If there’s one thing that has been made perfectly clear in the year since the assassination of top Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) official Baha Abu Al-Atta, it is that Hamas is not interested in a confrontation and will do anything to avoid one.
The organization was not exactly in a bellicose mood prior to the assassination either. In fact, ever since the Israel Defense Forces’ “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014, Hamas has sought various paths towards dialogue, not war. It may have been dragged into a few rounds of violence, launched some explosive balloons and organized mass riots on Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, but Hamas considers all of these to be legitimate moves designed to lead to its final objective of reaching a settlement.
No, Hamas is not interested in a settlement for Zionist reasons. Nothing about its strategic goal of wiping the State of Israel off the face of the earth has changed. But the path towards this goal now runs through what it considers to be temporary tactical concessions. For the time being, Hamas’s principal challenge is to avoid a round of fighting with Israel; it understands that Gaza is too poor and too weak to succeed, and so it must first grow stronger, both financially and militarily, before embarking on such an adventure.
Hamas has two main objectives. The first is to improve Gaza’s economy in order to rehabilitate Gaza, improve the standard of living of its residents and assure them there is a promising future on the horizon. By doing so, of course, the organization seeks to prevent there being any future threat to its rule. The second objective is for Hamas to continue to build up its military so that it is better prepared for the next round of fighting when it does come.
In the past, these two objectives were vaguer. Gaza was less poor, and Hamas felt it was stronger militarily. Some of its leaders were also more militant and refused to discuss any pragmatic ideas. But Hamas’s current leader, Yaya Sinwar, will not let anyone divert the organization from his path—neither his rival partners in the organization’s political-military leadership nor the rival peer organizations in the coastal territory.
This is the reason Hamas, under his orders, has avoided joining the PIJ in responding to the assassination. From Sinwar’s perspective, Israel actually did him a favor. It removed what was a significant nuisance—a neighborhood bully with a bite almost as bad as his bark, who threatened to drag the region into a dangerous escalation that would have threatened Hamas’s interests.
Sinwar skipped rather lightly over his commitment to defend Gaza and its residents and avenge the deaths of its dead, certainly when the man in question is a senior colleague.
Ever since Abu Al-Atta’s assassination, Sinwar and Hamas continued to consistently avoid an escalation, preferring to engage in talks instead. They escalated the situation in the area only when they felt their path was blocked, mainly economically, and returned to their familiar path of exploiting terrorism as a way to advance their goals in a pinpointed manner.
Hamas will likely continue down this path for the foreseeable future. But let us not be confused; the terrorist group has not suddenly become a pro-Israel organization. It will continue to increase its military strength by any means possible. As proof, see the terror tunnel exposed by the Israel Defense Forces three weeks ago, through which Hamas sought to challenge the subterranean barrier being built by Israel along the Gaza border. A tunnel they were saving for a rainy day, as one senior IDF official put it, getting to the heart of the organization’s general psychological state.
In this current state of affairs, the ball is largely in Israel’s court. Gaza is in desperate need of civilian economic projects and is willing to pay for them with quiet. If Israel is able to put its political matters and public opinion aside, it will find a partner it can work with. It won’t happen directly, though, but with Western (United Nations) and Arab (Egypt, Qatar) mediation, and with the assurance that the funds will go toward such projects and not terrorist elements.
This move has, on its face, wall-to-wall support among Israel’s diplomatic-security echelon. It has three main benefits: long-term quiet for the residents of the Gaza periphery area, as Hamas will have something to lose from the renewal of fire; an improved standard of living for Gaza’s residents, who will necessarily have something to lose in the future; and the diminishing of Gaza’s reliance on Israel, particularly in areas such as energy and infrastructure.
On the other hand, this move has two disadvantages: It doesn’t include a solution for the problem of returning the Hamas-held Israeli captives Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, and the bodies of fallen soldiers Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul. Nor does it tackle Hamas’s military buildup to prevent it from threatening Israel in the future.
In an attempt to reach an agreement, both sides will continue to maneuver between these pros and cons in the near future. Should they fail, Hamas could revert back to its old familiar terrorist path in an effort to advance its goals.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.