Hamas is continuing to direct terrorist activity at Israeli targets through various means, despite its public declarations that it is committed to maintaining calm. Israeli intelligence sources have acknowledged, however, that the Islamic militant group currently wishes to maintain a low profile in an effort not to anger the Egyptians and not be perceived as violating the current cease-fire.
The sources add that the recent round of hostilities between Israel and forces in Gaza, during which Islamic Jihad fired hundreds of rockets into Israeli territory, increases the prospect that next time, Hamas itself will join the hostilities ? and that Hamas will actually view the scope of the rocket fire that Islamic Jihad engaged in as a minimum threshold.
Hamas refrained from directly taking part in the recent fighting. The escalation was ramped up on March 9 after Israel carried out a targeted killing of a senior figure in the Popular Resistance Committees militant group, Zuhair al-Qaissi.
The attacks mostly involved rocket fire by Islamic Jihad and Popular Resistance Committee militants. Hamas forces did not fire rockets themselves, but at the same time, they didn’t enforce a lull in the fighting until an agreement was reached between the Palestinian factions and the Egyptians three days later, when the factions committed to stop firing into Israel.
According to Israeli defense establishment officials, however, Hamas did act in a variety of ways without clearly leaving its own fingerprints on the operations. For example, Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hamad, who is in charge of the security apparatus in the Gaza Strip ? and apparently of the lull’s enforcement ? leads a small organization called Defenders of Al-Aqsa.
Members of Hamas’ military wing are active in the group, which serves as a front of sorts for Hamas and its members who continued to carry out attacks against Israel. Recently forces from Defenders of Al-Aqsa were involved in firing anti-tank missiles and mortar shells at Israeli troops and Israeli communities along the Gaza border.
It cannot be ruled out that the group was also responsible for two large explosive charges recently discovered by the Israel Defense Forces on the northern stretch of the Israeli-Egyptian border. Intelligence officials believe the explosives were hidden there with the intention of smuggling them into Israeli territory for use in attacks against civilian targets.
At the same time, the leadership of the Hamas military wing in the Gaza Strip has been deploying several smaller factions, providing them funding and instructing them. They include elements from the Popular Resistance Committees who have been dispatched to commit the attacks, including some from the Sinai area.
Last week, the Shin Bet security service cleared for publication the arrest of a Hamas militant from Gaza who was involved in intelligence gathering on the deployment of Israeli forces along the Egyptian frontier. He had been planning abductions and to dispatch suicide bombers into Israeli cities, including Eilat.
In a recent interview, the outgoing head of the IDF Central Command, Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrahi, told Haaretz that Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip have instructed Hamas militants in the West Bank to try to abduct Israeli soldiers and civilians as a bargaining chip for the release of prisoners in Israeli jails.
A senior Israeli defense official told Haaretz that Hamas has not abandoned violence against Israel. “It is drawn attention to less, because the organization understands that this language [of violence] is currently less acceptable in the international arena,” the official said. “Attacks clearly committed by Hamas would not be compatible with the spirit of the times, and the group also doesn’t want to give Israel a reason to send the IDF back into the Gaza Strip, but Hamas terror from Gaza is continuing all the time, especially ? and openly ? via Sinai.”
According to the senior official, the events connected with the round of hostilities this month have limited Hamas’ freedom to maneuver and could compel Hamas to act the next time around, whenever that occurs. By taking the lead in the last round, Islamic Jihad has posed a challenge to Hamas, which came in for strong criticism for its conduct.
The fact that just under 300 rockets were fired into Israel this month is liable to spur Hamas into proving that it can fire a larger number of rockets next time. But the assessment in Israel is that Hamas and Islamic Jihad understand very well that the decision to fire Fajr missiles into the Tel Aviv area could come at the cost of another Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip.