Hamas goes to war – for a ceasefire

Militant Islamists calculate they can take pain of conflict but fear who might replace them in Gaza

 Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Photograph: Atef Safadi/EPA

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Photograph: Atef Safadi/EPA


Writing in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, the Israeli analyst Alex Fishman said Hamas was “like a suicidal individual trying to drag Israel forcibly into armed conflict ... believing [it] will be the one to determine the strength of the explosion.”

Cut off from Egypt by the blockade imposed by the military government there, which has severed its financial lifeline, a weakened Hamas is not only isolated from many backers, including Syria and Iran, but, the argument goes, would be weakened by a costly conflict after which it would struggle to re-arm.

Why then does Hamas seem determined to pursue a renewed and perhaps prolonged and bloody conflict?

“They feel like they have nothing to lose,” says Mkhaimar Abusada, of Al-Azhar University. “Since the June 2nd unity agreement, the Palestinian Authority and Abu Mazen [President Mahmoud Abbas, below] have done nothing for Gaza and Hamas. It was supposed to open the crossings [to Egypt], pay the salaries of their people, who have not been paid for months. They were expecting a visit from Abu Mazen. They calculate there will be a new ceasefire and when it happens it will improve things for Hamas.”

And in some respects that is exactly what Hamas wants: to fight a war for a ceasefire. In its demands this week for ending hostilities, it asked for the ceasefire conditions from the last major round of fighting with Israel in 2012 to be reinstated; for the re-release of prisoners freed by Israel in exchange for the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, who were rounded up again by Israel after the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers, later found murdered; and an end to what it says is Israeli meddling in the Palestinian unity government.

Abusada believes Hamas is driven by other considerations as well. “Hamas knows [Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin] Netanyahu was reluctant to be drawn into this conflict and it knows the history of Israeli wars – that it tends to prefer short conflicts.

“It believes it can absorb the pain of a conflict and that Israel is concerned that if it brings down Hamas, its successors could be more radical factions, including Salafists. Hamas knows Israel won’t go all the way against it, which would require complete reoccupation.”

Hamas is also not the same group that fought Israel in 2008-09 and 2012 in Gaza. Its military capabilities, observers say, have been enhanced, including the longer-range rockets it has developed. Hamas has also learned from the last two conflicts, becoming, apparently, more proactive in its tactics.

There is a strong rationale behind its strategy, at least part of which is designed to test Israel’s own appetite for escalation. “They think maybe a conflict could push East Jerusalem and the West Bank to a third intifada,” says Abusada. - (The Guardian)

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