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Hamas prepares for the next round of war
By Yoni Ben Menachem
The semblance of quiet in the Gaza Strip is misleading. Lately the “drizzle” of rockets launched at Israel by the so-called “rebellious organizations” has declined, apparently because the Hamas security mechanism has carried out a wave of arrests among the Salafi, jihadist, pro-Islamic State organizations. These arrests were aimed at placating Egypt. They do not, however, reflect Hamas’ change of intentions toward Israel.
In the town of Rafah on February 2, 2017, the Hamas military wing held a large military ceremony in which a monument was unveiled in memory of the Tunisian engineer Muhammad al-Zouari, a drone specialist who worked for Hamas. On top of the monument was a model of an Ababil drone.
Hamas claims that Zouari was assassinated by Israeli Mossad agents near his home in Tunisia because he had made a great technological contribution to the anti-Israeli struggle. Hamas credited him with developing unmanned aircraft as well as a small, remotely-controlled submarine.
Abu Ubaida, spokesman of Hamas’ military wing, praised Zouari’s work for Hamas and disclosed that he had often visited Gaza. What he said regarding Israel during the ceremony is worthy of note: “The Palestinian problem is not merely a geographic problem or an internal political struggle between a people and an occupier; it is instead a problem of the Islamic world and an existential, historical, and cultural struggle.”
Hamas has never for a moment given up its strategy of destroying Israel. Although the military balance of power is in Israel’s favor, Hamas is constantly improving its capabilities and building its military preparedness for the next round. It aims to inflict painful strategic blows on Israel in various ways: short- and long-range rocket fire, attack tunnels, booby-trapped drones, naval commando forces infiltrated into Israeli territory, and even cyber warfare and hacking into IDF soldiers’ computers and telephones.
In early February 2017, Hamas media outlets extensively quoted Israeli leaked media reports on the failures of Operation Protective Edge, which are expected to be revealed in the Israeli state comptroller’s report. Hamas commentators claimed that these failures reflected the Israeli political echelon’s helplessness and confusion during Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, and said it was actually Hamas that won the campaign.
Hamas’ psychological warfare is likely to continue after the comptroller’s report is published in full.
Hamas Has Recovered Militarily
Senior Israeli security officials confirmed in late January 2017, that Hamas has fully rehabilitated its military capabilities that were damaged in Operation Protective Edge and has even improved some of them, namely in the areas of rocket and mortar fire and tunnel construction.
Currently, Hamas has several thousand rockets aimed at Israel and dozens of attack tunnels. These tunnels are intended to infiltrate its gunmen into the Gaza-belt area for murder and kidnapping attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers. The Hamas military wing continues to work round the clock on manufacturing rockets and digging tunnels.
This is a race against time. Israel has launched a major project to build a large wall deep in the ground around Gaza. The aim is to counteract the tunnel phenomenon while also developing advanced technological methods for detecting tunnels.
The key question is who will deliver the preemptive strike in the next conflict. Will Israel surprise Hamas and destroy the tunnels before it can use them, or will Hamas surprise Israel and succeed to move its fighters through the tunnels into Israeli territory?
When Will the Next Military Conflict Occur?
A wave of demonstrations swept Gaza on January 9, 2017. Residents were protesting the electricity shortage crisis, and Hamas security forces were forced to fire in the air to block the protestors. Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, has not been able to solve the electricity shortage.
The residents are suffering through the harsh winter with only three hours of electricity per day.
The anger expressed at the Hamas regime certainly could have led it to deflect the blame toward Israel and instigate a military escalation. Hamas would thereby have sought to divert gazes from its responsibility for Gaza’s dire situation.
The crisis was temporarily averted when Turkey intervened and agreed to send fuel to Gaza, with Qatar providing financial aid for purchasing fuel for Gaza’s power station.
This is a time bomb that, if not finally resolved, could reemerge and explode – in Israel’s face as well.
The electricity crisis is only one aspect of the fragile situation in Gaza with its explosive potential.
The results of a poll published this week in the territories, conducted by the Arab World for Research and Development (AWRAD) of Ramallah, reveal that 71 percent of Gaza’s residents think their economic situation has deteriorated in 2016 compared to 2015, and 55 percent also see a worsening of their security situation.
At this moment Hamas has no interest in a military clash with Israel. The movement has indeed rehabilitated the military capabilities targeted in the last war but not the thousands of homes that were destroyed, and the rebuilding continues.
Meanwhile, the movement’s leadership has been opening a new page with Egypt. The aim is to bring about an easing of the blockade on Gaza with a series of measures, particularly the opening of the Rafah crossing and even its conversion into a commercial crossing.
In early February 2017, a Hamas security delegation is expected in Egypt to discuss new security understandings with the heads of Egyptian intelligence. The understandings pertain to safeguarding Gaza’s border with Egypt and to the war against the Islamic State branch in northern Sinai. If the talks succeed, the blockade on the Egyptian side of Gaza will be eased substantially. This is something Hamas wants very much. The pressure by the Gaza residents will then diminish, and Gaza will have a small, regular opening to the Arab world without having to be dependent on Israel or the Palestinian Authority.
At the same time, the movement’s leadership has been busy with internal elections. The first stage ended with the election of a new Hamas leadership to represent the security prisoners in Israel.
Internal Political Tensions Emerging
Beneath the surface, a serious struggle is being waged over Khaled Mashal’s position as chairman of the Political Bureau.
The military wing of Hamas, which is supported by Iran, backs Yahye Sinwar, in effect the commander of the military wing, and Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar against the candidates favored by Qatar and Turkey, Ismail Haniyeh and Mousa Abu Marzouk.
Recently the tensions between these two camps grew when the Turkish deputy prime minister condemned the truck terror attack by Fadi al-Kanbar at the Armon Hanatziv promenade in Jerusalem, which killed four IDF soldiers.
The military wing was enraged when the Hamas leadership in Qatar remained silent about Turkey’s condemnation.
This internal tension should not be underestimated. It, too, could lead to a violent eruption between the camps and an escalation against Israel.
Meanwhile, there have also been preliminary contacts through mediators, on a prisoner-exchange deal between Israel and Hamas in which Israelis would be returned, and Hamas security prisoners would be released. Specifically, this would involve returning the bodies of the missing IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, along with Avraham Mengistu of Ashkelon and a Bedouin Israeli, Hisham al-Said, who have been held captive in Gaza since 2014 and 2015 respectively.
In return for the four, Hamas is demanding the release of thousands of terrorists in a deal that, it claims, must be larger than the Shalit deal of 2011.
A military conflict between Hamas and Israel at this time would likely disrupt the talks on a prisoner-exchange deal. With such a deal, Hamas would hope to win glory and sympathy in the Palestinian street.
As noted, the quiet on the Gaza border with Israel is temporary and deceptive. Both sides are intensively engaged in drawing lessons from Operation Protective Edge and preparing for the next round of warfare.
Military logic calls for a surprise move and a preemptive strike by Israel against Hamas’ newly built tunnels and rocket stockpiles. For the time being, though, it appears that Israel’s political echelon wants to continue the status quo.
Hamas’ intentions are very hard to assess. The power struggles within the movement, its relations with Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, and the economic situation in Gaza are variable factors that could lead the Hamas leadership to initiate a military move against Israel at any given moment if it serves the leadership’s interests. Hamas is now prepared for such a move from a military standpoint.
The bottom line is that the Israeli political echelon still has not reached a decision on the future of the Gaza Strip.
Does Israel want to oust the Hamas government? Who would rule Gaza in its stead? Does Israel want to reconquer the entire strip and reinstate the military government, or is it seeking a long-term truce that would see the easing of the blockade, the opening of a seaport with Israeli supervision, and the admission of thousands of workers into Israel?
So long as there is no Israeli decision on these matters, the status quo will continue, and Israel will react to Hamas’ moves instead of being the party that initiates moves, with all that this entails from a military standpoint.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.