The siren that sounded earlier this month in the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon indicated an incoming rocket from the nearby Gaza Strip. It fell without causing damage. What followed was predictable.
A previously unknown militant group calling itself The Omar Hadid Battalion claimed it fired the rocket on June 6, but Israel declared that it held Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian group that rules Gaza, responsible for all fire coming from the strip. So it was Hamas that bore the brunt of a punitive Israeli airstrike the following day.
For Palestinians in Gaza and Israelis living along the border, the dynamic was all too familiar. Since 2008, Israel has waged three wars with Gaza that have left about 3,500 Palestinians dead, most civilians, and to widespread destruction of infrastructure.
Hamas’s charter declares armed jihad the only appropriate means to liberate Palestine, and another conflict at some point seems inevitable. But Israeli officials say they've reconciled themselves to the survival of the Hamas-controlled government in Gaza. Why? For one, there are reports of indirect Israeli-Hamas negotiations to reach a long-term truce. But more importantly, they think all the viable alternatives would be worse.
In 2006, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his ruling Fatah party were trounced by Hamas in Palestinian elections, with Gaza serving as the Islamist movement's power base. But local Fatah cadres refused to honor the results of the election and a brief civil war broke out, ending in Fatah's defeat and expulsion from Gaza in 2007. In the West Bank, Fatah has continued to rule and the Palestinians haven't held an election since.
In 2006, Hamas was wildly popular because of Gazan anger at the corruption and thuggery of the Fatah government. But in the years since, the love affair has waned, with Hamas thuggery of its own and a series of conflicts with Israel making life even harder than normal in the isolated coastal enclave. But Fatah has not been able to capitalize on this, and Hamas looks firmly entrenched within Gaza's institutions.
Israeli officers say that while they could dislodge Hamas by force, the result would be a chaotic environment in which local jihadis, some inspired by the Islamic State, would vie for control.
“If we were to overthrow Hamas what would we get, Syria? Somalia?” asks Brig. Gen. (Res.) Shalom Harari, a former adviser to the Israeli Defense Ministry on Palestinians.
Palestinian unity government resigns
According to Mr. Harari, the Israeli government assumes that Abbas is unwilling to resume control of Gaza, which would force him to confront Hamas head-on. “Abbas is simply afraid,” he says. On Wednesday Abbas announced the resignation of a Palestinian unity government formed last June, citing its inability to operate in Gaza.
Last month, speaking to the heads of the Israeli regional council near the Gaza Strip, Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, head of the Israeli military's southern command, shocked his audience by saying Israel had an interest in Hamas remaining in power. He also indicated that Israel was determined to deter Hamas from attacking – and expected to face it on the battlefield every few years.
Israel and Hamas now share a common enemy: Salafi Muslims, who share the ideology of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, who want to dislodge Hamas and supplant it with an Islamist Caliphate spanning the Middle East.
Just days before the June 6 rocket attack on Ashkelon, Hamas announced the death of a local “outlaw,” shot while resisting arrest at his Gaza home. Hamas’s interior ministry claimed the man, identified as Younis al-Hunnar, had booby-trapped his house and stockpiled suicide belts and RPG launchers.
In its claim of responsibility for the rocket attack on Israel, the Omar Hadid Battalion, a Salafist group, took a swipe at Hamas. It dedicated the attack “to our brothers and sisters on hunger strike in the jails of the Jews, and our brothers in the jails of Hamas.”
Renegade factions, informal pact
The notion that Hamas has an interest in policing its territory to prevent violence with Israel from spiraling out of control is not a new one. As far back as June 2013, Hamas deployed a 600-strong force along the border with Israel. Known as the Restraining Force, it was tasked with preventing rocket fire by renegade factions.
Despite the bloody conflagration with Israel last summer, the force still operates today. Disgruntled groups in Gaza seeking to retaliate against Hamas need only attack Israel, jeopardizing the fragile ceasefire reached last summer and brokered by Egypt.
Israel’s informal pact with Hamas is conditional, however. As a number of senior Israeli officers have recently indicated, it is entirely dependent both on Hamas’s willingness and its ability to prevent rocket launches into Israel.
“Since the disengagement [from the Gaza Strip in 2005], Israel has had the following strategy vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip: prevention and deterrence,” Turgeman was quoted by Israeli news website NRG as saying. “We cannot prevent Hamas from rearming, but we will make sure that quiet lasts as long as possible.”
Hamas appears to have internalized that logic.
Responding to the punitive Israeli strike on June 7, Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri said retaliation must be “within the framework of Palestinian consensus,” an indication that partisan actions by other local groups would not be tolerated. “We cannot agree to group initiatives outside the framework of these understandings."
One Hamas leader even went so far as to lament the absence of Egypt’s role as mediator between his movement and Israel, following the designation of Hamas as a terror organization by an Egyptian court in February.
“We would like Egypt to resume its role on the Palestinian case, and especially in the issues of reconciliation [with Fatah] and the indirect negotiations [with Israel],” wrote deputy head of Hamas’s political bureau Mousa Abu Marzook on his Facebook page Sunday.
As for direct, overt negotiations, neither Israel nor Hamas will contemplate that possibility, at least not for now.