While tensions in Jerusalem, particularly on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, have been elevated over the past couple of weeks, this year’s Ramadan has been relatively quiet as compared to last year’s Ramadan. While last May featured clashes in the Old City, outside of Damascus Gate, and in Sheikh Jarrah, the most notable element was Hamas’ launching of rocket barrages from Gaza, culminating in Israel’s Operation Guardian of the Walls. While there were isolated rockets fired out of Gaza on five separate days last week, resulting in some limited Israeli counterstrikes and a two-day suspension of entry permits for Palestinians coming into Israel from Gaza, this week has been quiet, and the prevailing assessment is that last week’s rockets were fired by Islamic Jihad rather than Hamas. The evidence suggests that Hamas is doing what it can to keep Gaza quiet and to avoid risking another conflagration similar to the one that it sparked last May.
But this is not to suggest that Hamas has moderated its behavior. While Hamas wants quiet in Gaza, events of the past few weeks demonstrate that Hamas is assiduously working to sow chaos everywhere else. Palestinians holed up in the al-Aqsa Mosque throwing stones and incendiary devices were decked out in Hamas’ green and flying Hamas flags. The IDF and the Palestinian Authority Security Forces have been arresting Hamas cells across the West Bank. Perhaps most disturbingly, the rocket that was fired into Israel from southern Lebanon on Sunday was the work of a Hamas team operating on Lebanese soil. Hamas has absorbed the lesson that Israel has worked so hard to communicate, which is that Israel prioritizes quiet on the Gaza front above nearly everything else, and it has shifted course accordingly. The new front for Hamas is not the Gaza border, but everywhere else that it is able to operate.
Hamas is responding to clear incentives that Israel has created. The Netanyahu government was famous for its ability to ignore rocket fire and incendiary balloons for as long as it could, and to abet Qatari direct cash payments to Hamas in order to bring the projectiles to a halt. The Bennett-Lapid government has not been quite as blatant, but has also prioritized quiet on the Gaza border following Operation Guardian of the Walls by focusing on different types of economic incentives. The Qatari suitcases of cash have been transformed into aid for needy families that is disbursed via United Nations-provided debit cards at different distribution points around Gaza. The nautical zone for fishing boats off the Gaza coast has been expanded, despite the fact that few boats are in decent enough shape to actually travel to the fishing zone’s limit. Most prominently, the daily entry permits for Gazans to cross into Israel for work have been increased in steps, moving over the past six weeks alone from 8,000 to 12,000 to 20,000. The temporary suspension of those permits and the closing of the Erez crossing this week prompted genuine alarm from Hamas and from Palestinians in Gaza, demonstrating the impact that even the relatively small number of permits has had. The upshot of all these moves has been to expand the Netanyahu-era policy of quiet for quiet to a policy of economic improvements for quiet, and to reinforce how important it is to the Israeli government to keep Israeli communities—from the Gaza border towns and southern kibbutzim to the cities of Tel Aviv and Ashkelon—free of rockets and air raid sirens.
Hamas is not only responding to Israeli policies designed to shape its behavior. It is to Hamas’ benefit to shift the battle from Gaza to Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Galilee, and other Israeli locales. Hamas needs time to recover from Israel’s bombardment of its infrastructure and positions a year ago, and also does not want to put Gaza’s reconstruction and economic upswing at risk. Fighting in Gaza is also politically risky for Hamas; on the one hand, there is often a rally-around-the-flag effect that leads to an uptick in Hamas’ popularity immediately following confrontations with Israel, but on the other hand, there is a tipping point at which Palestinians in Gaza will despair of a Hamas approach that leaves them in a permanent state of economic depression and surrounded by rubble. Confronting Israel elsewhere—particularly if an Israeli response in Gaza will only come if the confrontation is initiated from Gaza—is a safer proposition that also does not impact Hamas’ core position. It echoes George W. Bush’s maxim of fighting over there so as not to face them over here. From Hamas’ perspective, better to risk setting Jerusalem or southern Lebanon on fire than to risk the same in Gaza.
Hamas is also not making a calculus with only Israel in mind. While Hamas controls Gaza, it has long had ambitions to take over the West Bank as well and will do what it can to destabilize the Palestinian Authority. If Hamas is able to provoke an uprising or a slew of security incidents in the West Bank, it puts the PA back on its heels and erodes the PA’s position even further to Hamas’ benefit. Any increase in Hamas’ influence on the Haram al-Sharif also comes at the PA’s and Jordan’s expense, and tasking Hamas activists with throwing stones and small incendiaries is a low-cost way of showing strength without putting Gaza at risk. The surprise isn’t that Hamas is maintaining quiet in Gaza while ramping up its activities elsewhere, but why it did not make this pivot so definitively earlier.
It is no coincidence that Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy Hamas chief who has long been in charge of Hamas operations in the West Bank, recently assumed responsibility for Hamas activity in Jerusalem and is also reportedly in charge of the Hamas teams in Lebanon. It signals an increasing focus on expanding Hamas’ geographical presence and doing so in a more guerilla fashion, as opposed to operations from Gaza that over time have increasingly come to resemble conventional warfare where Hamas fires rockets from its side of the fence and hunkers down underground awaiting the inevitable Israeli response. Certainly while it is rebuilding and retooling in its own territory, we should expect Hamas activity to largely be taking place in the areas beyond its direct control and where a coordinated Israeli response is more difficult to carry out.
The Israel-Hamas equation over the past decade has become predictable and routinized. If Hamas is indeed pivoting, Israeli policy will have to pivot as well. Aside from the IDF and Shin Bet doing what they can to disrupt Hamas efforts in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Lebanon, and elsewhere, it may also mean creating a link that has been severed between Gaza and everywhere else. If Hamas is counting on keeping the Gaza front relatively quiet and stable by initiating chaos in other places, Israel may need to rethink its strategy of treating Gaza as a wholly separate entity and begin to treat Hamas and its actions in a more holistic way.