GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — When war between Israel and Hamas broke out two weeks ago, the Palestinian militant group was so hamstrung, politically, economically and diplomatically, that its leaders appeared to feel they had nothing to lose.
Hamas took what some here call “option zero,” gambling that it could shift the balance with its trump cards: its arms and militants.
“There were low expectations in terms of its performance against the recent round of Israeli incursions. It’s been exceeding all expectations,” said Abdullah Al-Arian, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar who is now in Washington, D.C. “And it’s likely to come out in a far better position than in the last three years and maybe the last decade.”
Unemployment in Gaza is around 50 percent, having risen steeply since Israel pulled out its troops and settlers in 2005 and severely tightened border restrictions. Hamas appeared powerless to end the near-blockade of its border by Israel and more recently Egypt. It could not even pay its 40,000 government workers their salaries.
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At first, when Hamas rockets were being intercepted mainly by Israel’s Iron Dome system as Israel hit Gaza with devastating force, the group strove to persuade its supporters that it was having enough impact on Israel to wrest concessions: Its radio stations blared fictional reports about Israeli casualties.
But as it wore on, the conflict revealed that Hamas’ secret tunnel network leading into Israel was far more extensive, and sophisticated, than previously known. It also was able to inflict some pain on Israel, allowing Hamas to declare success even as it drew a devastating and crushing response. Its fighters were able to infiltrate Israel multiple times during an intensive Israeli ground invasion. Its militants have killed at least 27 Israeli soldiers and claim to have captured an Israeli soldier who was reported missing in battle, a potential bargaining chip.
And on Tuesday its rockets struck a blow to Israel — psychological and economic — by forcing a halt in international flights. Hamas once again looks strong in the eyes of its supporters and has shown an increasingly hostile region that it remains a force to be reckoned with.
Hamas, Arian said, has demonstrated that “as a movement, it is simply not going anywhere.”
But Hamas’ gains could be short-lived if it does not deliver Gazans a better life. Israel imposes severe restrictions on what can be brought into Gaza, such as construction materials, because it sees Hamas as serious security threat, and the discovery of the tunnels has served only to validate that concern.
Gazans did not get a vote when Hamas chose to escalate the conflict, nor did they when Hamas selected areas near their homes, schools and mosques to fire rockets from the densely populated strip. At the family house of four boys killed last week by an Israeli strike while playing on a beach, some wailing women cursed Hamas along with Israel.
“When the bombs stop and the dust settles, people might have different calculations about cost-benefit,” said Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser to the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah.
It is also unclear whether, when the fighting ends, Hamas will have the same kind of foreign support it has had in the past to rebuild its arsenal or its infrastructure; Egypt, under President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, has destroyed hundreds of the tunnels that were used to bring in arms, money and supplies, and has kept the proper border crossing mostly closed. There are also some diplomatic efforts under way seeking to force Hamas to surrender its weapons in exchange for a cease-fire, a demand it is not likely to accept.
“This war will end tomorrow or after tomorrow, we will have another cease-fire, we will have another siege, and Hamas will continue to run the scene,” said Omar Shaban, an economist and political independent.
“Gaza is a big problem for everybody, for Hamas, for Fatah, for Israel,” he added, ticking off the list: shortages of water, housing and medicine, a population explosion, growing extremism.
In exchange for a cease-fire, Hamas is demanding Israel and Egypt open their borders to end the restrictions on the movement of people and goods — the most immediate issue for ordinary Gazans. It is also asking for the release of prisoners — but avoiding the deeper political issues of the conflict.
Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006, but an international boycott prevented it from governing. It returned to power in Gaza in 2007 after ousting the Fatah-led government by force.
Hamas overreached, Shaban said, more than doubling Gaza’s administrative budget to more than $800 million — not including the financing of the militant Izzedine al-Qassam brigades. But as the recent fight with Israel has revealed, Hamas was importing tons of cement — desperately needed for Gazan schools and houses and construction jobs — to reinforce the tunnels it built to infiltrate Israel and hide its weapons.
“They have different priorities,” Shaban said of the military wing. “Don’t send rockets while we don’t have milk for our children.”
But, he added, “do we stop struggling with Israel? I believe in peace, a two-state solution, I never liked conflict. But Israel did not leave us anything. What Hamas is doing is partially supported by the people.”