Hamas has sent threatening, yet vague messages in recent weeks about what might happen if the Israeli government annexes some West Bank settlements.
Hamas spokesman Abu Obeida said June 25 that Israel would "regret" an annexation step, which would constitute a "declaration of war." That message was backed up by an apparent show of force Tuesday, when Hamas fired a volley of rockets into the Mediterranean Sea.
"We won't talk much, and we won't make more statements," Abu Obeida said. "We say in words that are limited and clear and which the occupation and those who stand behind it need to understand very well: The resistance considers this decision a declaration of war on our Palestinian people."
Abu Obeida also provided a timely reminder of Hamas's core ideological vision of destroying Israel and replacing it with an Islamist state, stating that the "project of the resistance was to remove the occupation from all the lands of historic Palestine."
His statements reflect the fact that the Hamas leadership in Gaza is still weighing its options over how to respond should Israel choose annexation. In the meantime, Hamas continues to use Gaza as a base to raise a terror army, build up its rocket arsenal, and plot to increase its presence in the West Bank.
The Israeli government is divided over how to proceed on the issue. Defense Minister and Alternative Prime Minister Benny Gantz wants to delay the maneuver due to the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout, expressing a desire to generate a regional diplomatic process. As a result, a timetable or a clear indication of the scope of annexation remains unclear.
Still, Hamas sees a new opportunity to promote its brand of violence and terrorism.
Hamas is interested in undermining its arch rival, the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, which it wishes to topple and replace. Tensions over the issue of annexation could offer Hamas a new opportunity to promote that objective. In an unprecedented step, the PA froze its security coordination with Israel in May over annexation tensions. Both Israel and the PA have a shared interest in repressing Hamas's armed activities in the West Bank.
To that end, Hamas can be expected to try to activate terror cells in the West Bank, which it works around the clock to build, and which Israel's intelligence agency, the Shin Bet, is equally determined to dismantle in time.
To get a sense of the scope of these activities, it is worth noting that Israeli security forces thwarted more than 500 significant terror attacks in 2019, most of them organized by Hamas. These include planned suicide bombings and shootings in Israeli cities, as well as attempted kidnappings and the planting of explosives. Hamas also maintains a headquarters in Turkey, where it orchestrates West Bank terror squads and channels money for operations, according to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center.
One recent example of such activity is the Hamas cell that the Shin Bet arrested in March. It planned to plant explosives in Jerusalem's Teddy soccer stadium during a game, creating a mass casualty attack on civilians. The cell received funding from a Hamas operative who was in touch with the organization's military wing, according to the Shin Bet.
Activating terror cells remotely in the West Bank has always been a more convenient path for Hamas to realize its jihadist ideology, because it poses less of a threat to its regime in Gaza.
Yet the possibility of an escalation in both the West Bank and Gaza, simultaneously, remains real. Hamas has assembled a well-armed terror army in Gaza, equipped with tens of thousands of rockets, anti-tank guided missile launchers, mortar launchers, and other weapons. A network of tunnels runs under the Gaza Strip for the movement of Hamas's operatives, and residential buildings double as military command centers and rocket launch sites. Hamas continues to prioritize its force build-up program over the wellbeing of the Gazan people.
Hamas copied its warfare doctrine, that is based on operating from and exploiting the civilian population as human shields, from Hizballah and adapted to Gazan conditions. Today, the two organizations cooperate on a number of levels.
Israeli leaders have warned Hamas that its leaders would personally pay the price for an escalation in Gaza. Gantz has warned that the Israel Defense Forces would resume targeted assassinations in such a scenario.
"To the heads of the Hamas, I remind them that they will be the first to pay for any aggression," Gantz said Friday in a speech to Israel Air Force flight academy graduates. "The IDF is the strongest military in the region, and any harm that will affect the Israeli civilians will claim a powerful and painful price. We will not tolerate any threat on Israel's borders."
The IDF has been preparing for a broad range of scenarios involving reactions to annexation, one of which includes a simultaneous escalation of violence in both Gaza and the West Bank.
Officials believe that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar does not have an interest in initiating a new, all-out war with Israel at this time. He appears more interested in pursuing an arrangement with Israel aimed at rescuing the Gazan economy from collapse, and decreasing the possibility of a revolt within the Strip due to the dire economic situation of Gazans living under Hamas rule.
A new conflict with Israel not only eliminates any hope for that kind of arrangement, it would also result in Israel's firepower destroying Hamas's military assets and commanders, and in renewed damage to Gaza's neighborhoods, with little for Hamas to show for it.
But Hamas and other armed Islamist factions in Gaza also fear they cannot afford to be seen to be sitting passively on the sidelines in the face of annexation. Their ideology of armed conflict, and their desire to maintain their "street credibility" as rejectionist factions committed to Israel's destruction, means doing nothing is not much of an option.
One option at Sinwar's disposal is to allow smaller terror groups in Gaza to fire rockets at Israeli civilians. That is what appeared to have happened Saturday, when terrorists in Gaza, possibly from Palestinian Islamic Jihad, fired two rockets which exploded in southern Israel, setting off warning sirens. The rockets landed in an open area, causing no injuries.
Israel retaliated with air strikes within hours, targeting a Hamas rocket manufacturing workshop and a weapons manufacturing facility in Gaza.
"This strike will impede the Hamas terror organization's future abilities," the IDF Spokespersons Unit said in a statement. "The Hamas terror organization is responsible for all events transpiring in the Gaza Strip and emanating from it, and will bear the consequences for its actions against Israeli civilians."
Hamas is well aware of Israel's military power, and the lack of any tangible gains a new conflict could bring. But deterrence is no guarantee against a potential snowballing conflict, which might begin with actions of the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an organization that has plunged Gaza into clashes with Israel repeatedly, including last February.
Against the backdrop of these tensions, Qatar recently began distributing $30 million in aid payments to Gazans. Previously, Hamas threatened to end the recent period of calm if Israel did not allow Qatari aid money to reach Gaza. In addition, a balloon carrying an explosive was found in southern Israel near the Gazan border in mid-June, after a lengthy period in which such attacks had ceased. In 2019, fires caused by such balloons burned over 350 acres of farmland, and in 2018, 8,400 acres of farmland were ravaged by fires sparked by Gazan incendiary balloons.
In light of these threats, the Israeli Defense Ministry has in recent weeks assembled a multi-disciplinary team to prepare for a number of operational scenarios that could unfold in the West Bank and Gaza.
The explosiveness of the area was also reflected in comments by IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who, while addressing soldiers taking part in a drill in northern Israel on June 23, stated, "From what I see here, the level of combat is good and it is naturally directed at the central combat arena – the north and Hizballah, and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. You could find yourselves in a few weeks in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] because of disturbances and terrorism. You must be flexible. Be prepared. The coming events could develop into conflict in Gaza."
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the military correspondent for JNS. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.
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