After eight years under siege, Hamas is fighting to stave off a slow death

Rockets launched from the Gaza strip. EPA/Jim Hollander

After days of oscillation over an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, the conflict between Israel and Hamas has escalated into a full-on Israeli ground offensive in Gaza. According to authorities in Gaza, 258 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the latest hostilities – which now show no sign of slowing.

By the time Israel’s forces rolled in, reports of Mahmoud Abbas’s meeting with General al-Sisi in Cairo had already exposed just how low Hamas’s relations with its most important former ally have sunk, with Egypt reportedly seeking a deal that would place Gaza back under Abbas’s control.

Predictably, Hamas’s rejection of Egypt’s ceasefire plan has been subject to widespread misunderstanding and distortion – and superficial western commentary has failed to take into account the critically important political context that has shaped the Hamas response.

Historically, Egypt’s intelligence services were the main channel through which Hamas and Israel mediated their disputes. These services had intensive contact and dialogue with both their Israeli and Hamas counterparts during the conflicts in 2008/2009 and 2012, and these mediations led to the successful brokering of ceasefires on both occasions – hence the frequent current references to the 2012 ceasefire.

But that channel has now closed. This time around, while Israel was reportedly consulted on the main points of the Egyptian ceasefire initiative, Hamas’s leaders say they were not part of the negotiations that constituted the Egyptian initiative. In fact, they claim to have heard about about it through media reports, rather than from any diplomatic source.

This is a major shift from the way Egypt has dealt with Hamas during previous conflicts with Israel – and it is largely a consequence of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Allies no more

As a close ally of the the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, one of the most influential religious organisations in the Muslim world, Hamas has made strategic choices that have been very damaging to its regional ties, and especially to its relationship with Egypt. Hamas has aligned itself with softly-leaning Islamist governments in Turkey and Qatar; in the process, it has shifted its allegiances away from former close supporters like Iran and Syria.

This is why in 2012, when the Israeli-Hamas fighting broke out, Morsi’s Brotherhood-ruled Egypt was able to play a pivotal role in mediating a ceasefire agreement. Morsi in fact threatened that Egypt would not remain neutral in the fight, and condemned Israel’s Gaza policy at the UN.

But since the ouster of Morsi just over a year ago, the new administration in Cairo has pursued a scorched earth policy of elimination against the Muslim Brotherhood, arresting thousands of brotherhood members as well as Morsi himself.

Hamas now stands accused of assisting the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, supporting the deposed Morsi government, and helping foment uprisings against the new Egyptian rulers.

In particular, it is accused of assisting in attacks against Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai – but no evidence has been publicly produced to confirm the accusations that Hamas committed or assisted in terrorist activities on Egyptian soil.

Still, ever since Morsi’s removal, the military-led regime has waged a war against Hamas, largely through economic means. In particular, it has destroyed more than 90% of the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, which used to serve as the principal lifeline for Gaza in terms of goods and services, food, petroleum, and arms. Taxing these imports was crucial for subsidising the running of Gaza, providing millions of dollars in vital income.

Double siege

The destruction of the Rafah tunnels is especially important given that, over the past eight years, Israel has consistently besieged Gaza from land, air and sea, keeping it isolated and cut off. David Cameron drew fire for suggesting in 2010 that Gaza’s current situation is analogous to that of a gigantic “prison camp”, but he is hardly alone in that assessment.

What has changed in the last year and a half is that Gaza is now besieged by both Israel and Egypt. The Egyptian siege has been particularly painful; fully cutting off Gaza from the outside world, it has left Hamas bleeding to death.

The current violence therefore reflects a measure of desperation on the part of the Hamas leadership. Hamas’s military and governance capacity has been hugely damaged, and before the current violence broke out, it had tried to reconcile with President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah – an acknowledgement of its extremely fragile position.

Hamas had hoped that reconciling with the more secular nationalist movement in the West Bank would provide salaries for its tens of thousands of workers, and allow it to hold on against the two-pronged Israeli-Egyptian seige. This hope was never realised, and with thousands of unpaid workers on its hands, Hamas' existential crisis continues – while the standard of everyday life for the residents of Gaza has steadily deteriorated.

This was the context for the event that sparked the current crisis: the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers followed by the murder a Palestinian youth.

The spark

Israel has provided no concrete evidence implicating Hamas in the murders, and the crime is not typical of Hamas’s methods; they would have been much more likely to use the teenagers to bargain for the release of Palestinian prisoners. But Israel has nonetheless started a major crackdown in response to the murder, arresting not only hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists but also more than 50 former prisoners who had been released for the return of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Ironically, neither Israel nor Hamas wants an all-out confrontation. Yet their calculated and limited escalation has spiralled out of control – as has the number of Palestinian casualties.

A funeral in Khanyounis refugee camp, in the south of the Gaza Strip. EPA

When Israel started bombing Gaza, the silence of the international community was deafening. As has happened so many times before, Israel’s allies give a yellow light, if not a green one, framing its actions as an assertions of Israel’s right “to defend its citizens, towns, and cities”.

For their part, Israeli experts and strategists have long framed their periodic engagements in Gaza as “mowing the lawn,” which is meant to degrade Hamas’s military capability and try to break its will, as well as to destroy its capacity to govern, by keeping in in a state of constant attrition and scarcity.

But after a few days of aerial bombing, mounting casualties triggered the moral conscience of the world – particularly due to the rising number of children killed.

In contrast to his predecessors, Egypt’s leader General al-Sisi made no major statements in support of the Palestinian side. The foreign ministry placed blame on both sides, and called on them to cease hostilities.

The dilemma facing Israel is that it does not have the capacity to break the will of Hamas, and it knows that its ground invasion will be extremely politically costly.

Core concerns

The Egyptian ceasefire initiative did not address Hamas’s core concerns; ending the eight-year siege and opening the Rafah crossing to allow supplies and revenue back into Gaza. Even though the recent ceasefire said this could be discussed afterwards – that was what the 2012 ceasefire promised and did not deliver. It is unlikely Hamas would once again accept the 2012 terms, because they can no longer depend on the Egyptian lifeline which has been withdrawn.

Hamas is not waging all-out war against Israel; in fact, its political leaders have made it clear they would like to translate this round of violence into concrete political gains. It has a limited set of demands; it principally wants to stop the bleeding and the war of starvation waged against it by Egypt and Israel, and find a way out of its existential crisis.

Despite the foolishness and absurdity of its rocket attacks, Hamas is not a messianic movement that wants to die fighting; it is a movement battling for survival. The current Hamas strategy, then, is a limited military one of seeking leverage to bargain for relief from the ongoing siege of Gaza.

Bargaining

Both camps have been trying to maximise their bargaining position. Abbas is in Egypt, as are some Hamas allies, particularly Islamic Jihad; there are no reports of any Hamas leaders from Gaza or exile (for instance, in Qatar) coming to Egypt.

Hamas and Egypt are currently testing each other’s nerve. Hamas wants to engage the Egyptian government and press the point that they have nothing to do with the Islamist insurgency there, in an effort to get the border crossings open and re-engage with the new al-Sissi administration.

But regardless of whether this round of conflict is resolved sooner rather than later, or whether Egypt softens its stance on Hamas, the fundamental challenge facing both Palestinians and Israelis remains the same: to reach a political settlement for a viable Palestinian state where both Palestinians and Israelis can live in peace and security.

As things stand with now, with Israel’s ongoing and thickening settlements on the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem and its strangulation and now ground invasion of of Gaza, Palestinians feel a sense of hopelessness and despair.

As things stand, there seems to be no light at the end of this tunnel.