NEW YORK — Israel ended 2013 in much the same way as previous years: facing a surge of terrorist activity from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
On Dec. 24, Salah Shukri Abu Latyef, a 22-year-old Israeli Defense Ministry worker who was repairing the border fence with Gaza, was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper. Abu Latyef’s murder was followed by a series of rocket attacks that provoked response strikes from the Israeli military, which deemed that the assault directly threatened the 13,500 Israelis living in the immediate vicinity, on weapons-manufacturing facilities in Gaza.
Israel’s explanation of its response was also little different from previous years. “The manufacturing of rockets in Gaza has no other purpose except to target Israel and its sovereignty, putting thousands of lives at risk,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, the IDF’s spokesman.
Exactly three years after the so-called Arab Spring descended on the region, bringing both the promise of political change and the threat of even deadlier violence from jihadi groups, the fundamental menace that Hamas represents has remained unaffected by these broader developments. Israel is still the Islamist group’s eternal enemy, and its aim of destroying the Jewish state remains sacred.
But what has been profoundly altered is Hamas’s room for maneuver. Had this
latest sequence of events unfolded five years ago — not just the murder of Abu Latyef and the rocket attacks, but the bomb explosion on a bus in the city of Bat Yam moments after the passengers were fortunately evacuated — it’s quite conceivable that we would have seen a military reaction on the part of the Israelis that stretched well into January.
Quite simply, Hamas does not enjoy that kind of clout anymore. Over the past 12 months, the fortunes of the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent organization of Hamas that loudly proclaims, “Islam is the Solution,” have gone from peak to trough in a dizzyingly short space of time. In Tunisia, the governing Islamist Ennahda party was chastened by a coalition of secularist groups, and is currently in the final stages of handing over to a caretaker government. And in Egypt, where the Brotherhood was first formed in the late 1920s, the regime of Mohamed Morsi that came to power in 2012 was unseated by the Egyptian military, following angry demonstrations against the Brotherhood that, left unchecked, might have resulted in a nasty civil war.
In these conditions, Hamas is just about clinging on to power in Gaza. But all the signs are that the Gaza Strip’s Palestinian residents are becoming more and more fed up with Islamist rule. Recently, a fuel crisis triggered by Egypt’s destruction of tunnels from Sinai into Gaza that had been used for smuggling, as well as a tax hike on fuel prices engineered by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, compelled Hamas to cancel the celebrations around the 26th anniversary of its formation. And when leading Palestinians gathered for a conference about political unity in the Qatari capital of Doha, the proceedings merely underlined their deepest differences. Fatah, reported the Saudi Gazette, has been left “with a feeling of impasse,” while Hamas “is hardly more ebullient.”
Continued the Gazette, “The lack of a shared vision — the Islamic militant group depends on force and Fatah continues to negotiate — only deepens the sense of fragmentation, said participants.”
All this suggests that a killer blow to Hamas might be dealt as early as 2014, and will emanate not from Israel, but from Egypt. One IDF officer has even spoken of an Egyptian “strategic decision to paralyze Hamas.”
Such a decision would certainly be in keeping with Egypt’s strategy toward the Muslim Brotherhood at home, along with its determination to defeat the jihadi fighters who have gathered in Sinai. Following the recent suicide bombing against a security compound in Mansoura, which left 16 people dead and more than 100 wounded, the Cairo authorities banned the Brotherhood by declaring it a “terrorist organization.” Freedom and Justice, the Brotherhood’s Orwellian-sounding newspaper, has been shut down, and a huge number of social and welfare organizations associated with the organization have had their bank accounts frozen.
Should Egyptian pressure lead to the collapse of Hamas, Gaza’s problems are unlikely to be solved overnight. The Palestinian Authority will find it difficult to assert itself in the Gaza Strip, while smaller and more radical jihadi groups could mushroom amidst the vacuum. Crucially, in neither the West Bank nor Gaza has a political force emerged to give Israel confidence in the negotiating process. For the foreseeable future, then, Gaza will retain all the trappings of a failed state but with a diminished capacity to wage terror.
(Ben Cohen is a political analyst for JNS.org.)