move. Of course the purpose of that operation was to stir up another intifada which would allow Hamas to stage a coup against the PA. It did not work out that way and Israel seized Hamas’ operatives involved in planning and carrying out the coup.

      Hamas showed how undisciplined and vicious it was by executing Gazan rivals in the streets and in front of Mosques.

      Hamas precipitating the Gaza war brought down massive destruction on arts of Gaza and they have achieved nothing. The legal blockade of Israel is in place. Egypt has closed the Rafah border and eliminated the majority of tunnels and Hamas’ source of revenue.

      Hamas has also failed to secure a real unity government. Fatah believes that Hamas tried to stage a coup in the West Bank and continues to arrest Hamas men in the West Bank. The PA also continues to aid Israel in hunting down Hamas men.

      Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        Say whatever you like, Baladi is right, Israel started the hostilities. The main technique of hasbara is distraction.

        Reply to Comment
        • Gustav

          “Say whatever you like, Baladi is right, Israel started the hostilities.”

          Say what you like, the sun rises from the west according to Brian!

          Reply to Comment
      • “Welcome to the 972mag Hamas fan club.” How so?

        The kidnapping and murder of 3 settler youth by Hamas is simply false, which has been well-established and is well known, unless you were off the planet last summer. Israel was the aggressor, and started immediately upon the announcement by Abbas of the Fatah/Hamas unity government last April. Netanyahu was livid and immediately began the process of filling the prisons with hundreds of arrested Palestinians. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out at some point that the murder of the 3 settlers was an inside job.

        Reply to Comment
        • Pedro X

          Who killed the teens and begun the war?

          Yahya Rabah, columnist for the ‎official PA daily and a member of the ‎Fatah Leadership Committee in Gaza, September 17, 2014:

          “Why did Hamas give Israel a ‎dangerous gift for free, by strangely ‎admitting its involvement in the first move ‎that led to this war”

          PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, PA TV, August 28, 2014:

          “I asked [Hamas officials]: ‘Did you carry out [the kidnapping]?’ They said no. I said: ‘Great. In that case, it’s not them!’ Then, the honorable gentleman Saleh Al-Arouri surprised [us] in a speech. He said: ‘We kidnapped them to start a revolution, an Intifada, in the West Bank…’ Alright, I was surprised. I was informed that Al-Arouri said this. I told them : ‘My friends, my information from the most senior official, from the head of the [Hamas] Political Bureau [Khaled Mashaal] [was] that they [Hamas] had nothing to do with this.’ But then Khaled Mashaal came and said they had carried out [the kidnapping”

          Yaakov Lappin Jerusalem Post 5 Kislev, 5775:

          “Despite their rhetoric, some senior Hamas leaders are privately asking themselves whether the war they began is worth the price.”

          Avi Issacharoff, Times of Israel, August 6, 2014:

          “A gag order on his arrest and investigation was lifted Tuesday, revealing that Kawasme had admitted to receiving money for the attack from Hamas operatives in the Gaza Strip”

          Jack Khoury, Haaretz, August 21, 2014:

          “A senior Hamas official boasted during a conference in Istanbul on Wednesday that the group’s military wing was behind the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in June.

          A video captured during the conference shows Salah Arouri, who is based in Turkey and is considered a primary figure within Hamas, saying that the Iz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades were responsible for the abduction of the three youths, Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16.”

          Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal to Vanity Fair: October 21, 2014

          ‎“A Hamas field group in the West Bank had killed those three settlers. So, this ‎was indeed an operation executed by a Hamas group.”‎

          BTW the three teens were not settlers. Two of them lived inside the green line and the other one lived in an Israeli community in Judea and Samaria. One held dual US – Israel citizenship.

          Reply to Comment
          • Brian

            Yeah touring around in his little Disneyland Jewish Holy Land Theme Park while the colorful local natives are kept down and at a safe distance for that thrill of “the real thing” tourists love. Until it got too real. Way too real. With tragic consequences for all. That’s ok. The Settlers can now sell even more tickets to the theme park to a certain kind of customer.

            Reply to Comment
        • Gustav

          “I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out at some point that the murder of the 3 settlers was an inside job.”

          Behold. These are the types of people who line up against us.

          They have a default position:

          “No matter what happens, it is always Israel’s fault”

          Hitler would be proud of people like marnie.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Bar

      Is it “pragmatism” when your cities flood because you spent all your funds digging tunnels for war when you could have spent your funds building tunnels for sewage and drainage?

      Perhaps some 972 writers should go and word as PR writers for Arab regimes in the ME?

      Reply to Comment
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