Four more rockets were shot at Israel from the Gaza strip over the weekend (in addition to several more originating from the Sinai). Unsurprisingly, Israel responded with air raids in Gaza City and on the smuggling tunnels beneath the Gaza-Egyptian border. There was minor damage caused in Israel while the Israeli strikes left one Hamas agent dead and tens of Palestinian civilians injured. The timeline of events should leave no one surprised (though Israel did strike Gaza City for the first time since Operation Cast Lead), as it followed a pretty well-trod path (rocket from Gaza, Israel responds with air strikes, Hamas complains…). While Hamas was not responsible for the rockets, it is pretty clear that the group was sending an important message.
Responsibility for the rockets was claimed by the Al-Tawhid and Jihad Salafist group, which is one of the several groups in Gaza that are more extreme than Hamas. Furthermore, Al-Tawhid is one of the groups that Hamas generally tries to suppress; indeed Hamas has been trying – since before the Israeli invasion at the end of 2008 – to prevent extremist factions in Gaza from firing rockets into Israel. Even the fact that Hamas wants to continue to de facto cease-fire with Israel is both logical and unsurprising considering a brief look at past statements by Hamas officials. Moreover, Israel has a pretty clear policy of holding Hamas responsible for any and all violence originating from the Gaza strip; thus, the fact that Israeli jets bombed Hamas targets should have been a(n unfortunate) but understandable reaction to the Gaza bombs.
Over at Mondoweiss, Seham attempts to highlight the rise of Salafist groups at the expense of Hamas and how the international isolation of Hamas is only leading to the rise of globalized (Hamas is strictly nationalistic) groups. While I agree that the Salafist presence only increases with the continuing international isolation and consequent weakening of Hamas (someone has to fill the power vacuum), I believe that the Al-Tawhid rocket attacks this weekend was not a manifestation of a growing Salafist presence, but was rather a warning by Hamas of the stark alternative to Hamas rule.
While Hamas is clearly the powerhouse of Gazan politics, there has been a rise in international Al-Qaeda linked groups in Gaza (a trend that the Islamo-Nationalist Hamas Party would like to reverse). Despite this rise in challengers to Hamas, it can be assumed that Hamas has at least some influence over most, if not all, the militant factions in Gaza – to the point, perhaps, that rockets are fired with the permission of Hamas.
Is there really a story here – other than, of course, discontent Palestinians? Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff at Haaretz seem to have understood the significance of the rocket attacks. With peace talks between Hamas’ rival Fatah and Israel seemingly ready to progress to direct negotiations, Hamas is on the verge of being completely left out of the all-important negotiations that will determine the future of Palestine. Hamas has already come out against the peace talks and has mentioned that such negotiations will only further bifurcate Palestine. The incentive for Hamas to disrupt the talks is fairly straight forward.
What complicates the issue, however, is that any aggression by Hamas would undermine the tremendous support the international community has given to Gaza after the Flotilla disaster last month. Hamas needs continued international support to push for the complete removal of Israel’s blockade of the tiny strip – Hamas sponsored violence would threaten the one diplomatic weapon the group has against the Israeli siege.
[tweetmeme] Hamas, therefore, is left with the difficult task of appearing to be a peaceful victim of the Israeli blockade while enthusiastically demonstrating its displeasure with – and possibly destroying – the peace talks with Israel. Harel and Issacharoff argue that the means to achieve Hamas’ seemingly mutually exclusive goals is to allow the Salafist groups within Gaza to launch the occasional attack – see: this weekend – in order to remind the PA and Israel not to completely isolate the Gazan government:
Even if Hamas is not behind the rocket fire and has no wish to escalate the situation, it may have an interest in allowing rogue groups to get away with the occasional rocket. Hamas’ popularity is declining among the Palestinian public (contrary to some analysts’ comments ) and worse, signs of a peace process and even direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are flickering on the horizon. Perhaps Hamas, by giving more rope to World Jihad groups in Gaza, is sending a message to Israel, the PA and especially the Arab states, not to ignore it.
The entire situation should simply be a reminder that peace talks without the consent of Hamas will be useless and indeed increasingly dangerous. The attacks this weekend were a signal from Hamas to Fatah, Israel and the rest of the world, that the Gazan leadership still maintains the ability to kill any peace deal. Washington, Ramallah and Tel Aviv must realize that the best chance for peace includes the moderation and acceptance of Hamas and the reunification of a divided Palestine.