Strategic Analysis: Potential for Hamas-Israel conflict increases with mounting pressure from Egypt

On October 21, Hamas officially claimed responsibility for building a 1.7km tunnel which was uncovered in Israeli territory on October 7. The tunnel extended from the Gaza Strip town of Khan Younis to the vicinity of the Israeli community of Ein Hashloshah, and was meant to transfer Hamas militants into Israeli territory for the purpose of staging a mass-casualty attack or kidnapping.  The claiming of the tunnel by Hamas comes during a period of mounting economic pressure against its Gaza-based government as a result of the closure of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, and the destruction of over 90 percent of the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza by the Egyptian military.

Hamas militia on patrol in Gaza City
Hamas militia on patrol in Gaza City

In September 2013, IDF Southern Command chief Sami Turgeman revealed that Israel had sent a delegation to Cairo in an effort to convince the Egyptian military to ease pressure on the Gaza Strip. Turgeman cited Israeli concerns that Hamas’ increasing isolation could lead to a collapse of a ceasefire with the IDF which has been in place since the conclusion of Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.  The IDF is reportedly concerned that such isolation would weaken the ability of Hamas’ security forces to prevent rocket fire by fringe extremist groups, or that Hamas’ own military wing would resort to an escalation with Israel in an act of desperation.

Following the uncovering of the tunnel on October 7, the IDF abruptly halted recently-resumed shipments of concrete to the Gaza Strip, while Palestinian residents claimed to have received SMS messages from the IDF accusing Hamas of ignoring the dire economic conditions in favor of building combat infrastructure. In addition, an increase in IDF activity has been noted in the Gaza Strip border area, including limited penetrations and the uncovering of improvised explosive devices meant to target border patrols.

Additional Developments

On October 19, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh delivered a high-profile address to mark the two-year anniversary of a large-scale prisoner exchange with Israel, in which over 1,000 Palestinian militants were released in exchange for IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. During the speech, Haniyeh called for reconciliation with the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, which currently rules the West Bank and is engaged in final-status negotiations with Israel. Haniyeh reiterated Hamas’ rejection of those talks and called for adopting a national strategy which includes “armed struggle, popular uprising, and diplomatic battles.” Haniyeh did not specifically threaten military conflict with Israel, while also rejecting Egyptian claims of Hamas involvement in the ongoing insurgency in the neighboring Sinai Peninsula.

The uncovering of a highly-sophisticated tunnel inside Israeli territory has garnered widespread media attention in Israel, and has increased concerns among Israeli residents in the Gaza border area about their security. The IDF’s subsequent decision to halt shipments of concrete and initiation of anti-Hamas propaganda is likely indicative of a decision to revert to a more hard-line stance against the group following months of calm. Prior to the uncovering of the tunnel, Hamas’ preventative policing methods in the Gaza Strip had been effective in thwarting rocket attacks by fringe extremist groups seeking to collapse the ceasefire. Until recently, the effectiveness of these measures was highlighted by Israel’s efforts to pressure Egypt into easing political and economic pressure on Hamas.  Israel also eased its import restriction of dual-use construction materials such as concrete into the Gaza Strip.

Despite increased tensions, the Israeli government likely assesses that Hamas remains uninterested in a large-scale escalation under current conditions, particularly as the group’s leadership attempts to recalibrate its political alliances after the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Morsi administration in Egypt. In this context, the tunnel’s construction highlights Hamas’ overarching commitment to prepare for a future conflict with Israel, despite its current efforts to maintain a ceasefire.

An increase in economic and political pressure which threatens Hamas’ rule in the Gaza Strip will increase the risk of a resumption of hostilities between the group’s armed wing and the IDF, or between the IDF and fringe groups operating apart from Hamas.  As witnessed in previous escalations in 2008/9 and 2012, Hamas utilizes hostilities with Israel to increase its regional standing as a power-broker for the Palestinian Territories. Furthermore, hostilities with Israel have often ended with ceasefire agreements which include an easing of the Israeli blockade, such as the expansion of fishing and agriculture zones, allowing Hamas to claim victory to its domestic constituents.

The Potential for Escalation

In the coming weeks, an increase in domestic tensions in the Gaza Strip will serve as an indicator of Hamas’ willingness to resume hostilities with Israel, or to allow fringe groups to do so.  On November 11, an internet-mobilized protest campaign called “Tamaroud” is slated to commence in the Gaza Strip, calling for Hamas’ ousting. The Gaza Tamaroud has close ties with the Egyptian movement by the same name that organized mass protests against former President Morsi in June 2013, eventually triggering military intervention. Hamas’ concerns over the upcoming campaign have been highlighted by wide-scale arrests of the groups’ members, in addition to accusations that they are acting as a front for Fatah and Israel.

The materialization of a mass protest campaign, in addition to a severe economic downturn in the Gaza Strip will increase the risk of a resumption of hostilities with Israel. Since the commencement of Egyptian military operations in the Sinai Peninsula in July 2013, economic conditions in the Gaza Strip have worsened considerably due to the destruction of smuggling tunnels and the closure of the Rafah border crossing. These developments have prompted fuel shortages and price increases, impacting Gaza’s fishing and agriculture sectors considerably, while forcing Hamas to partially halt wage transfers to approximately one third of its 50,000 civil servants. In the coming weeks, a refusal of Egypt and Israel to alleviate border closures will further increase Hamas’ willingness to halt its commitment to the ceasefire.

Politically, Hamas’ rhetoric calling for Palestinian unity is unlikely to materialize for as long as the group continues to denounce the current peace negotiations with Israel. Any Hamas-Fatah reconciliation would potentially alleviate the Gaza Strip’s economic and diplomatic isolation, although such a scenario remains unlikely under current conditions. Hard-line elements within Hamas’ leadership prefer to warm ties with Iran as a means of alleviating their isolation rather than changing their fundamental commitment to combating the State of Israel.

In the near term, indicators for a possible resumption of hostilities in the Gaza Strip include an increase in sporadic rocket fire or attempts to attack border patrols. An increase in sporadic rocket fire would indicate that Hamas has reduced its policing efforts and is allowing fringe groups to provoke Israel, thereby drawing increased IDF reprisal attacks. As the IDF officially holds Hamas responsible for all attacks emanating from the Gaza Strip, such reprisal attacks may be aimed toward the group’s installations or personnel in an effort to compel the group to crack down on fringe elements. In the long term, any successful kidnapping or mass-casualty rocket attack emanating from the Gaza Strip, or preventative IDF strike which results in the death of a senior militant, will increase the risk for a rapid escalation.

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