Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin knows firsthand that Hamas is sometimes ready to cut a deal. Right now, he says, it isn’t.
The New York-born Baskin worked his Hamas back-channels to help arrange the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011 after five years of captivity. He’s working them again to seek an end to weeks of mounting hostilities in the Gaza Strip, and says he’s hitting a brick wall. Like other analysts on both sides, he says the militant group sees a political advantage in escalating a conflict that has already killed more than 40 Palestinians and barraged Israel with hundreds of rockets.
“Hamas has decided to ignore the possibility of a cease-fire for now and challenge Israel to ‘bring it on’,” said Baskin, 58, founder of the Jerusalem-based Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. “Both sides need to extract more pain from the other before there’s any hope of stopping the violence. ”
Israel is massing tanks and troops on the Gaza border and threatening a repeat of its 2009 ground incursion to deplete Hamas’s arsenal. For Hamas, any such losses may be outweighed by the opportunity to hurt Israel and reassert its credentials as the most effective champion of a Palestinian cause that diplomacy has failed to advance.
Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel and opposes peace talks, including the latest round brokered by the U.S. that collapsed in April. Since then, it has agreed to mend fences with the rival Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas, and back a united government.
The move enraged Israel, which like the U.S. and European Union considers Hamas a terrorist organization, and also blames it for kidnapping and killing three Israeli teens last month, an allegation Hamas neither confirms nor denies. That murder and the suspected revenge killing of a Palestinian youth soon after have played a part in ramping up the current tensions.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has hinted he may send troops into Gaza. He said while visiting an army base yesterday that military operations “will expand and continue until the firing on our towns ceases.” Some cabinet colleagues openly advocate a ground invasion. The last time that happened five years ago, more than 1,000 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.
In spite of those lopsided figures, Hamas may see more chance to inflict damage during a ground invasion, where fighting takes place in the twisted alleyways of its own backyard, said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City.
Hamas leaders still don’t expect that outcome, he said. “The calculation is that Israel won’t go for a broad ground operation right now because it risks taking casualties and it won’t have broad public support.”
Hamas withstood three weeks of Israeli assault in 2009 and survived another eight-day military conflict in 2012. As in past conflicts, it’s vowing to inflict economic as well as military damage.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Israel will “pay a very heavy price” for its assault, promising “surprises” in the event of a ground incursion. Israeli forces killed five Palestinian commandos who swam across the border on July 8 and emerged from the Mediterranean Sea to attack an army base north of Gaza.
Hamas, which has been choked economically by international sanctions, figures it can also hurt Israel financially by forcing its civilians into shelters, causing ports to shut down and interrupting the summer tourist season, Firas Abi Ali, head of Middle East Analysis at research group IHS Country Risk, said in a report.
“This, in Hamas’s view, compensates for Israel’s disproportionate ability to inflict damage on infrastructure and private properties and its ability to impose a very high number of casualties, both military and civilians,” Abi Ali wrote.
Hamas has enlarged its arsenal of rockets into the thousands, according to Israeli military intelligence, and expanded their range, indicated by several projectiles reaching Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. One 302-millimeter missile hit the coastal city of Hadera, 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of Gaza.
Israeli military intelligence has significant gaps in assessing how long Hamas can hold out against the aerial onslaught, said Yiftah Shapir, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, based at Tel Aviv University.
“They strike the launchers, they strike the warehouses, but there are always the weapons that they don’t know about,” Shapir said. Israel will “try to degrade them until the last day of fighting, which will come when the political process brings a cease-fire.”
As well as battling Israel, Hamas is also fighting for popular support amid renewed tension with the Palestinian Authority, which has backtracked under international pressure on the commitments to a unity government that it made in April.
In one episode this week, masked gunmen blasted Bank of Palestine Plc and Arab Bank Plc cash machines to cripple the PA’s means of paying its 70,000 employees in Gaza. Shooting the bank machines may help even the score locally since the PA failed to pay the 50,000 civil servants Hamas employs in Gaza. That has added to the economic squeeze imposed by Israel, while Hamas lost its Egyptian ally when the Muslim Brotherhood government there was toppled by the army a year ago.
Baskin, whose book about freeing Shalit, “The Negotiator,” was published last year, says the Islamic movement is desperate to be seen as leading the resistance to Israel and the current conflict offers an opportunity.
“Hamas is weaker than it’s ever been before and it’s bankrupt,” he said. “It sees this all as a gift from Israel.”