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Hamas Back in the Center of Things

Not Clear if Hamas is Stronger or Weaker Today

Hamas gunmen killed three Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip today, raising the total number of soldiers killed to 56 since the fighting began July 8. According to the army, the soldiers uncovered a tunnel shaft in a residence in southern Gaza. Both the tunnel and the house were booby –trapped and exploded. From Hamas’s point of view it was another in the string of military successes they have racked up in the past 23 days of fighting.

Hamas has regained what it sees as its rightful place smack in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whatever agreement finally ends the fighting that has killed at least 1300 Palestinians and 56 Israelis, Hamas will be an essential party to the deal.

“Three weeks ago Hamas was on the sidelines, was politically isolated and was under extreme financial pressure,” Mkheimar Abu Sada, a professor at Al Azhar University in Gaza told The Media Line. “From a military perspective, they have done well in the eyes of the Palestinians by launching long-range missiles and infiltrating behind Israeli lines.”

He says that many Palestinians see Hamas and Palestinian resistance as being able to achieve more gains than Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been able to achieve via diplomacy. Support for Hamas has spiked in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, as the death toll continues to rise about 1300 Palestinians, many of them civilians, with more than 6500 wounded, that support may decrease.

At least 200,000 Palestinians have fled their homes in Gaza in the face of the Israeli air and artillery assault. Many have taken refuge in  United Nations schools. During a 12-hour cease-fire over the weekend, some returned to their homes only to find their entire neighborhoods in rubble. The main thrust of the anger is directed at Israel, but quietly some Palestinians in Gaza are beginning to hold Hamas responsible as well.

“During a war anyone who speaks out publicly against Hamas will be called a collaborator with Israel,” Abu Sada said. “But within the family some are saying that Hamas is at least partially responsible for the destruction.”

A lot will depend on what happens when the fighting eventually ends. If Hamas succeeds in its goals of “lifting the siege”, meaning that both the Israeli and Egyptian borders are open and goods and people can freely enter and leave the densely populated Gaza Strip, Hamas will have consolidated its position as a successful organization. If, on the other hand, the fighting ends with no political gains, and Gaza’s borders remain closed, Hamas could lose popularity.

Most Israeli analysts say they believe they have significantly weakened Hamas over the past three weeks of fighting.

“Hamas has lost its two primary strategic weapons,” Maj. Gen. (res) Yaakov Amidror, the former National Security Advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told The Media Line. “The rockets it fired didn’t work because of the Iron Dome (anti-missile system) and Israel is destroying the series of tunnels that ran under Gaza into Israel.”

Hamas had an estimated 10,000 rockets, most of them short and medium-range, before the conflict began. It has fired about 2000 at Israel, and Israel claims to have destroyed at least 3000 more. Even more damaging to Hamas, many say, has been Israel’s destruction of the network of concrete-lined tunnels. Israeli military officials say that each tunnel takes up to a year to build. A senior official said they are “days away” from completing the destruction of dozens of tunnels uncovered over the past three weeks.

Amidror says Israel has not yet decided whether to press the ground invasion deeper into Gaza or try to arrange a long term cease-fire with Hamas. A deeper ground invasion would entail heavy Israeli and Palestinian casualties, and would likely spark international condemnation of Israel.

Whether Hamas emerges weaker or stronger, the fighting has shifted alliances in the Middle East.

“Hamas is now back in the resistance fold with Iran, Syria and Hizbullah,” Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East analyst at the Chatham House think tank in London told The Media Line. “When you only had Hizbullah and Syria, it looked like a vulgar sectarian alliance, but now it looks like a resistance alliance.”

Shehadi says that Hamas also achieved psychological gains by killing at least 37 Israeli soldiers and causing international airlines to temporarily stop flying to Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. He says it ha been a victory for violence over negotiations.

“It shows Palestinians that what they cannot achieve through negotiations, they can achieve through violence,” Shehadi said. “Like Hizbullah, Hamas can claim that Israel only understands the language of force.”