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Is Hamas reassessing its strategy?

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal says the current lull in attacks on Israel from Gaza serves the "Palestinian interest." (Trango/Creative Commons)

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal says the current lull in attacks on Israel from Gaza serves the “Palestinian interest.” (Trango/Creative Commons)

NEWS ANALYSIS

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Four months after the Gaza war, Hamas seems to be reassessing the wisdom of firing rockets at Israeli civilians — at least for now.

Although there is no formal cease-fire, fewer than a dozen attacks have hit Israeli towns and villages in the Gaza periphery since April, and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal says the current lull serves the "Palestinian interest."

Clearly the main reason Hamas wants quiet is to enable the group to smuggle new weapons into Gaza to replenish stocks depleted or destroyed in the fighting last December and January. But there are signs as well of a new strategy of keeping the peace.

Hamas wants to win points with the international community and pave the way for a grand bargain: It releases captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in return for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and the opening of border crossing points between Israel and Gaza.

"I promise the American administration and the international community that we will be part of the solution, period," Meshaal declared in an early May New York Times interview, calculated to improve the militant organization’s standing with the new Obama government.

If the relative quiet holds, the grand bargain could be struck. But even if it is, the prospects for a change in American attitudes to Hamas seem remote.

In The New York Times interview, Meshaal repeated that Hamas was ready to offer Israel a 10-year truce if it withdrew to the 1967 borders, solved the Jerusalem question and agreed to the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel proper. This, however, doesn’t go nearly far enough for major western players or for Israel.

As the price for engagement, most of the international community insists that Hamas first recognize Israel and renounce terror — conditions Meshaal refuses to accept. For its part, Israel would want not just a 10-year truce but a full-fledged peace deal, signaling the end of the conflict, if it were to withdraw to the pre-1967 borders.

The Hamas reassessment of policy follows the recognition of mistakes it made before and during last winter’s fighting.

To a large extent the organization fell victim to its own propaganda: That Israel was weak, that the Israel Defense Forces wouldn’t dare enter Gaza on the ground, and if it did it would be severely punished. Hamas also believed the fighting would lead to international pressure on Israel to fully open the border crossing points into Gaza.

None of its assumptions proved true, leading to strong criticism by leading Hamas politicians of the movement’s more radical military wing and the peremptory dismissal of some senior military commanders.

Meshaal and other Hamas leaders also are aware of the strategic cost of the war: the alienation of Egypt, the subsequent Egyptian clampdown on arms smuggling into Gaza through the border tunnels, the strengthening of the moderate Arab alliance against Iran, and enhanced Israeli-Egyptian cooperation against both Hamas and its Iranian ally.

But as it moves to mend fences with Egypt and to enhance its shaky international standing, Hamas does not want to lose face with its radical constituency. The day after Meshaal’s interview with the Times, mortar shells were fired from Gaza at Israeli civilians across the border and, speaking in Arabic, Meshaal denied saying he supported a lull. Indeed, the organization seems to be speaking in two voices, shades the old militancy for its constituency and hints of a more nuanced policy for the international community.

Gen. Amos Yadlin, the IDF’s military intelligence commander, and Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin agree that Hamas wants an extended period of calm to rebuild its damaged military capacity. They say the organization wants to bring in longer range and more accurate rockets in preparation for another round with Israel.

In a mid-May briefing to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Diskin said that since the war ended, Hamas had smuggled in hundreds of mortar shells and rockets, dozens of anti-tank missiles, nearly 50 anti-aircraft missiles, 17 tons of explosives and 61 tons of fertilizer used to fuel locally built Kassam rockets despite serious and often successful Egyptian efforts to stop them.

Diskin claimed that during the war he had recommended overthrowing the Hamas government because as long as it was in control in Gaza, progress for peace with the Palestinians would not be possible. The security services chief also said he feared that in a new Palestinian election, Hamas probably would win in the West Bank, too, with horrendous consequences for the region as a whole.

Diskin made no recommendations, but what he was implying is clear: At some point in the future, if Israel wants peace, it will have to topple the Hamas government.

The Israeli military, however, is in no mood for another Gaza showdown anytime soon. Like Hamas, the IDF also wants to use the lull to strengthen its military capacity, mainly through the early deployment of sophisticated new systems to intercept incoming rockets and mortars.

Rather than peacemaking, the lesson of the Gaza war for both sides seems to be better preparation for the next round.

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