By David Hacham
A month after the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that rules Gaza has experienced a dramatic rise in popular support, both in the coastal Strip and in the West Bank.
On the other side of the fence, Hamas’s rival, the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, is seeing a visible drop in support.
Hamas absorbed a serious military blow during Israel’s Operation Guardian of the Walls last month, a conflict that was labelled Sword of Jerusalem by Hamas. Yet in the weeks that have passed, Hamas is working to consolidate a picture of political ‘victory’, irrespective of events on the ground, and it has done so with a significant degree of success.
During the hostilities in May, Israeli air and artillery strikes degraded many key Hamas capabilities, although this blow was not decisive enough to prevent Hamas from recovering in a relatively short amount of time.
Following the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel mediated by Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate, Hamas’s political bureau chief in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, has been working hard to shape Palestinian-Arab and international perception, and to transmit the message that Hamas is continuing to function as a strong, stable, undisputed regime. Hamas has been able to transform its image, and is now perceived as an element in the Palestinian arena that cannot be ignored. At the same time, it has revived the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Hamas is now pursuing a strategic objective designed to gain maximum political benefits from the post-conflict era.
It is seeking to cash in on its image as a Palestinian movement that did not surrender to Israel, and it even claims to have ‘come out on top’ during the clash with the IDF, able to withstand the Israeli war machine.
To drive home this message, Hamas held victory marches, military parades, and memorial ceremonies for those killed in Gaza, while its commanders made many media appearances.
It is Sinwar who is personally orchestrating this political and PR campaign, which is helping him to consolidate his position at the apex of Hamas’s leadership.
Sinwar is well known to the Israeli defense establishment for his cruelty, even before Hamas was founded. During his time in the Al-Mujama Al-Islami organization, a precursor to Hamas, he was arrested by Israel before the start of the First Intifada and sentenced to five life sentences for murdering Palestinian collaborators with Israel. Behind bars, Sinwar was well known for his willingness to employ violence in his relations with other prisoners when he thought this was necessary.
In recent weeks, Sinwar has delivered impassioned, fiery speeches, claiming that Hamas came out as the winning side, and employing psychological warfare by claiming that Israel will crumble against Palestinian ‘resistance.’ He ensured that a photograph showing him sitting confidently outside of his destroyed office made the rounds.
Sinwar’s propaganda efforts stand in stark contrast to reality. Hamas absorbed far more damage than it inflicted on Israel, and dragged Gaza’s long-suffering residents into another destructive, bloody war. The military balance sheet is obviously in Israel’s favor.
Still, Hamas’s large rocket arsenal and variety of projectiles, and its ability to set up a joint command center with Gaza’s other armed terror factions, served its political consolidation campaign. The dominance of Muhammed Deif, commander of Hamas’s military wing, and Sinwar’s brother, Muhammad Sinwar, another senior military wing commander, both of whom are close to Hamas’s political leadership, served it well too.
Sinwar’s image was boosted significantly following the conflict, and Hamas’s overall political bureau chief, Ismael Haniyah, and its overseas political bureau chief, Khaled Mashaal, do not currently enjoy the same level of support.
This is all due to the confidence that Sinwar was able to exhibit following the conflict, when he was seen wondering Gaza’s streets without fear, looking unconcerned and carefree, and speaking cordially to passers-by.
Thus, while Israel was able to degrade Hamas’s military-terrorist capabilities, and employ targeted killings effectively, targeting mid-level and field operatives, the conflict regained the international community’s attention, and placed the Palestinian issue squarely back on the American agenda. This has contributed to Hamas’s growing self-confidence, which has been visible since the end of the conflict. Even before the conflict, Hamas’s confidence had been growing, as seen in its decision to fire rockets on Jerusalem and issue ultimatums against Israeli actions in Jerusalem.
Hamas has excelled in promoting itself as the ‘Guardian of Jerusalem,’ and is continuing to act in this capacity these days, issuing new threats against Israel.
PA, Hamas in power struggle over funds
It is now clear that the conflict has caused significant harm to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, whose image following the Gaza conflict is one of a marginal element in the Palestinian arena, lacking influence and real power, and of being someone who failed to play any significant role during the conflict.
Abbas is also facing accusations in the Palestinian arena of refusing to take part in the nationalist wave following Israeli actions in Jerusalem. In reality, Abbas has no significant influence in Jerusalem, in Gaza, or among Israeli Arabs.
The PA President’s main role is limited to defending his rule in the West Bank, and continuing security coordination with Israel. He has also been engaging in legal and diplomatic warfare on Israel through the ICC and the court of international public opinion. His ability to prevent a security deterioration in the West Bank last month is noteworthy and important.
Currently, Hamas is focusing its efforts on attempting to take control of Gaza reconstruction money. Many have pledged to flood Gaza with cash, including Egyptian President Abd Fattah Al-Sisi, who promised half a billion dollars toward this goal, and Qatar, which immediately matched the Egyptian pledge.
A long list of additional countries soon appeared, promising funds as well. Egypt sent trucks into Gaza via its Rafah border crossing filled with humanitarian goods, and construction vehicles to reconstruct destroyed buildings. Gazans warmly received the Egyptian convoys.
The money being pledged to Gaza is supposed to go to rebuilding buildings that were destroyed in air strikes, particularly to high rise buildings, roads, water pipes, and electricity infrastructure damaged during Israeli strikes on Hamas’s ‘metro’ network of underground combat tunnels.
Intense competition between the PA and Hamas is now developing over who will control those funds. The PA is demanding exclusive control of the reconstruction process, as a reflection of its self-view as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Hamas, for its part, is demanding the same, based on its position as the exclusive ruling regime in Gaza.
The PA has correctly warned that should Hamas receive the money, some of it will be diverted to supporting Hamas’s armament program and military-terrorist activities, and that not all of the funds would further the objective of reconstruction.
As part of this competition, PA Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayah visited Gulf states to try and ensure that the PA and UNRWA receive the aid money rather than Hamas.
The PA’s Deputy Prime Minister, Ziad Abu Amr, a former resident of Gaza who has good ties with Hamas, met with the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate head, Maj. Gen. Abbas Kamel. The meeting is a strong indication regarding who Egypt thinks should be responsible for handling and allocating the reconstruction cash.
Kamel also held a series of official meetings with senior Hamas representatives, and stated that Cairo’s goal is to reach a long-term ceasefire that will include a prisoner and MIA swap between Israel and Hamas, but he also signaled that the two negotiation channels – one for a long truce and one for the swap – should not be dependent on one another.
Sinwar has called for no fewer than 1,111 Palestinian security prisoners to be released – a deliberate figure designed to remind Palestinians of the 2011 Schalit prisoner exchange, in which Israel released 1,027 prisoners (including Sinwar himself) for the captive Israeli soldier. The figure includes Schalit prisoners who have since been re-arrested by Israel.
Egypt’s rising influence on events in Gaza, meanwhile, became further apparent when the first construction work on a new Gazan neighborhood – built on the ruins of the former Israeli settlement of Netzarim in the southern outskirts of Gaza City, and named after Egypt – began in recent days. The ceremony was attended by PA and Fatah officials, including the Fatah Chairman in Gaza, Ahmed Hillis.
Meanwhile, Hamas is also aware that a new government in Israel, lacking in experience, will seek to avoid controversial dramatic steps that could lead to its own downfall.
The resistance by the international system to Israel’s positions regarding the Palestinian issue has also served to increase Hamas’s brinkmanship.
Meanwhile, Iranian assistance to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in funding, weapons know-how, and training looks set to continue. In the event of a new conflict with Israel, the scenario of Iran attempting to inject military advisors into Gaza, under false aliases, to assist Hamas attacks looks plausible.
As Hamas’s confidence continues to grow, the ability to deter it over a long-term period is in serious question.