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Why Hamas Never Wanted War — and Knows It Lost

Hamas is eager to have Mahmoud Abbas’s U.S.-trained Presidential Guard take control of the border crossings between Gaza and Israel. But the Islamist organization isn’t likely to give in to pressure from Abbas and the West to put its own military wing under Abbas’s control, nor to let officials of the proposed Fatah-Hamas unity government take the reins of civilian government in Gaza.

So says Colonel M., head of the Palestinian unit in the research department of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, in a wide-ranging interview with Arab affairs correspondent Avi Issacharoff of the English-language Times of Israel website and the Hebrew-language Walla! News site.

Colonel M. (the Times of Israel incorrectly translates his title as lieutenant colonel) also describes the IDF intelligence reading of the events that led to the outbreak of this summer’s war in Gaza. He states flatly and firmly that Hamas neither wanted nor planned a war, but stumbled into it unintentionally as the end result of a series of missteps beginning with the kidnapping of three Israeli yeshiva students in the West Bank in early June. He says that published accounts of Hamas planning for a “July War” are “nonsense.” His account of the events is virtually identical to the scenario I laid out in a column in July.

The colonel emphasized, Issacharoff writes, that the views he expressed aren’t his own personal assessment or that of his unit but the consensus view of Israeli Military Intelligence as a whole. He says the assessment is shared by the Shin Bet security service. (This contradicts a recent news analysis in Yediot Ahronot by military correspondent Alex Fishman, who claimed the Shin Bet disagrees and believes Hamas planned the war).

No less intriguing than what the interview says is what it doesn’t say. Issacharoff writes that Colonel M. refused to discuss the situation on the West Bank or Abbas’s strategic thinking, “apparently out of fear of appearing to criticize the political echelon.” It’s yet another indication of the deep and growing divide between Israel’s security professionals and their politician bosses over Israel’s security needs.

Even more striking is the opening section of Issacharoff’s article, which appears in Hebrew in Walla! but not in the English version in the Times of Israel. In it Issacharoff describes the motives behind Abbas’s venomous attack on Israel at the United Nations in September and questions Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response.

According to Issacharoff, Abbas had two reasons to attack Israel as sharply as he did. The first was his need to shore up his standing in Palestinian public opinion, which had plummeted during the summer war. Last spring Abbas’s favorability rating was double that of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. By the end of the war their positions were reversed as the Palestinian public responded to Hamas’s ability to stand up to Israel. Abbas’s numbers have improved since the war ended in August, but he’s still trailing Haniyeh.

Intriguingly, Issacharoff reports that Hamas’s popularity during and after the war was higher in the West Bank than in Gaza, however much it might “seem like a joke.”

The residents of the West Bank, who didn’t feel the war on their flesh and certainly didn’t lose their homes to Israeli bombardment, were happy to enlist the Gazans to keep fighting. Abbas’s verbal radicalization was intended to prevent further erosion in West Bank public opinion, which isn’t favorable toward his security cooperation with Israel.

The second reason for Abbas’s speech, Issacharoff writes, was his “disappointment with the Israeli government.”

It’s hard to imagine a Palestinian leader being mobilized so openly to the cause of finding the kidnappers and supplying relevant information about them. The response in Israel as usual was dismissive, insulting and oblivious. Abbas understood that once again there was nobody to talk to and that Netanyahu, who is no less attentive than him to the polls, was not planning a dramatic step to rescue the peace process. On the contrary, the announcement of land expropriation in Gush Etzion at the end of the war was proof in the Palestinian president’s eyes that there’s nobody to talk to.

The trouble is that the current Israeli leadership is cut off from the emerging reality in the West Bank and especially in the president’s office in the Muqata’a in Ramallah — and not just in Gaza. True, the Palestinian public in the West Bank is not rushing out to a third intifada, and the best evidence of that was the relative quiet during Protective Edge. Nonetheless, one of the reasons the Palestinians in the West Bank stayed home, even after the deaths of 2,150 Gazans, was the Palestinian Authority and its security forces. What they haven’t yet internalized in Jerusalem and at military headquarters in Tel Aviv is the fact that in the Muqata’a they’ve changed disks.

Issacharoff writes that Abbas’s speech worked to Netanyahu’s political advantage. He was in an awkward position issuing warnings about Iran, because “he’s been talking about the Iranian threat for years and hasn’t done anything.” His concerns about the emergence of ISIS as the embodiment of Islamist terrorism had been thoroughly discussed by earlier speakers. And his effort to equate ISIS and Hamas fell flat because

the Israeli public, and especially the media, understands that Netanyahu wants to preserve the Hamas regime in Gaza and so they wouldn’t have responded with much interest to a speech whose main focus was to show that Hamas is a terrorist organization. And then along came Abu Mazen’s speech and made it possible to present the prime minister’s trip to New York as a crusade to save the State of Israel. His aides and allies explained to us that Abu Mazen, the same Palestinian president who gave us information about the kidnappers of the three Israeli youths, who forced Hamas into negotiations on a cease-fire — he is the strategic threat to the State of Israel.

According to Colonel M., Hamas views the summer war overall as a failure. Once it was at war, it decided to keep fighting until it could show something for it. Unfortunately for them, they set themselves highly unrealistic goals, and

once they set goals such as the removal of the blockade or the building of an airport and a seaport, they had to act to achieve these gains. Hence the prolonged fighting. At some point it became a trap for them, because they did not accomplish anything, and ending the war without any achievements was more dangerous to them than halting the rocket fire.”

The bottom line seems to be that Bibi would prefer to have Hamas rather than Abbas running Gaza, so the Palestinians remain divided and there’s nobody to talk to. But arguing against Abbas wasn’t easy — until Abbas addressed the General Assembly and did Bibi’s work for him.

The message from Jerusalem regarding Abbas now seems to be: Look at his words, not his deeds.

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