|Hamas’ twin-track strategy – to bring calm to Gaza while stoking terror in the West Bank – has been on graphic display over the past week.
Leaders of the terror group, which rules the coastal enclave, were in talks with senior Egyptian intelligence officials on Thursday evening when two rockets were fired from the Strip at Tel Aviv. It was the first such attack on Israel’s second city since the 2014 Gaza war.
The Egyptians – who have been attempting to broker a long-term ceasefire between Hamas and Israel – were reportedly furious.
Accusing Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar (pictured) and Ismail Haniyeh of playing a “double game” and compromising their personal security, the Egyptian officials warned: “If Israel decides to launch a comprehensive military operation in Gaza, this time we won’t do a thing to stop the Israeli attack, even if the Israelis decide to dismantle your rule in Gaza by assassinating each and every one of you. While [Israel] is retaking Gaza, Egypt and its allies in the region won’t lift a finger to stop the Israeli response.”
While Israel retaliated swiftly, hitting military sites and compounds belonging to the terror group in Gaza, the Hamas chiefs begged the Egyptians to tell their Israeli counterparts that the rocket attacks were unintentional and unplanned. Hamas later blamed the attack on operatives mistakenly firing the rockets from launch pads during maintenance work.
Significantly, Israel claimed that one of the sites in Gaza it struck in response to the attacks was the headquarters of the unit which coordinates Hamas’ activities in the West Bank.
Less than three days later, Hamas’ double-dealing was apparent once again. As the Israeli security cabinet prepared to discuss a package of measures designed to ease the tight restrictions imposed on the movement of goods and people out of Gaza and thus facilitate the Egyptian-led talks, Hamas praised a terror attack which had occurred that morning in the West Bank.
According to media reports, the security cabinet debated offering an expanded fishing zone off the Gaza coast, reducing restrictions on the export of agricultural goods from Gaza, and allowing an increase in the monthly cash payments from Qatar to Gaza, which Israel facilitates. Last November, Israel came to an unofficial arrangement whereby it allows $15m from Qatar to be transferred through its territory and paid to Gazan families. The Palestinian Authority has staunchly opposed the arrangement.
Sunday’s terror attack saw Gal Keidan, a 19-year-old Israeli soldier, stabbed to death near the settlement of Ariel, while a rabbi was shot shortly afterwards when the assailant fired at people at a bus stop. The rabbi died the following day. A second soldier was seriously wounded; the suspected terrorist is subject to a large-scale manhunt by Israeli security forces.
Hamas, which did not claim responsibility for the attack, praised the attack as a “courageous and daring operation”. A statement suggested that the West Bank was a “strategic place” where Israel could be caught out by violent attacks.
Hamas seized power in Gaza in a violent coup in 2007. Repeated attempts to bring Gaza back under the control of the PA, which rules the West Bank, have foundered, primarily on the terror group’s insistence that it will not disarm.
Hamas’ attitude and actions strengthen the hands of Israeli right-wingers who believe Benjamin Netanyahu has not adopted a tough enough stance. Both education minister Naftali Bennett and justice minister Ayelet Shaked, the leading figures in the New Right party, opposed the Gaza package at the security cabinet, while other ministers from Netanyahu’s Likud party were said to have reservations about resuming indirect negotiations with Hamas.
As Avi Issacharoff, who covers Palestinian affairs for the Times of Israel, wrote: “While Hamas is doing everything possible to prod the residents of the West Bank to perpetrate terror attacks, in the Gaza Strip, it is determined to maintain calm, even if it means falling out of favour in local opinion or the wider Arab world, and even if it means reaching economic or civil understandings with the ‘Zionist enemy’.”
Hamas’ strategy in the West Bank, believes Issacharoff, is not simply to target Israelis and weaken the PA, but also to use attacks there as a way of distracting attention from the deteriorating situation in Gaza.
The past week has seen rare public unrest directed against Hamas in Gaza over economic conditions in the Strip. Hamas has reacted to the street demonstrations by arresting and beating protesters, journalists and members of human rights groups. The terror group is also reported to have used live fire to suppress the demonstrations, which were centred upon Deir el-Balah and Khan Younis. The number of injuries was not clear.
A close ally of President Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah Central Committee member Hussein al-Sheikh, tweeted video of Hamas forces attempting to quash the protests, adding: “This is not the Israeli occupation forces. It is the Hamas gangs that are terrorising and suppressing the hungry in the Gaza Strip.” “Gaza is rising up in the face of the oppressor,” he added.
At least 80 protesters affiliated to Abbas’ Fatah party are said to have been arrested. The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate said 17 reporters and photographers were detained by Hamas security forces for covering the protests. Ten were later released, with four needing hospital treatment. The Syndicate said that Hamas had beaten journalists and photographers and seized their mobile phones and other equipment. Palestinian human rights groups said four of their researchers had also been detained by Hamas.
Hamas’ actions brought strong condemnation from both the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, and Palestinian civic society groups.
Mladenov said in a statement: “I strongly condemn the campaign of arrests and violence used by Hamas security forces against protesters, including women and children, in Gaza over the past three days.
“I am particularly alarmed by the brutal beating of journalists and staff from the Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) and the raiding of homes.
“The long-suffering people of Gaza were protesting the dire economic situation and demanded an improvement in the quality of life in the Gaza Strip. It is their right to protest without fear of reprisal.”
The Palestinian Non-Governmental Organisations Network, whose members include more than 100 charities, said it “strongly condemned the campaign of arrests and aggression that the security forces launched … in northern Gaza against the right of dozens of citizens”.
Despite its talks about a truce with Israel, Hamas’ own dismal record in Gaza presages more violence. Aside from encouraging terror attacks in the West Banks, it is planning to mobilise one million Gazans to demonstrate at the border between the Strip and Israel on 30 March. That date marks the anniversary of the start of the bloody weekly protests at the border fence.