The political calculations behind Hamas’s escalating conflict with Israel

Ismail Haniyeh, chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau, giving a speech in 2018.
Ismail Haniyeh, chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau, giving a speech in 2018. © Anas Baba, AFP

Hamas is risking what the UN called “full-scale war” with Israel in order to present itself as the defenders of Palestinian interests in Jerusalem – a move experts say was motivated by political calculations.

Israeli-Palestinian fighting escalated once more on Thursday as the Israeli military continued to respond to Hamas rocket attacks with air strikes on the Gaza Strip, in the conflict’s worst violence since 2014.

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But according to local media, the Israeli army did not expect such an escalation with the Islamist extremist movement that has controlled a blockaded Gaza Strip since 2007.

The clashes started proliferating in early May in East Jerusalem – the Palestinian area of the city occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War when Mohammed Deif, the head of Hamas’s military wing, made a rare public statement on May 5, saying that Israel would “pay a heavy price” if it evicted Palestinian residents from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood Sheikh Jarrah. Deif said he was issuing a “clear, final warning” that Hamas would “not stand by helplessly”.

Until May 10, Israeli “defence officials thought Hamas had no intention of entering into another round of fighting with Israel”, Haaretz reported. Unlike the Jewish state’s intelligence agencies, senior officers in the Israeli Defence Force were convinced that Hamas would not provoke an escalation during the Muslim festival of Ramadan, which ends on Thursday.

But it seems that Israeli military officials also underestimated the symbolic importance for Hamas of the Temple Mount, or the al-Asqa Compound as it is known to Muslims. This is the holiest site in Judaism, where the Second Temple stood until the Roman Empire destroyed it in 70 AD. It is also the third holiest site in Islam, home to the Dome of the Rock and the al-Asqa Mosque.

‘Saviours of Jerusalem’

Hamas saw the tensions in Jerusalem as an opportunity to return to the fore.

“Saying that they’re the people who can resist Israel is the card Hamas plays to win Palestinian support,” said Jean-Paul Chagnollaud, head of the Institut de recherche et d’études Méditerranée Moyen-Orient in Paris. “By playing this card, they’re presenting themselves as [potential] saviours of a Jerusalem shaken by clashes over threats of eviction of Palestinian families in a kind of new episode of Israeli colonization.”

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The outbreak of fighting between Israel and Hamas, which is supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and is on the EU’s list of terrorist organisations, has emerged amid troubled situations in both Israeli and Palestinian politics.

“Hamas is taking advantage of a political vacuum created by the Palestinian Authority’s weakness,” Chagnollaud said. “President Mahmoud Abbas created a huge space for Hamas to occupy. He’s had little political standing for a long time, then he inflicted a kind of coup de grace on himself by cancelling impending elections he was likely to lose.”

The elections had been announced in early January as part of a “reconciliation” process between Abbas’s secular Fatah party and the Islamists Hamas, and would have been the first elections in the Palestinian Territories for fifteen years. But Abbas announced their postponement in April, blaming Israel for uncertainty over whether voting could take place in East Jerusalem.

This in turn prompted a sense of dismay amongst the Palestinian population that was ripe for Hamas to exploit, noted FRANCE 24 Jerusalem correspondent Gwendoline Debono.

“Hamas sensed the frustration of many Palestinians who’d been enthusiastic about their first chance ever to vote,” Debono said. “Then the Islamist movement rushed into the fray, making the tensions over Jerusalem their issue.”

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Burnishing images

Hamas is also very much aware of the vexed state of Israeli politics, hobbled by  four inconclusive elections since 2019 as opposition parties repeatedly fail to dislodge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In this context, the beleaguered prime minister also saw a political opportunity in the burgeoning Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Chagnollaud said: “The escalation has given Netanyahu the chance to regain his standing amid his long struggle to form a new government.”

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Hamas, which has lost 16 senior figures to Israeli air strikes on Wednesday alone, according to Israel’s domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet, may have underestimated the Jewish state. Nevertheless, Chagnollaud said, “after this outburst of fighting it will definitely seek to present itself as the resistance organisation against Israel, just like Hezbollah did in Lebanon after the conflict there in 2006.”

And by firing more than 1,000 rockets at Israel, Hamas has shown that it still has the military capability to strike out against the Jewish state, despite the blockade and the Israeli Iron Dome missile defence system.

“Hamas’s strike force showed that it had prepared for the kind of episode we’re now seeing, and that it’s determined to fight against the Israelis,” Chagnollaud said. “It has the chance to make big political gains and to burnish its image as a major player in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

“However, these military escalations always lead to the same scenario – deaths, violence and a tragic political impasse.”

This article was translated from the original in French.