TEL AVIV — The Israeli army’s military intelligence division believes that Hamas has deliberately refrained over the last 100 days from carrying out terror strikes against Israeli civilians inside the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border. The last Hamas attack within the Green Line, according to military intelligence, took place at Cafe Hillel in Jerusalem, on September 9, 2003.
Over the past three and a half months, intelligence officers say, Hamas has focused its attacks and attempted attacks on soldiers, both inside and outside the Green Line, and on settlers. The research department of military intelligence, headed by Brigadier General Yossi Kupperwasser, views this as a significant change in the attack strategy of the Islamic group, which until recently viewed all Israelis, wherever they may be, as legitimate targets.
The Shin Bet security service does not share the military intelligence assessment. According to Shin Bet data, Hamas activists have participated in numerous attempted terror attacks against Israeli civilian targets in recent weeks. All such attempts were foiled by the Shin Bet and the army.
Military intelligence, for its part, has counted 27 foiled suicide bombings since October, and believes that none of them were Hamas plots.
The change, intelligence officers explain, stems from Hamas’s sensitivity toward Palestinian public opinion, which recently has become increasingly opposed to attacks on Israeli civilians.
Military intelligence officers believe Hamas’s relative surge in popularity among the Palestinians, matched by a parallel slide in the strength of the ruling party, Fatah, is encouraging Hamas leaders to reflect the new popular trend — a gradual backing off from suicide attacks in Israel.
Palestinian support for such attacks has fallen from 59% to 50% during the past two months, according to surveys conducted by the Nablus-based Center for Palestine Research and Studies, headed by Dr. Khalil Shikaki. Military intelligence believes the true level of support for suicide attacks is even lower and that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, who also has his ear to the ground, shares Hamas’s opposition to attacks against civilians inside Israel, but not against soldiers or settlers.
A Palestinian daily, Al-Ayyam, reported this week that Hamas had sent a message to American officials several weeks ago, via the foreign minister of Qatar, offering to halt suicide attacks within Israel in exchange for an Israeli promise to curtail assassination strikes against its leaders in Gaza.
The initiative emerged from a meeting of senior members of Hamas’s political branch two months ago in Doha, Qatar, say Palestinian and other sources. The meeting was held shortly after a failed September 10 strike against Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, which in turn was a response to the Hamas terror attack on Jerusalem’s Cafe Hillel.
A similar message is said to have been delivered by a Hamas operative in Lebanon to “retired American officials,” who are believed to have transmitted it to Washington.
Some time after the delivery of these messages via Lebanon and Qatar, Yassin himself issued a statement hinting about Hamas’s readiness to “remove civilians on both sides from the cycle of violence.”
A European diplomat told Ha’aretz this week that Hamas had unilaterally sponsored a cease-fire proposal because of steps taken against it, including Israel’s assassination policy and the European Union’s designation of its political wing as a terrorist organization. Israel’s targeted strikes gave Hamas the sense that its Gaza Strip leadership was rapidly becoming paralyzed, the source indicated.
Sources said they assumed that U.S. officials declined to meet with Hamas leaders, but that the Americans sent messages to Hamas saying that they would keep tabs on the organization and monitor its leadership’s ability to control field operatives.
The organizations that are still eager to carry out such attacks are Islamic Jihad and the Tanzim, which are fed by financial and ideological support from outside the territories, primarily from Iran and the Lebanese-based Hezbollah.