Haifa, Israel — When senior Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh died in Dubai in mid-January, it was a year and one day since a loose de facto cease-fire had taken hold between Israel and Hamas with the end of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.
That situation may now change — or, indeed, has already, if reports that Israel covertly assassinated him are accurate.
Since the military operation in Gaza, armed clashes between the two sides have been limited to an average of 22 rockets or shells a month to Israel from Gaza and to occasional retaliatory strikes by Israel on Hamas targets.
But soon after al-Mabhouh’s death became public, Hamas figures pledged revenge. What’s more, some claimed that the organization was considering changing its strategy of limiting attacks to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Israeli targets abroad, they were quoted as saying, were now a possibility.
Israeli and Palestinian analysts are skeptical that they were serious on either count. “This is a policy — rhetoric to appease their constituency—but away from the rhetoric, they are guided by delicate political considerations,” said Khaled Hroub, a Bethlehem-born University of Cambridge academic who has written several books on the group, including the 2006 “Hamas: A Beginner’s Guide.”
In Hroub’s reading of the situation, an attack abroad is almost unthinkable. Eran Shayshon, head of the security analysts’ team at the Reut Institute, an influential Tel Aviv think tank, agreed. “I presume that Hamas would be very cautious not to get involved in enraging different countries, especially in the West,” Shayshon said. “It has a lot to lose from taking the fight against Israel international.” He was referring to Hamas’s desire to gain some degree of international legitimacy.
Yoram Kahati, research fellow at the Herzliya-based International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, predicted that Hamas would also be guided by a desire not to alienate civilian sympathizers abroad by perpetrating an attack in their backyard.
As to the possibility of an attack in Hamas’s normal area of operation, in Israel or in the territories, analysts believe that there may be a slight increase in the rate of rockets to southern Israel from Gaza. Hamas suicide bombers headed to Israel from the West Bank represent a continual threat, and al-Mabhouh’s death may “add some motivation,” Shayshon commented. But what has stopped suicide attacks in recent years has been not a lack of motivation, but rather strong security operations by the Palestinian Authority and Israel, he said. Hamas has “too much to lose” to try any new tactics, Shayshon predicted.
At the same time, other experts point out that Hamas can also ill afford to let a killing pass without issuing threats. “They could not show themselves in public to have the image of a weak party, especially when they are in competition with the [Ramallah-based] Palestinian Authority,” Kahati said .
According to Eyal Zisser, a terrorism expert at Tel Aviv University, Hamas is an organization caught between two mutually exclusive desires. “On the one hand it wants to settle what it considers its score; on the other, it doesn’t want an escalation,” he said, adding that nervousness about an escalation will win out.
Kahati said that unless there is a consideration that is unknown outside Hamas — which he considers a possibility — Hamas’s main objective is simply to sustain its regime and win public support in Gaza. “This is what’s best for them at the moment,” he said, elaborating that since the destruction brought by the military operation in Gaza, it is keen to avoid provoking Israel in any way.
A Gaza-based journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he fears recriminations from Hamas for talking to a Jewish publication, confirmed that this course of action by Hamas takes account of the public mood in Gaza. “Their only interest now is to work at how to strengthen the rule of Hamas,” he said. “A response by Hamas would lead to a response by Israel.”
He said that an Israeli counterresponse is feared by the general public and by members and employees of Hamas who want to safeguard their positions.
Hroub said that the unlikelihood of revenge is not just a matter of conjecture, but also precedent, referring to the assassination of Hamas founder and spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin, for which Israel took responsibility. “We had one of their founders, let alone a leader, assassinated in 2004, and they threatened revenge with strong rhetoric, but at the end of the day, the cost-benefit calculation overruled any emotional response,” he said.
Kahati said it is possible that in this case, Hamas will consider international criticism of Israel stemming from the ongoing investigation by Dubai police — which it instigated — to be revenge enough. “Others in the West are doing their work for them,” he said.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org.