Hamas Is Planning the Next War; Is Israel’s Current Government Ready?
People hold Hamas flags as Palestinians gather after performing the last Friday of Ramadan to protest over the possible eviction of several Palestinian families from homes on land claimed by Jewish settlers in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, in Jerusalem’s Old City, May 7, 2021. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
For the past year, Israel and the Palestinians have been in escalation mode, a phase that began under the previous Israeli government.
The sparks that lit the current escalation are unrelated to whether a right-wing or center-left government is in power, but Hamas is prepared to use the new right-wing Israeli government as justification for further conflict and violence if it finds it necessary to do so.
The escalation originates in a calculated strategy by Hamas, which envisioned, with considerable foresight, a Palestinian civil war — a scenario that appears to be around the corner — and a new opportunity to both weaken its rival, Fatah, in the West Bank, and ignite a regional explosion against Israel.
While some observers have attributed the deterioration in the security situation to the power vacuum in the northern West Bank, where the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority (PA) is indeed losing control, the more significant catalyst driving it is the clash between the narratives promoted by Hamas and the PA, led by Mahmoud Abbas.
Both Hamas and Fatah ultimately seek to rule the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, yet both are realistic in understanding that Israel will not vanish any time soon — and neither for that matter will the Palestinians. While Hamas believes that in the long run, it will succeed in destroying Israel, it still needs to answer the question of how it envisions the Palestinians living alongside Israel in the same land in this current phase of history.
Hamas’ answer to this question is, first, to reject any possibility of a peace treaty. Due to this position, Abbas’ PA has felt unable to enter into any real substantial diplomatic process with Israel over the years, and Abbas has rejected Israeli two-state offers made in the past, such as the one put forward by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008.
Abbas realizes that he will never be able to defeat Hamas. While Israel is powerful enough to deal with any threat posed by Hamas, Fatah’s existence as a ruling party is under direct threat from it, as the Hamas coup against Fatah in Gaza 2007 so clearly demonstrated.
As a result, Abbas has settled for the vision of seeking a more comfortable existence for Palestinians in the West Bank. At the same time, he is resigned to the division of Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank, and to the idea that he is not strong enough to reach an agreement with Israel.
Hamas, for its part, promotes the Mukawama, the Arabic word for resistance, a word often misunderstood in the international community to mean resistance against occupation, when in fact it is resistance to acceptance of Israel — and the promotion of terrorism.
Since Ismail Haniyeh left Gaza to become the head of Hamas’s political bureau (he is now based in Qatar), the organization has decided that it wishes to be the legitimate representative of all Palestinians at the global level.
As Hamas navigates the region, reaching tense understandings with Egypt, while also moving closer once again to Syria’s Bashar Assad — after years in which it backed the anti-Assad rebels in Syria — it continually maintains its resistance narrative, claiming that it is leading Palestinians on the path to the destruction of Israel.
To market this narrative further, Hamas sparked an intense conflict in May 2021 in order to present itself as the defender of Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Yet a little over a year later, in July 2022, it cleverly sat out a clash between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), as the IDF pulverized PIJ operatives and positions. Hamas was able to get the message across to Palestinians: Only Hamas can challenge Israel, fire rockets at Jerusalem, incite riots among Israeli Arabs, and create Palestinian unity. Only it can lead the fight against “the Zionist enemy.”
Abbas sees the ground underneath his feet shaking, and he is gradually enabling the PA to join the fight against the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). These days, it’s not just Hamas — but also Fatah and the PA — that post “martyr” posters glorifying terrorists. The dead terrorists receive PA state burials, and this is accompanied by declarations by the PA of ending security coordination with Israel.
Ironically, this dynamic has created an opportunity for Hamas to present itself as the new “responsible adult,” and thereby gain regional and international credit. Despite the escalation in Jerusalem and the West Bank, Hamas has not directly joined in hostilities, and it is only the PIJ that has fired rockets, before being “stopped” by Hamas in a manner that is convenient to its current positioning.
After building itself up as the ruler of Gaza and protector of Jerusalem, Hamas is, in a highly calculated manner, proceeding towards its next goal — taking over the West Bank, and consolidating itself as the legitimate Palestinian representative.
Hamas will also seek to find ways to escape the terrorism designation that the Western world has correctly placed it under, without compromising on its “resistance” credentials.
Ultimately, as Hamas moves towards its next objectives, it is walking a tightrope. While it wishes to take over the West Bank without exposing its Gazan base to a new round of fighting with Israel, a high casualty dynamic or major incident could compel Hamas to act and lead it into a new round of fighting with Israel.
Hamas has made it clear that if this scenario comes to pass, it will use Israel’s new right-wing government to justify such actions, and for leveraging future achievements.
As a result, any action taken by Israel, perceived by Palestinians to be radical, will serve as justification by Hamas for opening fire.
The more that Israel’s government markets its steps vis-à-vis the Palestinians as vengeful, or stemming from a far-right ideology, the more that could potentially serve Hamas as legitimization for it to use violence against Israel.
Col. Grisha Yakubovich (IDF, Ret.) is a publishing Expert at The MirYam Institute. He concluded his military service in 2016 as the head of the civil department for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (C.O.G.A.T.)
The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.