Across the Middle East, tension is rising as violence spreads in Damascus, Beirut, and Cairo. Yet one area has remained surprisingly calm: the Israeli-Gaza border. Perhaps that's why many have overlooked a promising development: Hamas has apparently decided—at least for now—that it has more to lose than gain from violence.
Even the Israeli military has taken note. “Hamas during the past year has shown both the capacity and in some cases the motivation to prevent terror attacks against Israel and provide stability for the security situation around the Gaza Strip,” explained Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, head of the foreign press branch of the Israeli military.
Hearing a senior Israeli military officer praise Hamas’ role in fighting terrorism is a shocking development. During the past two weeks, I interviewed over a dozen senior Hamas, Israeli military, and NGO officials to understand these surprising changes.
Hamas, the Islamic organization ruling Gaza since winning democratic elections in 2006, is labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union. Hamas and Israel have been fierce enemies for over 20 years. During the Second Intifada, Hamas launched suicide attacks on pizza parlors and buses. In the last five years, Israel has launched three massive military operations in Gaza, killing thousands of Palestinians, including many Hamas fighters.
Now, with the violence in the region tilted to Israel’s northeast in Syria, something has quietly changed on Israel’s western front. Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar told me that the group “is not interested in raising tensions right now.” These words are consistent with the fact that rocket fire from Gaza into Israel has been reduced by an astonishing 98 percent. Rockets that have been fired have generally been so by the group Islamic Jihad, not Hamas. Similarly, Israeli forces killed four Palestinians this year, according to the Israeli human rights organization Btselem—a major drop from the 350 killed in the previous two years. Israel has also eased restrictions on Gaza’s economy. The maritime limit for Gaza fishermen was doubled to six nautical miles. For the first time in years, construction material for private usage was allowed into Gaza earlier this spring.
So what explains this dramatic change between Israel and Hamas? Israeli security officials point to the military deterrence established with its previous large-scale operation launched in 2012, which killed hundreds of people and destroyed a massive amount of infrastructure. As Yaakov Amidror, the Israeli National Security Advisor until last month, argued, “They [Hamas] understand that there is a very high price for launching rockets into Israel or not stopping others from do it.”
The turmoil in the region has also had an impact. After President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in Egypt this summer, Hamas lost a key ally in Egypt. This made life harder for ordinary citizens in Gaza, since the new military government frequently closes the border and has shut down many of the tunnels that allowed goods to move between them. When asked if the situation worsened in Gaza after Morsi left power, Isra Almodallal, a Hamas spokeswoman, replied, “Yes a lot. There is an increasing lack of electricity and fuel. This is a collective punishment on the people. ... We call on the Egyptian side to allow the fuel to enter Gaza so other sectors in Palestine, especially the health sector, will go on.” Given these circumstances, Hamas has no interest in launching additional rockets that will only bring additional hardship to the Palestinian people, especially when Hamas has lost a critical ally in Egypt for diplomatic cover. Hamas may have learned from Morsi’s downfall in Egypt about the dangers of overreaching.
A former Hamas senior advisor to the prime minister, Ahmed Yousef, offered an alternative reason for Hamas’ decision not to launch rockets. He explained that during the current peace negotiations between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, if Hamas shoots rockets at Israel the “world will blame Hamas for sabotaging the negotiations.”
Some critics claim that despite the fact that rocket fire from Gaza has declined dramatically, the sporadic fire by Islamic Jihad into southern Israel demonstrates that Hamas allows or even encourages this phenomenon. Nonetheless, General Amos Yaldin, former head of Israeli military intelligence, stressed the relative nature of violence reduction as he disputed this claim: “You can’t reduce to zero this phenomenon,” he said. “What is important is that Hamas is trying very hard to stop Islamic Jihad.” According to a prominent Gaza journalist who insisted on anonymity to speak candidly, some militants in Hamas’ military wing, the Qassam Brigade, have even quit the movement to join more extremist groups in protest of Hamas’ new stance.
Hamas is not the first Palestinian militant group to call for Israel’s destruction. While Fatah pressed in its 1964 charter for the elimination of Israel, it moderated its actions over time and eventually supported the two-state solution. Hamas may be following Fatah’s path of having realpolitik and not ideology guide its actions.
Aaron Magid is a graduate student at Harvard University specializing in Middle Eastern Studies. He has written articles on Middle Eastern politics for Al-Monitor, Lebanon’s Daily Star, and the Daily Beast.