The 2012 ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian faction that controls the Gaza Strip, seems ready to fall apart.
In retaliation for the assassination of three Islamic Jihad leaders on March 11, the Al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of Islamic Jihad fired 130 rockets and shells at neighboring Israeli cities. Islamic Jihad’s Operation Breaking the Silence and the Israeli military response has deep repercussions for the wider Middle East peace talks.
Hamas has struggled to assert its control over the Palestinian factions in Gaza. Hamas recently lost a number of regional allies and seem to be losing local popular support. Iran favors Islamic Jihad as a result of Hamas’ senior political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, who declared support for the Syrian rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, Iran’s closest regional ally.
In the wake of the Arab Spring and the rise of its ideological partner, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt, Hamas was brimming with confidence. However, in 2013 the tide changed dramatically with the overthrow of the MB in Egypt by the Egyptian military and the Arab Gulf monarchies punishing Qatar for supporting the MB’s offshoots in the region by withdrawing their diplomats.
The current economic situation in the Gaza Strip is dismal. Unemployment is at 39 percent and Egypt has cut off vital tunnels used to smuggle in goods through Gaza’s only border with an Arab state. Tahar al-Khalidi, a baker in Rafah speaking to Al-Monitor, said “During times of military escalation, the residents of the region rush to buy bread, even though they usually bake at home.”
Egypt’s intelligence services have even excluded Hamas from talks aimed to return to the truce’s status quo. Senior Hamas official, Ghazi Hamad, stated that “Egypt did not communicate with us about a return to calm, and limited its contacts to Islamic Jihad.”
Sources inside Hamas indicated that Hamas had approved limited rocket firing from Gaza with that goal to reestablish contact with the Egyptians, who have banned Hamas from operating from their territory. So far this strategy has been unsuccessful.
Weapons recently seized at sea by Israeli Defense Forces allegedly from Iran destined for Gaza could mean that Iran is still willing to supply Hamas with arms.
It is more likely that Iran is trying to strengthen Islamic Jihad, whose leader, Ramadan Abdullah Shalah, was recently in Tehran meeting with Iranian leaders. However, Shalah told Al-Monitor that relations between the two Palestinian factions were amicable and that he met Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Qatar to coordinate and discuss the events in Gaza.
Israel is also in a difficult situation as international economic pressure mounts on the state to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians through the campaign known as BDS. BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) aimed at Israel, is pushing the business community towards supporting the two state solution. Israel’s finance minister, Yair Lapid, has warned that Israel is nearing the same “tipping point” similar to the end of South Africa’s apartheid rule.
Israel has more ability to maneuver against its other primary enemy, Hezbollah, which remains preoccupied fighting in Syria. Israel, however, is wary of the struggle for power in Gaza.
As Iranian financial and military assistance to Islamic Jihad and other smaller groups increases, Hamas loses the ability to maintain order and curtail the firing of rockets from Gaza. It is now in Israel’s interest to see Hamas retain the ability to control the other forces in Gaza.
Of the multiple militant sites bombed by the Israeli military in the last few days, only one was controlled by Hamas. Hamas’ security forces have arrested members of other factions for firing rockets at Israel and armed skirmishes have occurred between the two militant groups in the past.
As Hamas grows in isolation and pressure mounts on Israel to move towards a final settlement with the Palestinians, now may be the time for the two archenemies to find an understanding.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s stonewalling of the peace process will only allow more radical groups to gain traction in the Gaza strip. If Hamas were to reconcile with Fatah, the Palestinian faction that controls the West Bank, and join the peace process, Israel could slowly lift the sanctions on Gaza and allow peace with the Palestinians to develop.