I’ll start with the bottom line: The moderate and sane Arab world is expecting an Israeli blow against Hamas’ leadership, including its organizational infrastructure and resources. In the face of what’s been happening recently, there is quiet and anxious expectation for “Israel to respond already,” because the Arabs are uneasy about seeing Hamas creating a balance of terror vis-à-vis Israel.
One of the main arguments of Hamas heads vis-à-vis Yasser Arafat was that as Palestinian Authority president he failed in creating such balance of terror. The angry Arafat prided himself in the 1990s on “Barghouti’s Tanzim,” a militant group comprising thousands of gunmen who “objected” to peace with Israel; thereby, Arafat could claim that simultaneously to the peace process, the PA is also leading some resistance.
Yet the truth is that Arafat was appreciated and admired because he did not threaten Israel with a deterring balance of terror. Hamas, just like Hizbullah – another ostracized and criticized Islamic group – was talking about a whole different kind of balance of terror. Back in those days already, it was preparing a network of bombers and recruited legions of suicide terrorists with the aim of hurting Israel as much as is possible. “Once we take power,” Hamas leaders said at the time,” we shall teach the Zionist enemy all about a balance of terror.”
They said they would do it, and they did. There are those who mistakenly interpreted Hamas’ willingness to agree to the latest lull as the interest of a boxer seeking to avoid a knockout blow by taking a break. “People in the know” claimed that Hamas was on the brink of collapse and that the lull saved it from disaster, no less. Yet now it turns out that the aspiration for a lull was a well planed tactical phase in creating a system of deterrence vis-à-vis our leaders in Jerusalem.
Overall, every move undertaken by Hamas, ranging from fundraising abroad to deploying its forces on the frontlines vis-à-vis Israel, must not be received with simplistic and disparaging interpretations. When one hears the declarations made by Hamas spokespersons, and when one sees the order among its ranks, as opposed to the chaos that prevailed among Arafat’s people, it would be good to address what goes on in Gaza with a little more seriousness.
The penny dropped for decision-makers in Jerusalem recently, yet it appears it has not dropped completely yet. Suddenly, our leaders are concerned about the price paid by Israel in the wake of the lull with Hamas; a price that manifests itself through huge quantities of smuggled weapons meant to be used against Israel’s southern cities at the moment of truth.
So why hasn’t the penny dropped completely yet? Because Hamas expected Israel to punish the group for its actions militarily, rather than by using civilian means – a type of response that lacks real meaning in the Strip. Our reluctance to violate the lull despite the Qassam rocket attacks is being perceived by Hamas as an inability to target its leaders as we did in the past.
Image of weakness
Hamas interprets Israel’s conduct as grave weakness by those who sacrifice strategic principles in exchange for short-term relative quiet – therefore, Hamas is celebrating its victory. Sources in the Strip dismiss the frequent border crossing closures in response to lull violations by opposition elements. They don’t get overly excited by it, and look who they sent to respond to it in the media…the official in charge of electricity supply. The equation is clear: Israel is battling “peaceful” residents and fighting generators and supermarkets. In Hamas’ view, Israel is scared to confront the group’s leaders.
Hamas is rubbing its hands with glee: In the dilemma between enabling the group’s threatening military buildup in exchange for short-term relative quiet and the daily Qassam attacks and disruption of life in Sderot and the Gaza region, Israel chose the first option, just like Hamas hoped it would. Hamas conducts itself like a government that does not fear an IDF invasion. If in the past this was only done for domestic purposes, recently the movement has been conveying outwardly as well the achievement of creating a balance of terror vis-à-vis Israel.
Some will say this isn’t true, and that Israel still deters Hamas. However, the bombing of the Syrian reactor and the assassination of Imad Mugniyah and other terror figures, which have been attributed to Israel by the international media, have not prompted Hamas to engage in any second thoughts. On the contrary, Hamas believes that it, along with Hizbullah, serves as the only Arab bridgehead threatening Israel’s existence.
The common perception among Arab commentators is that Israel has ceased to be the “threatening Israel.” Observers are trying to figure out who advises Israel’s leaders to adopt the kind of moves we see in Gaza. Arab observers are likening Israel to a giant whose arms are tied behind its back, while it idly watches the “tunnel youth” flooding the Strip with bombs that can target Israeli communities far away from Gaza.
Venomous contempt is directed at Israeli and Egyptian negotiators, who instead of creating deterrence vis-à-vis Hamas capitulate in the face of its demands time and again, in order to secure yet another day of quiet. Israel’s leaders are portrayed as men in dresses (a hint to the costume used by Defense Minister Barak during an Israeli operation in Beirut in the 1970s,) a harsh image of weakness accompanied by idle threats.
Between the lines, we can understand that the sane Arab world objects to Hamas’ conduct, even if quietly. If there is a sort of consensus in the Arab world regarding who should not be “ruling the territories,” the answer is Hamas. Therefore, the repeated question is: How long will Israel show restraint? How far would Israel let Hamas go? That is, when will Israel announce its intention to deliver a powerful blow against Hamas leaders and its organizational infrastructure? Observers in Amman, Cairo, Rabat, and Riyadh will not be sorry to see it happening.
Colonel (res.) Moshe Elad served in various posts in the territories and currently researches Palestinian society at the Shmuel Neeman Institute at the Technion. He also serves as a lecturer at the Western Galilee Academic College.