Can Hamas walk the fine line between deterrence and escalation?
More than a month has passed since the last significant exchange of fire between the Israeli military and Palestinian factions in the occupied Gaza Strip.
Thus, despite a number of significant and deadly flare-ups, the summer passed without a new large-scale Israeli assault on the blockaded territory materialising.
While Israeli military strategy has long relied on deterrence – the idea that short, sharp shocks to enemy forces and civilian population will secure periods of “quiet” – events this summer beg the question whether Hamas and other factions in Gaza have established their own deterrence.
“Hamas is trying to avoid escalation as much as possible, and to give a chance to the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip”, Basem Naim, a member of Hamas’ international relations bureau, told Al Jazeera.
“But at the same time, Hamas has been trying, on different occasions, to send the message that we have the right to defend ourselves, the right to resist the occupation, and the moral duty not to accept dying in silence”.
On 29 May, al-Qassam Brigades and Islamic Jihad’s al-Quds Brigades claimed joint responsibility for mortar fire that they said was a response to Israeli aggression over the previous 48 hours – including the killing of members of both groups.
“We will not let the enemy impose a new equation involving killing our people for free. The equation we will keep says: shelling for shelling and blood for blood”, the groups stated.
Again, on 20 June, Israeli attacks were the trigger for a retaliatory burst of rocket fire by Hamas, which itself prompted further Israeli air strikes.
A Hamas statement at the time declared a “new approach of a bomb for a bomb”, and rejected Israel’s attempts to “impose any new equations”.
Similar dynamics played out in other rounds, including on 14 July, when Hamas retaliated to punitive Israeli air attacks with rocket fire, and on 7 August, when the last – and most serious – escalation began with Israel killing two al-Qassam members in what was later said to have been an “error”.
According to Gaza-based Hamas spokesperson Hazim Qasim, while “the Palestinian factions agreed that the Great Return March, which started on March 30, should be popular and peaceful”, Israel “harshly targeted the peaceful protesters” and additionally struck “resistance sites and the fighters”.
He told Al Jazeera: “Hamas’ position was that the protests were peaceful and must remain peaceful, so Hamas decided not to let the occupation turn the protests [not] peaceful. Therefore, it decided that any military attack must have a military response”.
“Despite the huge power gap between Hamas and Israel”, Qasim added, “Hamas, along with the other factions, were able to establish this deterrence equation”.
But did the summer mark a significant shift in tactics by Hamas?
For Tareq Baconi, Palestinian scholar and author of Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance’, these events, in fact, reflected a longer-standing policy of deterrence adopted by Hamas and other factions, who “for the most part, have responded to Israeli assaults with rocket fire”.
“If there was a shift in Hamas’ resistance strategy”, Baconi told Al Jazeera, “it was most palpable over the course of the Great March of Return – it was during this period that Hamas held back; there was not a single rocket fired over the official six weeks of protests, up to Nakba Day.”
Naim described the Great March of Return – which was not initiated by Hamas, but attracted its support – as “a message for the Israelis and international community that, despite having the capability to respond to Israeli aggression, we preferred to exhaust all peaceful ways to raise our voice against the Israeli siege”.
With respect to the rounds of escalation post-Nakba Day, meanwhile, Naim told Al Jazeera that “it is clear they were only a message, with the rockets being fired into the area immediately around the Gaza Strip”, as opposed to larger Israeli cities further away.
“Hamas has the ability to harm Israel, but showed great restraint, based on political responsibility towards our people,” Naim added.
Israeli security officials and analysts acknowledged that Hamas acted with “caution” during the summer’s rounds.
According to Haaretz defence correspondent Amos Harel, Netanyahu is keen to “conclude indirectly an arrangement with Hamas” and achieve a “stable” ceasefire”.
“No one is yet rushing into war,” Harel stated.
The picture is more complex than one of simple military deterrence, however.
While Israel, “and Netanyahu’s government specifically, is quite sensitive to losses incurred because of Hamas”, said Baconi, Israel also “benefits tremendously from having Hamas in power in Gaza, for a host of reasons, including demographics, divide-and-rule, stabilisation of the coastal enclave as an autonomous region and the containment of the ideology of resistance”.
Thus, “Israeli officials have had to walk a fine line between deterrence and defeating Hamas”.
Hamas, too, has considerations beyond basic deterrence.
According to Adnan Abu Amer, political analyst and dean of the faculty of Arts and Humanities at Gaza’s Ummah University, some in al-Qassam Brigades worry that the continuation of the siege and the failure of efforts to secure a long-term truce might lead to anti-Hamas demonstrations in Gaza – a risk that could compel the Brigades “to direct public anger towards Israel”.
Recent reports suggest that efforts to secure a long-term truce between Hamas and Israel, and a lifting of the Gaza blockade, have come unstuck over how to resolve the bitter national division that continues to play out on a routine basis through accusations and arrests.
“I think the resistance movements here in Gaza are trying to find a balance between creating a deterrence and finding an outcome or exit for the catastrophic situation”, said Hamas’ Naim.
“The main idea now is that we have the capability to defend ourselves, but at the same time, we see that our moral and political responsibility is to give a chance to any political efforts by the United Nations, Egyptians, the Europeans, anyone – to improve the dire situation on the ground”.
Baconi, while recognising Hamas’s desire to achieve a long-term ceasefire and loosened blockade, is pessimistic about a political breakthrough any time soon.
“I think until something fundamentally shifts on the ground, post-Abbas, the current situation is likely to persist, with the predictable escalations,” he told Al Jazeera.
Such escalations carry inherent risks. “Hamas has been seeking to use the recent military escalations to pressure Israel, Egypt and the UN to respond to its demands for calm, and in particular, breaking the siege”, said Abu Amer. “But at the same time, Hamas does not want an open confrontation”.
“However, no one can guarantee that these rounds will remain only limited escalations, and the road is fraught with danger”.
Published first by Al Jazeera.