The round of violence on the Israel-Gaza border over the weekend was the broadest since “Operation Protective Edge” ended four years ago.
The border has remained largely quiet since then, but as time went by, Hamas has been increasingly struggling to uphold the cease-fire Egyptian and Qatari envoys were able to broker in 2014. If anything, the past few months have proved that Hamas is willing to take steps that will inevitably lead to a conflict with Israel, such as the border-riot campaign, arson terrorism or trying to cement an equation by which any Israeli strike over the former two would trigger rocket fire on Israel’s south.
Hamas is not really interested in facing off Israel again, as it knows that fresh hostilities will not result in it being better off. It also knows that if it pushes Israel too far, the Israel Defense Forces will bring about the end of Hamas rule in Gaza.
This, for itself, is nothing new, the difference is that now, Hamas feels strong enough—confident enough—to take this chance and deal with its potential consequences.
Being the seasoned political poker players that they are, Hamas’s leaders assume Israel will be the first to blink; that even if the IDF launches a military campaign in Gaza, it will be short and end with yet another flimsy cease-fire, one that will not harm Hamas and maybe even result in an agreement that would alleviate the dire economic situation in Gaza.
It is therefore highly unlikely that Hamas will stop its provocations, especially as it seems to be marking some achievements, even if those are mostly psychological, opposite Israel. It is equally difficult to see Hamas agree to the first phase of the U.S. peace plan, which entails the demilitarization of Gaza in exchange for economic relief. Hamas, just like the other terrorist groups in Gaza, believes relinquishing its arsenal is akin to suicide, which is why it will never agree to it.
In the absence of dialogue between Israel and Hamas, and given the rift between Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s Ramallah government and Hamas leadership in Gaza, both sides need someone to help them climb down from the very tall tree on which they are perched.
Such mediation could lead to an agreement that would curb Hamas’s military activities and perhaps even advance a deal that would secure the return of the Israelis held captive by Hamas, which, in turn, would enable Israeli gestures that would ease Gaza’s economic plight.
Past experience has seen rivals Egypt and Qatar assume the role of mediator. Egypt has a clear interest in preventing a security escalation in Gaza, as it may spill over its own border.
It remains to be seen, however, whether it still wields the same influence on Gaza as before, given the newfound chumminess between Hamas and Iran. The latter would like nothing more than to see an escalation in Gaza, as it would take the pressure off Israel’s efforts to curb its entrenchment in Syria.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.
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