October 26, 2015 | The Wall Street Journal - Washington Wire

Why Hamas Has Not Unleashed Violence From Gaza

Israel’s internal security services, the Shin Bet, said earlier this month that the Palestinian militant group Hamas is among the key drivers of the violence raging in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The group’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, has called for an intifada, or uprising. Yet, he hasn’t unleashed Hamas’ huge arsenal of rockets or its trained fighting forces from the Gaza Strip, the territory he controls. Hamas has one foot in the uprising and one foot out.

Gaza has hardly been calm. Clashes along the border between Gaza and Israel have been happening daily, with breaches prompting the Israel Defense Forces to fire on the crowd. But, as Israeli journalist Amos Harel points out, Palestinian Islamic Jihad – the smaller Iran-backed militant group – was believed to be behind the border incidents, while Gaza’s Salafi groups that have been firing the rockets.

The absence of a concerted push for violence out of Gaza can be traced to a Qatar-led initiative to facilitate the reconstruction of Gaza after last summer’s war. Doha is a strong financial and political patron of Hamas. The Qataris are no friends of Israel, but they currently share with the Jewish state a fear that the next war between Hamas and Israel could topple their proxy and leave a chaotic power vacuum that would be filled by Salafi groups and Islamic State wannabes in the Gaza Strip.

Though Hamas is surely tempted to join the unrest, it is restrained by the memory of last summer’s devastating conflict and the certain knowledge that a new war would only compound Gazans’ misery.  And they also know how difficult it has been to negotiate reconstruction after last summer’s war.

The Egyptians have, since the rise of Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, destroyed more than 1,700 smuggling tunnels and recently flooded the border with seawater to destroy additional tunnels. This, coupled with Israel’s tight control over its own border and its blockade of Gaza from the sea, has made it impossible for Hamas to rebuild on its own.

To compensate, Qatar negotiated a quiet agreement with Israel to facilitate reconstruction in Gaza, selling it to both sides as a means to forestall the next conflict. Qatar is now operating multi-million dollar projects in Gaza. It even offered to fund an electricity generating facility based in Israel, no less.

Aware of its limitations in Gaza, Hamas has mobilized its fighters in the West Bank.  With this arms-length strategy, Hamas can both strike out at Israel and also undermine its political rival, the Palestinian Authority, which it has for more than a decade tried to unseat. This poses little risk to Hamas’ grip on Gaza.

Secretary of State John Kerry is set to hold talks in Jordan to try to put an end to the violence.  If Mr. Kerry is smart, he’ll leverage continued Gaza reconstruction as a way to get Hamas to stand down in the West Bank. There is no guarantee it will work. Qatar will undoubtedly object. And Hamas may yet darken Israel’s southern skies with rockets out of Gaza. But the fear of unleashing more violence on Gaza is a powerful deterrent.

Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is the author of Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave 2008). Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer

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Palestinian Politics