Sukkot war ends Hamas’s aspirations for pragmatism

The Islamic militia launches a surprise attack on Israel during a Jewish holiday 50 years after the Yom Kippur War. The violent offensive ends a decade of relative calm in Gaza, during which the Islamist movement appeared to pivot to realpolitik

A group of Palestinians ride a military vehicle through the streets of Gaza on Saturday.
A group of Palestinians ride a military vehicle through the streets of Gaza on Saturday.Hatem Ali (AP)
Juan Carlos Sanz

A little over a year ago, Basem Naim, a former Palestinian minister and director of Hamas’s international relations, told EL PAÍS in Gaza, where the Islamists have been the de facto government for over five decades, that the decision to refrain from escalating war between the Israeli Armed Forces and the (pro-Iranian) Islamic Jihad militias marked a turning point in his organization. The previous year, Hamas had fought its fourth open war with Israel, following the ones in 2008-2009, 2012 and especially 2014.

“Even before the May 2021 Israeli offensive, the situation in Gaza was already very bad because of the blockade, the lack of electricity, water pollution, poverty and unemployment. Now it is even worse,” he said, justifying his pragmatic position. “The next explosion is only a matter of time, and it is not going to happen in the distant future,” he warned, “as Gaza is suffering every day.”

In a discreet document on its official website, on Friday afternoon Hamas commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War (it is known as the October War in the Arab world), which several Arab countries launched by surprise on the Day of Repentance, which shuts down daily life in the Jewish state. “Resistance is the only way to put an end to the occupation,” the message said. It was posted at the beginning of the day on the Sabbath that ended the week of Sukkot, the popular Jewish holiday of Booths or the Tabernacle. An image of Egyptian troops crossing the Suez Canal on October 6, 1973, to recapture the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel occupied seven years earlier, showed that red lines are made to be crossed.

Hamas now claims to have launched cyberattacks to sabotage Israel’s electronic surveillance systems, while a massive barrage of over 5,000 rockets, sent successive batches into southern and central Israel, overwhelmed the Iron Dome missile shield like a tsunami of missiles. The hail of fire from the Gaza Strip represented a smokescreen to facilitate the infiltration of elite commandos from the Ezedin al Qasam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, into neighboring kibbutzim (collective farms) in order to capture Israeli civilian and military hostages. To this end, they broke down barriers and walls with bulldozers and entered enemy territory with motorized vehicles and paragliders.

It is the worst nightmare for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which was forced to release a thousand Palestinian prisoners in 2011 in exchange for the release of soldier Gilad Shalit, whom Hamas kidnapped and held for five years in Gaza. The Islamic resistance movement has crossed the red lines it had set for itself since the end of the 2014 conflict in Gaza, the longest after the war for the Jewish state’s independence and the deadliest since the Six-Day War, in which Israel occupied the West Bank and the Syrian Golan Heights, in addition to the Sinai Peninsula, which it returned to Egypt after signing a peace agreement in 1979.

On Saturday, the head of the Ezedin al-Qasam brigades, Mohammed Deif, blamed Israel for the start of hostilities after accusing it of desecrating Islamic holy sites on the Esplanade of the Mosques (Temple Mount) in Jerusalem and mistreating thousands of Palestinian prisoners in its jails. Business as usual. The intolerable red line for the Islamists in Gaza is the threat of an imminent normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was preparing to impose the dictates of realpolitik vis-à-vis Iran, in an alliance with the greatest enemy of his main enemy. His father, the elder King Salman, had, in turn, made the creation of a Palestinian state a condition for establishing ties with the Israelis. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to tour the Middle East this month with stops in Jerusalem and Riyadh.

Hamas controls the civilian administration that governs the lives of Gaza’s 2.3 million inhabitants, 80% of whom survive on international aid. “We have no one in Israel to negotiate a political solution with. The major parties believe that there is only a Jewish state between the [Jordan] river and the [Mediterranean] sea, leaving no room for a Palestinian state. They only offer to improve Palestinians’ living conditions,” Basem Naim emphasized in August of last year. After 16 years in power, Hamas has become the de facto government, although the United States and the European Union continue to consider the organization a terrorist group.

Gaza’s Islamist leadership took a first step toward pragmatism in 2017, when it announced its acceptance of the creation of a State of Palestine based on the pre-1967 war borders (the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem), albeit without recognizing the State of Israel. Following the revision of the movement’s founding charter, Ismail Haniye assumed the top leadership role, abroad, and was replaced in the Gaza Strip by Yahya Sinwar, the former commander of the Ezedin al Qasam militias. The latter spent 23 years in prison in Israel and was one of the prisoners released in 2011 in exchange for the release of soldier Shalit. Considered a radical at the time of his appointment, Sinwar had taken pragmatic-minded steps to maintain the ceasefire that ended the 2014 war, through a long truce or hudna to allow for rebuilding the Gaza Strip’s economy. However, periodic offensives and skirmishes scuttled his good political intentions from time to time.

Misery and protests in the Gaza Strip

The misery that reigns in the Gaza Strip has sometimes led to outbreaks of social unrest and harshly repressed protests. In 2019, the Hamas-controlled security services interrogated a thousand Gazans after protests in the enclave’s main cities that demanded economic improvements. Hundreds of them were arrested and dozens were severely tortured while in police custody.

Over the summer, thousands of demonstrators once again took to the streets of Gaza to demand better living conditions under the slogan “we want to live.” The United Nations described the territory as “uninhabitable” because of the impact of nearly two decades of Israeli blockade on the 2.2 million Gazans. The unemployment rate is the highest in the world; according to World Bank data, it is 46.6% (and 62.5% for those under 30). Two out of three Gazans depend on international aid for food (1.5 million people are registered as exiles with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The territory’s only power plant barely meets 50% of demand, causing blackouts that last between 12 and 18 hours a day. Nearly 80% of the fresh water available in Gaza is unfit for human consumption. 80% of the population lives below the poverty line in one of the most densely populated areas on a narrow coastal strip of 365 square kilometers (slightly bigger than tiny Malta). The Gaza Strip lacks guaranteed access to the outside world.

In essence, the Islamic resistance movement Hamas is the Palestinian section of the Muslim Brotherhood, the pan-Arab organization founded a century ago in Egypt (where it triumphed at the ballot box before it was overthrown by a military coup d’état in 2013). It also extends to Jordan and inspires the political Islamism installed in power in Turkey, with electoral backing, and in Qatar, in autocratic fashion. Founded during the First Intifada (1987-1991), Hamas has evolved from fundamentalist positions toward a certain realism after having governed in Gaza. After its undisputed victory in the 2006 legislative elections, Hamas forcibly displaced the government of Fatah, the nationalist party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the following year.

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