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On the morning of November 12, 2019, the Israel Air Force conducted a surgical airstrike against Bahaa Abu al-Ata, a senior terrorist in Gaza who belonged to Islamic Jihad. Based on Israeli intelligence, al-Ata was preparing an immediate terrorist attack on Israeli civilians and IDF troops. He was also responsible for hundreds of other terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians.

(November 28, 2019 / The Jerusalem Post)

Islamic Jihad retaliated by launching over 450 rockets toward 110 communities in Israel, tethering Israelis to their bomb shelters at night and preventing more than one million kids from going to school. Israel responded to the jihadist aggression by targeting Islamic Jihad rocket launchers, missile factories, rocket storage-spaces and terrorists.

It took 48 hours of back-and-forth fire until Egypt mediated a ceasefire between Israel and Islamic Jihad. A number of Islamic Jihad violations of the ceasefire were recorded but at the moment of writing these words, things seem to be quiet, order is restored.

I found it interesting to see how Israel reacted to the rockets from Gaza this time, as opposed to how it acted in the past. In the past, Israel had held Hamas accountable for any terrorist activity originating from Gaza. Hence, when an attack occurred, Israel reserved the right to target not only the terrorist organization behind the attack, but also Hamas’s infrastructure as well. The thought was that Hamas would help restrain any aggression towards Israel so that it doesn’t get hurt by Israeli strikes.

This time around, however, Israel made sure to target only infrastructure and terrorists belonging to Islamic Jihad. The Israelis thought that by doing so, Hamas would have no reason to participate in this round of fighting, thereby preventing the situation from escalating. Israel’s strategy may have achieved its goals, but at the same time, it has created the unforeseen consequence of strengthening Hamas, which might very well hurt Israel in the long term.

For Hamas, as the governors of the Gaza Strip, it would have made sense to take control of the situation in Gaza, either by forcing all parties to stop attacking Israel, or by leading the attacks on Israel. Both Islamic Jihad and Hamas are heavily funded by the Iranians. The natural move for Hamas – whose very purpose is the ultimate destruction of Israel – would have been to join their comrades in fighting the Jewish state.

Instead, Hamas’s approach in this latest round of violence was uniquely interesting. They took a step back and decided not to decide. Hamas was criticized by many Palestinians for leaving their brothers to fight alone, but in the long run it might have granted Hamas more power and control in the Strip.

What were Hamas’s considerations and how do they benefit from not participating in the escalation between Israel and Islamic Jihad? Hamas had several reasons not to join the battle. For starters, because Israel decided not hold Hamas accountable for the rockets that were launched from the Gaza Strip, it meant that Israel made sure to target only Islamic Jihad and not Hamas. As a result, the Hamas political leadership had less internal pressure to react from their military branch, the Izzadin al-Qassam Brigades.
While Islamic Jihad terrorists were taking cover from Israeli surgical strikes, Hamas had the luxury of sitting on the sidelines and learning about the Israel Air Force’s new tactics, strategies and weapons – helping Hamas prepare for future conflicts with the IDF. Although Hamas probably hasn’t learned much more than what it had already known about the IAF, in time of war, any new shred of intelligence and information can be pivotal and crucial.

In previous rounds, Hamas operatives were busy hiding from Israeli missiles. It was therefore more challenging for them to collect live data and intelligence on the tactics, weapons, and devices the IAF operates. Unfortunately, Hamas will emerge from this better prepared to fight in the next round against Israel.

Based on recent history, it is a matter of time until that happens.

The decision by Hamas to not participate in this latest round against Israel has political implications too. It was clear to all that Islamic Jihad, without the help of Hamas, took a hard hit from the Israelis and needed to reach a ceasefire quickly so the IDF would not wipe them out. The smaller terrorist organizations operating in the Gaza Strip now understand that without Hamas, they are powerless and close to useless in their fight against Israel. Hamas is the final word and the authority in Gaza.

Lastly, the public perception of Hamas, and to a certain extent the international one too, has slightly changed after this recent escalation. Sitting on the sidelines as Israel and Islamic Jihad go head-to-head, Hamas looked like the grown-up watching two children fight.

Unfortunately, the restraint of Hamas was a pivotal point in its maturing as an organization. Theoretically, Hamas could have been held accountable for their role in creating the climate for these attacks, in ways other than missile attacks against them. These might have included – with American and Egyptian help – financial pressure or applying pressure to change the culture of incitement and incentivization to commit acts of terrorism. The combination of not being held accountable and of having leveraged the luxury of sitting on the side has been an advantage for Hamas.  Regretfully, Hamas will undoubtedly be able to reap the fruit in the next round against Israel.

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About the Author

Benjamin Weil
Benjamin Weil is Director of the Project for Israel’s National Security at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET). He formerly served as the international adviser to Minister Yuval Steinitz, a member of Israel’s Security Cabinet.

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