A Hamas election rally. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
In late August, the Gaza Strip was rocked by a pair of suicide bombings that killed three police officers and injured multiple civilians.[i] Overt challenges to Hamas’s supremacy are rare, but they are not without precedent. Hamas was the victim of targeted explosions in 2015 and 2017, though neither was as effective as the recent bombing.[ii] Hamas responded by declaring a state of emergency; a senior official swore to “hold those responsible to account.”[iii] The group made good on its promise, carrying out a widespread crackdown that exposed the culprits to be rival-militants aligned with the Islamic State (IS).[iv] In the wake of these developments, some worry that Hamas may be losing control of the embattled enclave, especially as popular discontent spreads and the humanitarian crisis worsens.[v]
Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since violently ousting the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2007.[vi] While indisputably the largest of the Gaza-based militants, Hamas is far from the only group active. Others include Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Harakat al-Sabireen, both of which practice Shiite jihadism and enjoy patronage from Iran.[vii] The Mujahideen Shura Council (MCS) and the Sheikh Omar Hadid Brigades are Salafi; the latter is an extension of the Islamic State (IS) and likely perpetrated the recent suicide bombings.[viii] The Popular Resistance Committee is secular, as is the Fatah-offshoot Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.[ix] Toward Hamas, each fluctuates between collaboration and competition; all resist Israel and reject perceived Zionist aggression.
Over the past two months, Hamas has worked to ferret out IS sympathizers, engaging in what one outlet called a “secret war” against the group.[x] Animosity between the militants is well-known, especially since IS publicly declared war on Hamas in a gruesome execution video last year.[xi] IS may be an outlier in its bellicosity, but other groups have engaged in additional forms of dissent. PIJ has challenged Hamas by carrying out border incursions and launching rockets without permission.[xii] This may occur at the behest of Iran or to sabotage a cease-fire with Israel. In response, Hamas typically alerts Israel if it is not responsible for an attack.[xiii] After a recent unsanctioned incursion, Hamas took the extraordinary step of issuing a “Fatwa” (religious ruling) to expressly prohibit “individual jihad operations.”[xiv] Resisting Zionist aggression is lauded, provided it occurs on Hamas’s schedule and with Hamas approval.
Despite signs of instability in Gaza, Hamas won’t be overtaken by another armed group anytime soon. This causes mixed feelings in Israel. In spite of their commitment to mutual destruction, Hamas and Israel often have convergent interests.[xv] Israeli policy over the past several years has been to quietly reward periods of calm by easing the blockade (i.e., fuel, electricity) and allowing transfers of Qatari money.[xvi] This is appreciated by cash-strapped Hamas, but doesn’t sit well with other Gaza-based militants.[xvii] By cracking down on dissent, Hamas is able to consolidate power and enjoy financial relief. Israel prefers Hamas’s governance – however brutal – to the alternatives. [xviii] The circumstances attest to an uneasy alignment of preferences, though neither group will openly admit it.
Nor will Hamas be overthrown by popular revolt. The group is immensely popular in the West Bank; a 2018 poll found that Hamas’s political chief Ismail Haniyeh would handily defeat PA President Mahmoud Abbas in an election.[xix] West Bank Palestinians may view Hamas as a refreshing alternative to the PA, which is often referred to as the “dog of the occupation.”[xx] The picture is decidedly less rosy among Gazans, who endure the brunt of Israeli strikes, power outages, and blockades on a daily basis. In March, protests erupted in response to deteriorating living conditions and pervasive unemployment.[xxi] Many have grumbled that the March of Return demonstrations have yielded no results.[xxii] General discontent is unlikely to become an Arab-spring style uprising, however. Hamas’s efforts to stifle protests – by clubbing and jailing participants – remain effective.[xxiii]
Nevertheless, the situation is far from sustainable. Reports
indicate that the Gaza Strip could be uninhabitable by next year.[xxiv]
Israel and Hamas may work together, but periodic rocket barrages will still occur.
Hamas must maintain the perception that it is leading the struggle against Zionism
in order to quiet dissent from other militants. The Israelis, for their part, will
continue incentivizing Hamas to crackdown on all forms of opposition. Israel
has been clear that some form of government – even one as brutal as Hamas – is
much preferred to anarchy. Unless a massive realignment of preferences occurs, ordinary
Gazans will continue to suffer the effects of this arrangement. In Gaza, Israel
and Hamas both have a vested interest in preserving the status quo at the
expense of the Palestinian people.
[i] “Gaza explosions: ‘Suicide bombers’ kill three police officers,” BBC, August 28, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-49491516.
[ii] “Explosions hit Hamas, Islamic Jihad cars in Gaza,” Reuters, July 19, 2015, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-palestinians-gaza-violence/explosions-hit-hamas-islamic-jihad-cars-in-gaza-idUSKCN0PT0L220150719; Hazem Balousha and Loveday Morris, “Hamas is known for its suicide attacks. Now it’s been hit by one for the first time,” The Washington Post, August 17, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/hamas-struck-by-suicide-attack-in-gaza-for-the-first-time/2017/08/17/0172ccd4-8347-11e7-9e7a-20fa8d7a0db6_story.html.
[iii] “Gaza explosions: ‘Suicide bombers’ kill three police officers,” BBC, August 28, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-49491516.
[iv] Iyad Abuheweila and David Halbfinger, “Hamas Arrests 10 Suspects in Gaza Suicide Bombings,” The New York Times, August 29, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/29/world/middleeast/hamas-arrests-bombing-gaza.html.
[v] Salem El Rayyes, “The Gaza Strip Could be Uninhabitable by Next Year,” Vice, October 7, 2019, https://www.vice.com/en_au/article/zmj3qy/gaza-strip-unlivable.
[vi] Conal Urquart, Ian Black and Mark Tran, “Hamas takes control of Gaza,” The Guardian, June 15, 2007, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/jun/15/israel4.
[vii] “Palestinian Terror Groups: Palestine Islamic Jihad,” Jewish Virtual Library, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/palestine-islamic-jihad. (accessed October 20, 2019); “Harakat al-Sabireen,” Mapping Palestinian Politics, https://www.ecfr.eu/mapping_palestinian_politics/detail/harakat_al_sabireen. (accessed October 20, 2019).
[viii] “Mujahideen Shura Council,” Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium, https://www.trackingterrorism.org/group/mujahideen-shura-council-islamic-state-iraq. (accessed October 21, 2019); “Gaza explosions: ‘Suicide bombers’ kill three police officers,” BBC, August 28, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-49491516.
[ix] “Palestinian Terror Groups: Popular Resistance Committees (PRC),” The Jewish Virtual Library, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/popular-resistance-committees-prc. (accessed October 18, 2019); “Backgrounder: Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades,” Committee for Acuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis, May 7, 2019, https://www.camera.org/article/backgrounder-al-aqsa-martyrs-brigades/. (accessed October 23, 2019).
[x] “Hamas launches ‘secret war’ against Daesh in Gaza,” Middle East Monitor, October 9, 2019, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20191009-hamas-launches-secret-war-against-daesh-in-gaza/.
[xi] Dov Lieber, “Islamic State in Sinai declares war on Hamas in gruesome execution video,” The Times of Israel, January 4, 2018, https://www.timesofisrael.com/islamic-state-in-sinai-declares-war-on-hamas-in-gruesome-execution-video/.
[xii] Amos Harel, “Hamas Takes Extraordinary Step to Quell Gaza’s ‘Angry Youth’,” Haaretz, September 1, 2019, https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/palestinians/.premium-hamas-takes-extraordinary-step-to-quell-gaza-s-angry-youth-1.7768645.
[xiii] Jack Khoury, “Hamas Official Says Not Behind Rockets at Israel, but Launches Show Change Is Needed in Gaza,” Haaretz, September 11, 2019, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-hamas-official-says-not-behind-rockets-but-launches-show-change-in-gaza-needed-1.7834103.
[xiv] “Unofficial Hamas Fatwa Forbids Independent Jihad Operations by Individuals, Sparks Debate Among Gazan Social Media Users,” The Middle East Media Research Institute, August 30, 2019, https://www.memri.org/reports/unofficial-hamas-fatwa-forbids-independent-jihad-operations-individuals-sparks-debate-among.
[xv] Aaron David Miller, “Israel and Hamas Need Each Other,” Foreign Affairs, March 29, 2019, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/israel/2019-03-29/israel-and-hamas-need-each-other.
[xvi] Felicia Shwartz, “Rejuvenated Hamas Tests Israel in High-Stakes Brinkmanship,” Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/rejuvenated-hamas-tests-israel-in-high-stakes-brinkmanship-11559554213.
[xvii] “Gaza: Hamas facing severe financial crisis,” Middle East Monitor, December 29, 2018, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20181229-gaza-hamas-facing-severe-financial-crisis/.
[xviii] Zaki Shalom Jacob Aaron Collier, The National Interest, December 13, 2018, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/why-israel-doesn%E2%80%99t-crush-hamas-38627.
[xix] Julia Altmann, “Hamas’ Popularity Spikes Among Palestinians In West Bank And Gaza,” The Jerusalem Post, December 22, 2018, https://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/Hamas-Popularity-Spikes-Among-Palestinians-In-West-Bank-and-Gaza-Strip-575076.
[xx] Neri Zilber and Ghaith al-Omari, “State with No Army, Army with No State,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (March 2018): 75, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/PolicyFocus154-ZilberOmari.pdf (accessed October 27, 2018).
[xxi] Oliver Holmes, “Hamas violently suppresses Gaza economic protests,” The Guardian, March 21, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/21/hamas-violently-suppresses-gaza-economic-israeli-border-protests.
[xxii] Fares Akram, “With little to show, Gazans question mass border protests,” Associated Press, October 11, 2019, https://www.apnews.com/936f882e6aa544a1b36a5d08ff15a3af.
[xxiii] Nidal al-Mughrabi, “U.N. official condemns Hamas crackdown on Gaza protests,” Reuters, March 17, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-palestinians-un-hamas/un-official-condemns-hamas-crackdown-on-gaza-protests-idUSKCN1QY0K6.
[xxiv] Salem El Rayyes, “The Gaza Strip Could be Uninhabitable by Next Year,” Vice, October 7, 2019, https://www.vice.com/en_au/article/zmj3qy/gaza-strip-unlivable.