Behind Hamas’ bloody tactic of creating a “permanent” state of war | ET REALITY


Some factions had signed agreements with Israel, intended to pave the way for a two-state solution. The Palestinian Authority, conceived as a Palestinian government-in-waiting, had limited authority over parts of the West Bank and remained officially committed to negotiating an end to the conflict.

Hamas, meanwhile, effectively sought to undo history, beginning with 1948, when more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in what would become Israel during the war surrounding the founding of the Jewish state.

For Hamas, that displacement, along with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza during the 1967 Middle East war, was a great historical mistake that had to be corrected by force of arms. Hamas dismissed the peace talks with Israel as a betrayal, seeing them as a capitulation to Israel’s control over what the group considered occupied Palestinian land.

The Palestinian political divide was etched into geography in 2007, when Hamas won a factional battle in Gaza and took control of the territory. Suddenly, it was not just about fighting Israel, but also about governing Gaza. Israel, together with Egypt, imposed a blockade on the strip with the aim of weakening Hamas, plunging Gazans into deeper isolation and poverty.

By the time Sinwar returned to Gaza, Hamas was already entrenched as a de facto government and had settled into what Tareq Baconi, a Hamas expert, has called a “violent balance” with Israel. Deep hostility frequently broke out in deadly exchanges of Hamas rockets and Israeli airstrikes. But most of Gaza’s commercial goods and electricity came from Israel, and Hamas often tried to loosen the blockade during ceasefire talks.

Hamas leaders were ambivalent about the group’s new governing role, with some believing they needed to improve the lives of Gazans and others seeing the government as a distraction from its original military mission, experts say. Hamas mocked the Palestinian Authority for its cooperation with Israel, including its use of Palestinian police to deter attacks against Israel. Some Hamas leaders feared that their own group, in negotiating everyday issues with Israel, was, to a lesser extent, on the same path.

In 2012, Sinwar became the armed wing’s representative to Hamas’s political leadership, linking him more closely to leaders of the military wing, including Deif, the mysterious head of the Qassam Brigades. The two men were key architects of the Oct. 7 attack, according to Arab and Israeli officials.

An undated photograph purportedly of Mohammed Deif, the military leader of Hamas.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

When Sinwar became Hamas’ overall chief in Gaza in 2017, he sometimes projected interest in reaching a deal with Israel. In 2018, he gave a rare interview to an Italian journalist who worked for an Israeli newspaper and called for a ceasefire to alleviate suffering in Gaza.

“I’m not saying I won’t fight anymore,” he said. “I’m saying I don’t want war anymore. I want the siege to end. You walk down to the beach at sunset and see all these teenagers on the shore chatting and wondering what the world is like on the other side of the sea. What life is like,” she added. “I want them free.”

Hamas also issued a political program in 2017 that allowed for the possibility of a two-state solution, without yet recognizing Israel’s right to exist.

Israel granted some concessions, agreeing in 2018 to allow $30 million a month in Qatari aid to Gaza and increasing the number of permits for Gazans to work inside Israel, bringing much-needed money to Gaza’s economy.

Violence continued to erupt. In 2021, Hamas launched a war to protest Israeli efforts to evict Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem and Israeli police raids on the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City.

That was a turning point, Osama Hamdan, a Hamas leader based in Beirut, Lebanon, told The Times. Instead of firing rockets over issues in Gaza, Hamas was fighting for concerns central to all Palestinians, including those outside the enclave. The events also convinced many in Hamas that Israel sought to push the conflict beyond a point of no return that would ensure the impossibility of a Palestinian state.

“The Israelis were only worried about one thing: How to get rid of the Palestinian cause?” Mr. Hamdan said. “They were going in that direction and they weren’t even thinking about the Palestinians. And if the Palestinians had not resisted, all of that could have happened.”

Still, in 2021, Israeli military intelligence and the National Security Council thought Hamas wanted to avoid another war, according to people familiar with the assessments.

Hamas also reinforced the idea that it was prioritizing government over battle. On two occasions, the group refrained from joining clashes with Israel initiated by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a smaller militia in Gaza. Hamas political leaders were trying, through mediators in Qatar, to increase aid coming to Gaza and the number of workers going to work in Israel, according to diplomats involved in the discussions.

Many members of Israel’s security establishment also came to believe that its complex border defenses to shoot down rockets and prevent infiltrations from Gaza were enough to keep Hamas contained.

But inside Gaza, Hamas’ capabilities grew.

By October 7, Hamas was estimated to have between 20,000 and 40,000 fighters, with around 15,000 rockets, mainly manufactured in Gaza and with components most likely smuggled through Egypt, according to American and Western analysts. The group also had mortars, anti-tank missiles and man-portable air defense systems, they said.

Sinwar had also restored the group’s ties with its former patron, Iran, which had been frayed in 2012, when Hamas closed its office in Syria, a close ally of Iran, amid the Syrian civil war.

That restoration deepened the relationship between Hamas’s military wing in Gaza and the so-called axis of resistance, Iran’s network of regional militias, according to diplomats and regional security officials. In recent years, a stream of Hamas operatives traveled from Gaza to Iran and Lebanon to receive training from the Iranians or Hezbollah, adding a layer of sophistication to Hamas’ capabilities, officials said.

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