Hamas threatens to take fight against Israel beyond Gaza

After blaming Israeli agents for assassinating a Hamas official in Dubai on Friday, Hamas said it too could broaden the conflict beyond Israel and Gaza. But analysts are doubtful Hamas can pull it off.

Tsafrir Abayov/AP
Israeli policemen on horseback patrol along the beach in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon, near the Gaza border, on Tuesday. On Monday, at least two barrels full of explosives washed up on Israeli beaches north of Gaza.

In the wake of a Hamas claim on Friday that Israeli agents assassinated one of its operatives in Dubai last week, the Islamist movement is vowing to take revenge against the Jewish state for the militant’s death – even if it means going abroad. Hamas officials from Damascus, Syria, and the Gaza Strip are threatening to match what they say is Israel's expansion of the conflict to foreign countries.

“This is not the first of our brothers to be assassinated by the Israeli Mossad,” Hamas politburo member Khalil al-Hayya said Friday from the Gaza home of the slain militant, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. “We will respond to Israeli crimes at the proper time, and place, and with the means we choose.”

Hamas has never before managed to strike Israeli targets abroad, and analysts here are doubtful the Islamist movement could pull it off. Instead, the rhetoric may be part of a Hamas effort to maintain a balance between keeping its credibility among Palestinians as a strong resistance movement and provoking another devastating Israeli attack on Gaza, where the movement rules but where its popularity has also fallen, analysts say.

Quiet border

Hamas has kept its border with Israel relatively quiet since Israel’s military offensive on Gaza last winter. The movement also announced in November a “rocket cease-fire” in order to allow the enclave to rebuild.

“I think they should consider deeply the repercussions of any retaliation, and the timing of their attack,” says Assad Abu Sharakh, a Gaza-based political analyst and linguistics professor at Al-Azhar University. “This is a war, and if they retaliate whenever they want, without thinking about it, it might backfire – both with the population here and with their own strategic interests.”

Hamas spokesmen were unavailable for comment, but the movement has traditionally kept its decades-long battle with Israel within the borders of Israel and the Palestinian territories.

“Hamas has always rejected taking the conflict outside Palestine,” says Haidar Eid, a political analyst and professor at Gaza’s Al-Aqsa University. “So this is entirely new for them and they are confused about how to react. Will they retaliate from Gaza? Or will they follow the new rules of the game? I don’t think they have the ability to take the fight outside.”

Top Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar, who told Al Jazeera that Israel had "broken the rules of the game" by attacking Hamas outside the Palestinian territories, insisted, however, that the group was capable of attacks abroad.

 "We can hurt the occupation within the borders of occupied Palestine or without.... We will choose the best thing for us, our people, and our ties with other Arab and Muslim countries."

PLO attacked Israel abroad

Dr. Abu Sharakh says Hamas could learn from the old methods of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, which carried out attacks against Israeli interests abroad in the 1970s and 80s, including the hijacking of airplanes.

But Dr. Eid says it is more likely Hamas will retaliate from Gaza, where it keeps its strongest base of operations, but not with conventional tactics which he says have fallen out of favor with residents here.

“Hamas knows very well that its credibility is at stake, that it has to react,” says Eid. “But firing rockets from Gaza, like Hamas has done in the past, is out of the question.”

“This is a worn-out tactic that will not satisfy the people who expect it to retaliate,” he continues. “Hamas knows it will need to wait to respond with something bigger, something new.”

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