Hamas has evolved into an organization with clear, long-term goals, and a strategy to achieve them.
— By IDF Col. (res) Grisha Yakubovich
Earlier this week, Hamas and Israel declared a long-term ceasefire agreement.
Some view Hamas as a simple terrorist organization that limits its activities to digging tunnels, firing rockets and preparing suicide bombings. In reality, Hamas has evolved into an organization with clear, long-term goals, and a strategy to achieve them.
Others believe Hamas is a democratically elected political party that acts on the will of its people. In truth, it censors domestic criticism. Gazans opposed to Hamas’s authority face merciless retribution.
So, what is Hamas, and how have its leaders become such sophisticated, formidable negotiators, able to force Israel to the negotiating table? Hamas rose to power in the Gaza Strip in June 2007, ousting the Palestinian Authority in a violent coup. Since then, it has fought three conflicts with Israel, and the socioeconomic situation in Gaza has inched ever closer to collapse. Yet, Hamas’s rule is strengthening, and it governs the Strip with a firm hand, wielding unchallenged power.
Furthermore, after every major armed conflict with Israel, Hamas emerged seemingly victorious from post-ceasefire negotiations.
Its playbook is simple: First, it escalates hostilities; second, it agrees to a ceasefire on the condition that post-violence negotiations are mediated by Egypt; third, it anchors its negotiating positions with unreasonably high demands; and last, it extract concessions from Israel to which Israelis would not have conceded during peacetime.
Hamas has studied the Israelis. Its demands yield increasing effectiveness. Hamas has learned Israel’s priorities, redlines, and non-negotiables.
Hamas acts first to improve Gaza’s humanitarian situation. Second, it seeks to lift Israeli security restrictions on Gaza, which it describes as a blockade. Third, Hamas wants to dominate the international narrative. And last, Hamas is positioning to succeed PA President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
Hamas’s negotiation strategy is constantly evolving, while Israel’s approach to negotiations has remained stagnant. Israel continues to demand a cessation of rocket attacks, tunnel digging (including sea tunnels), the end of Hamas’s naval commando threats to the Israeli coastline, border bombs, and recruiting for its military wing. Israel also demands the release of two civilians held captive by Hamas and the remains of two IDF soldiers who fell in Gaza in 2014. In return, Israel offers to solve some of Gaza’s humanitarian challenges, both directly and through the assistance of third parties.
For example, Israel proposed the construction of a natural gas pipeline into Gaza to power Gaza’s electricity station. Though Egypt also has the capacity to build such a pipeline into Gaza, Israeli-Egyptian relations mean Egypt would not do this without coordination with Israel. Hamas understands this, and realizes that it would have to make concessions at the negotiating table for the pipeline to go forward.
So Hamas turns to primitive tools to coax Israel back to negotiations: incendiary and explosive balloons and kites, for example. The use of these simple tools comes after many months of disturbances on the Israel-Gaza border, along with the deployment of night squads along the fence that burn tires, release arson balloons, and aim to exhaust local Israeli civilians living in southern Israel.
These attacks have garnered extensive coverage across Israeli media, and Israeli civilians are desperate for the carnage to end. In short, Hamas’s goal of manipulating Israel back into the negotiating room appears to be working.
Israel has responded with sophisticated air power. When juxtaposed against kites and balloons in the international press, Israeli fighter jets look like Goliath’s bronze spear staring down the Gazan David’s sling.
This past month exemplified this pattern. On August 7, incendiary Gazan balloons began being floated across the border, riding on sea winds that always blow eastward toward Israel. A week later, on August 15, an Egyptian mediation delegation arrived in Gaza.
To heap further pressure on Israeli negotiators, Hamas announced that its power station would cease operations, making it seem as though Israel was preventing Hamas from producing the energy it needs to power the Strip.
Three days later, Gaza City’s mayor raised an alarm about the effect of the power cuts on Gaza’s water supply. As a result, Hamas won the PR battle once again, somehow convincing the international community that Israel was responsible for the absence of potable water in Gaza.
Hamas carried out the escalation it had planned all along, step by step, as a military operation. The doctrine of Hamas is to ‘keep the enemy busy,’ by way of a low level war of attrition, using the most basic tools imaginable, and to reap real dividends during future negotiations.
Hamas continues to rack up large victories in the PR arena, and small victories at the negotiating table. And so they will continue to push. Hamas will demand new projects, and further Israeli investment into Gaza’s economy. It will not agree to demilitarize Gaza. Indeed, further demands will likely include a port, a symbolic airport, and access to the West Bank so that Hamas can participate in future Palestinian elections.
This is a losing situation for Israel. Multiple deployments of the same Israeli strategy is not an effective way forward. It is no accident that such a pattern of thinking was apocryphally described by Albert Einstein as “insanity.” Israel needs to reevaluate its negotiating strategy with Hamas. It is time for some creativity – something it could learn from its adversary.
Originally written for The MirYam Institute