The series of recent security incidents and military escalations along the border between the Gaza and Israel reveals that Hamas weakening security hold in Gaza. The past few months have seen a series of rocket attacks exceptional in scale compared to previous years including infiltrations and armed clashes on Gaza’s eastern border. The most significant of these occurred on March 25, when a long-range rocket fired from southern Gaza struck a house in Tel Aviv, injuring seven members of an Israeli family. The deadliest military confrontation as of yet occurred on May 5, when Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other factions fired over 600 rockets at Israel. In response, Israeli forces bombed more than 300 targets in the Gaza Strip. The skirmish only halted after Egypt and the United Nations intervened to mediate a ceasefire.
Hamas appears to be using rockets and other military options as a way to negotiate and strike a balance between the Palestinian and Israeli sides. The hope is to possibly force Israel to hold back its forces as Hamas sues for a truce, a situation that could launch new negotiations. The Islamist movement has accused Israel of breaching previous agreements, especially in regard to easing the harsh humanitarian conditions in Gaza and permitting Qatari aid to enter. Complicating these efforts, however, is the fact that Hamas is partially losing control of some militant groups. In August, skirmishes occurred when four armed men belonging to a militant group were killed while attempting to cross the border into Israel. The Israeli army announced that it had thwarted a major attack and that the number of militants and weapons in their possession indicated that it was an organized group opposed to Hamas. According to some Palestinian reporters, the four fighters were Salafis who recently left Hamas.
The current escalation is an outcome of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, which marked a ferocious war in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, causing considerable material and moral damage on both sides. Despite the heavy losses on the Palestinian side, the crisis eroded Israel's strong deterrence. The outcome of the negotiations between the Palestinian factions and Israeli forces was a "quiet in exchange for quiet." International humanitarian organizations, especially the United Nations, prioritized establishing a humanitarian deal to meet the population’s basic needs. Consequently, the Israeli government, having failed to militarily deter Hamas in Gaza, attempted to weaken it by tightening the blockade while simultaneously allowing minimum humanitarian access. Israel applied this new approach with the tacit approval of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
This promised a more permanent ceasefire and a state of calm. But Hamas exploited the relatively calm conditions to develop the capabilities of its military wings (i.e. the Martyrs Detachments, Izz al-Deen Al-Qassam) until early 2018. Moreover, Hamas imposed its security control by monitoring the border via a military operation called "field control." They also supervised the activities of other Palestinian factions and their armed wings, the most important of which are the Al-Quds Brigades, the Abu Ali Mustafa detachment, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Popular Resistance Committees, and the Salah al-Din Brigades.
In addition the blockade resulted in a severe financial crisis. Neither Hamas nor any of the separate Palestinian institutions or factions have been able to pay the salaries of employees and members. As a result, purchasing power has diminished, the humanitarian situation has deteriorated, and popular frustration with the different factions and public institutions has grown. As a result new armed factions and groups opposed to Hamas’ control have been on the rise. The most important of which are the Army of the Nation, the Army of Islam, the Mujahideen Shura Council, a Salafi-Jihadi Group called the Mujahideen Brigades, a Salafi movement known as the Sabreen movement, and a Shiite movement calling itself the Tawhid Brigade. Another group, Ansar Allah, a radical Salafist movement that follows the ideology of ISIS has also sprung up. In 2016, Hamas was able to neutralize militant groups by conducting large-scale arrests amongst their members and limiting their fighting capabilities. However, these groups’ military activities and members have increased in recent years. According to some security sources, this process has been underpinned by fact that some of these groups are receiving external support.
In an attempt to change the rules of engagement with Israel, Hamas—along with the most influential factions (especially Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front and the Liberal Movement) and the Popular Committees—formed a ‘popular movement’ in March 2018. Led by the High Committee for Palestinian Return Marches, organized protests and disrupted IDF activities on Gaza’s eastern border. Tens of thousands of Gazans participated in weekly peaceful marches, which Israeli forces attacked. The IDF feared the protesters might cross Israel’s borders and reach bordering Israeli settlements and towns. Nevertheless, the end result was a tightening of the siege on Gaza, and an attempt to wind back the material and logistical support for the Palestinian factions, especially Hamas. In addition, the Israeli army cracked down on the military tunnels supplying the factions through the eastern border, which Hamas had established during the 2014 war. The Israeli army was compelled to start construction of a reinforced concrete and steel wall sixty-five kilometers in length and, in places, dug more than twenty meters into the ground with the sensors to detect any sounds from tunneling. In addition, the upper wall reached a height of six meters with observation towers and cameras linked to a centralized control system.
The Israeli and Palestinian sides seem reluctant to reengage in open military confrontation for several reasons. Major considerations for Israel include Palestinian factions—notably Hamas—possessing rockets with great destructive power and the capacity to reach deep into Israeli territory and cause expectedly high physical and human damage. The Israeli government is convinced that merely weakening Hamas' political and military strength is better than seeking a new political alternative that may not effectively control security Gaza the way Hamas has. Moreover, Israeli forces do not want to engage in a war of attrition that could lead to the reoccupation, control, and direct management of Gaza.
As for the Palestinian armed factions, and especially Hamas, there is similar reticence about reverting to open military confrontation with the IDF. Of primary concern is the fragility of the humanitarian situation and the already extreme limitations on Hamas’ ability to meet the population’s basic needs. This is particularly the case since the effects of the destruction of the past wars remain in place. Any future confrontation could be even more severe and could lead to the destruction of the remaining infrastructure. Since the prospects for easing the blockade are bleak without Israeli approval, this is especially worrying. Palestinian factions consider their modest military potential in exchange for the enormous destructive power of the IDF, which could lead to massive destruction and paralysis in Gaza. Hamas is also concerned that it has lost support from other Arab and Islamic actors, with some Arab States wanting to end Hamas’ authority in Gaza.
Despite these concerns, there remains an increasing chance of an open and expanded military confrontation. Such an outcome could reduce IDF casualties on the border and curb the penetration of armed factions. In the 2014 war, Hamas was able to kill several Israeli soldiers and capture others by utilizing the tunnels to reach Israeli military posts beyond the border. The chance for war will increase if Palestinian factions continue to maximize their military power and possess weapons that threaten Israeli security. This is particularly the case for militant groups opposing Hamas’s rules and military figures within Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who are dissatisfied with the existing humanitarian and political situation.
Dr. Hani Albasoos is a Palestinian writer, political analyst and a professor in the Political Science Department of Sultan Qaboos University, Oman.