Hamas is stronger than ever, but Gaza is in dire straits

The Israeli Iron Dome missile defence system (L) intercepts rockets (R) fired by the Hamas movement on 14 May 14 2021.
8 min read
23 July, 2021
Analysis: The war in May gave a boost to Hamas' political standing, shifted power dynamics with Israel, and created an effective deterrent, but whether these gains can be converted into concrete improvements for Gaza remains to be seen.

Dubbed by Israel as "Operation Guardian of the Walls" and by Hamas as "Saif Al-Quds" (the Sword of Jerusalem), the eleven-day war in May was short but intense

For Israel, the beginning of the war was marked by the barrage of rockets fired by Hamas toward Jerusalem, while Hamas attributes the escalation to Israel's continuous violations in East Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories.

Despite Israel's clear military superiority and the large-scale destruction and high death toll in Gaza, the war saw a significant improvement in Hamas' firepower and tactics, much to Israel's surprise.

For the first time since Israel's inception, nearly 25% of its population, including in Tel Aviv, hid in shelters and many major economic centres were paralysed.

"The war saw a significant improvement in Hamas' firepower and tactics, much to Israel's surprise"

To Hamas, it was a victory and, therefore, the concurrent momentum was expected to produce an equivalent change in the political process, at least theoretically.

In the two months since Egypt mediated a ceasefire, Hamas has indeed harvested some political gains both internally and externally, but - thus far - none have translated into a solution to the blockade or a breakthrough in Palestinian reconciliation efforts.

New rules of engagement

Yahya Sinwar, Hamas' leader, said in a press conference on 26 May, five days after the ceasefire, that the movement, unquestionably, came out victorious in this round of fighting with Israel. Using figures and statistics, he argued that the movement suffered minimal losses and that its infrastructure was still intact.

He vowed that the recent escalation was nothing but an exercise in confrontation and that the movement did not use its full strength.

A ball of fire erupts from the Jala Tower as it is destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on 15 May, 2021. [Getty]
A ball of fire erupts from the Jala Tower as it is destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on 15 May, 2021. [Getty]

The message was clear: the primary achievement was a change in the rules of engagement. In the asymmetrical conflict with Israel, Palestinians have traditionally measured successes by their ability to withstand Israel's firepower, maintain the ability to continue fighting, and, importantly, exhaust Israel’s military options.

But in the recent war, Hamas (alongside Islamic Jihad and other smaller groups) sought to at least partially shift the balance of power with Israel and establish an effective deterrent, with firing rockets at Tel Aviv at will and paralysing Israel's economy being key elements in this strategy.

Senior political analyst, Liqaa Makki, for example, explained to Jordan's Al Ghad newspaper that "bombing Tel Aviv created an unprecedented state of deterrence". As such, Hamas replaced its traditional reactiveness, where asymmetry almost always worked in Israel's favour, with calculated initiative.

"The message was clear: the primary achievement was a change in the rules of engagement"

Hamas was aware that hitting Jerusalem was going to lead to an all-out war, but the movement was confident it could absorb the consequences of an Israeli military operation.

By surprising Israel with unprecedented firepower, the movement hoped that an extra layer of deterrence would be established.

Political shift 

Hamas' formula of deterrence, consciously or not, cemented the movement's position as a worthy rival who cannot be contained or easily defeated, certainly not through siege and airstrikes. This has entailed, or rather imposed, a shift in the international community's perception of the Islamist movement.

A shift in the rhetoric from US policymakers in Congress, mostly among the progressive wing in the Democratic Party, was understood by Hamas not merely as US disenchantment with Israel's actions, but as an implicit recognition of the movement as a key player that the international community can no longer ignore.

This is an important political change, no matter how minute, because until recently, political engagement with Hamas was a taboo that would incur severe political fallout for any administration that even met with Hamas' representatives. 

European contacts with Hamas have existed for years but were indirect and off-the-record. As early as 2013, the Guardian reported that, over the months before the 2014 Gaza war, European officials met with Hamas' representatives in Gaza, Cairo, and European capitals.

The last Gaza escalation seems to have increased the European conviction that isolating Hamas has not weakened it, and because of that, some EU member states - although slowly and reluctantly - began to realise that the best course of action is to reconsider the EU's traditional approach toward the movement.

Voices

A high-ranking European official told Al Jazeera soon after the Hamas-Israel cease-fire that the EU will need to deal with Hamas sooner or later given that the movement is part of the solution. He added that indirect communications with Hamas are relayed through Egypt and Qatar, but direct European contact with Hamas was contingent on an all-Palestine reconciliation.

The statement came after Germany's Angela Merkel said on the eve of the cease-fire that "indirect contacts" with Hamas are necessary to end violence.

 The Egyptian shift

A major gain for Hamas is direct Egyptian involvement in Gaza and the dramatic shift in Cairo's relations with the movement.

Almost immediately after tensions in Jerusalem escalated in late April 2021, Egypt lent strong political support to Palestinians and called for international pressure on Israel.

"Cairo would not have intervened in such an unprecedented capacity if Hamas had not threatened to create a shift in the geopolitical balance in the region"

Egypt brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas on 21 May. Since then, Cairo sent multiple high-ranking envoys into Gaza, including Egypt's intelligence director Abbas Kamel, deployed heavy machinery and dozens of Egyptian construction workers to assist in the removal of debris, and pledged $500m for reconstruction.

Currently, Egypt is overseeing Palestinian internal dialogue and mediating a possible prisoners' exchange between Hamas and Israel.

Palestinians are aware they are stronger with Egypt's backing, but many have little trust in Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Some believe that Cairo would not have intervened in such an unprecedented capacity if Hamas had not threatened to create a shift in the geopolitical balance in the region during the conflict with Israel.

Others believe that Cairo sees Hamas as a tool to win over the Biden administration and reinstate Egypt's regional role.

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Prior to the Gaza war, Biden pledged there would be no more carte blanche for a Sisi government that flagrantly abused human rights. Israel's inability to deter Hamas during the war, however, made it clear to the US that they needed Egypt's intervention.

For Sisi, in addition to normalising the relationship with the Biden administration, Egypt's mediation between Hamas and Israel helped reinstate Egypt's traditional regional role.

"In a region where normalising states are expanding their own relations with Israel, Egypt... has a vested interest utilising its geographic proximity to Gaza to leverage its diplomatic power," Tareq Baconi, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, told France 24.

The fact that the Egyptian president phoned Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh directly to discuss a ceasefire with Israel practically transitioned Hamas and Gaza from being a file usually handled by Egypt's intelligence to being a foreign policy issue. To Hamas, that is a major boost in the movement's political standing.

"The fact that the Egyptian president phoned Hamas directly to discuss a ceasefire with Israel transitioned Hamas from being a file usually handled by Egypt's intelligence to being a foreign policy issue"

Egypt may act as a gateway to the world for Hamas, perhaps a first significant step toward freeing the movement from political isolation, encouraging it to embrace a more pragmatic approach similar to that which the PLO adopted in the 1980s. All with the hope of bringing some relief to Gaza.

But such delicate politics could change at any moment, especially if Hamas were to disturb Cairo.

As it stands, Egypt is in possession of several cards which can sway Hamas' position, the Rafah Crossing between Gaza and Egypt, Gaza's only official exit to the world, being one.

Losing the momentum…again?

The ceasefire may have granted Hamas much of what it wanted. It successfully cast itself as the guardian of Jerusalem, managed to hit the heart of Israel and maintain firepower momentum, established a new deterrent, gained unprecedented popularity, and weakened the legitimacy of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and, importantly, brought the movement closer to Egypt.

All of these gains have strengthened the movement's international posture and, perhaps, swayed Hamas' leadership into being more pragmatic and able to bend with the regional wind, somewhat repeating the PLO trajectory following the 1982 Lebanon War.

Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh (L) and Prime Minister of Morocco, Saadeddine Othmani (R), in Rabat, Morocco on 17 June 17, 2021. [Getty]
Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh (L) and Prime Minister of Morocco, Saadeddine Othmani (R), in Rabat, Morocco on 17 June 17, 2021. [Getty]

This was evident in Ismail Haniyeh's recent visit to Morocco and meeting with senior Moroccan officials, some of whom were directly involved in the normalisation deal with Israel.

It was also evident in Hamas' former political leader Khaled Meshaal's appearance on the Saudi-sponsored Al-Arabiya News earlier this month, after a years-long hiatus between Hamas and the Kingdom.

It's unclear, however, how a possible rapprochement with Saudi Arabia will be balanced with Hamas' close relations with Iran, a country that received much gratitude from Hamas' leadership for providing Gaza with weapons, expertise, and money.

Domestically, however, the picture is grim. The post-war efforts, which brought a sense of achievement and hopes of a breakthrough in the Gaza blockade, are once again at difficult crossroads.

"On the ground, Gazans continue to suffer and the political momentum that the war brought about seems to be slipping away"

Meanwhile, the Palestinian talks in Cairo seem to have hit yet another impasse, possibly a deeper one given that Hamas - empowered by the recent war - increased its demands and conditions, therefore widening the gap between it and Abbas' Fatah party.

Effectively, on the ground, Gazans continue to suffer and the political momentum that the war brought about seems to be slipping away. Add to that the general feeling that the recent conflict was half-cooked, and another round of fighting is possible should the impasse continue, many are fearful.

As Yahya Sinwar himself said in May, "if by the end of the year no solutions are provided to Gaza's problems, [Palestinian groups] will burn everything," a reference to an all-fronts escalation. 

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa