Military operations often bear deeply symbolic names. By dubbing the Gaza offensive “Pillar of Defense” (Amud Ananin Hebrew), the Israeli powers-that-be were alluding to the divine providence that guided and protected the children of Israel in the form of a cloud during their exodus from Egypt.
Hamas, for its part, has also chosen a name with deep Islamic significance, denoting godly intervention on behalf of Arabs at a time of great distress.
Operation “Shale Stones” is a poor English translation of the Arabic Hijjara min Sijjil, a reference to the miraculous stones of hard clay carried by flocks of birds sent by God to rebuff the army of Abraha, the Christian king of Yemen, who stormed the holy Kaaba in Mecca with an army mounted on elephants in the year 570 CE. This story from the Koran is known to every Muslim child.
So, as one astute Saudi Twitter user noted, the battle between Israel and Hamas has been framed as a face-off between Torah and Koran; a true clash of civilizations.But does Hamas, like the pre-Islamic inhabitants of Arabia, really expect divine intervention, or does it possess more earthly demands? In other words, what is its endgame?
“Hamas’s primary concern is an economic one,” says Gaza political scientist Ayman Shaheen. “It wants to establish its rule in Gaza with no blockade and no economic constraints. Hamas basically wants to prove to the residents of Gaza that it can provide them with a decent life.”
The speed with which Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil arrived in Gaza on Friday — less than 48 hours after the start of the Israeli operation — closely followed by Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem, speaks to the dramatic upgrade in Hamas’s position in the eyes of “Arab Spring” countries. The Syrian opposition could only dream of such Arab alacrity in support of its cause.
But Hamas also wants to play a more significant role in Middle East politics, Shaheen adds. The Islamic movement began to work with serious political players during negotiations on the prisoner swap for abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and would like to expand that activity. Egypt, whose new government shares Hamas’s political ideology, will be nothing but supportive.
But what about the armed struggle?
Shaheen says that, even if Hamas were interested in holding its fire, which it currently is, it would be hard-pressed to convince all of its Islamist rivals in the Gaza Strip to do the same.
“You in Israel believe that everything in Gaza can be controlled [by Hamas], but that is not the case. You cannot demand to control every rocket launch, just like the PA or Israel can’t control every action emanating from its territory.”
Economically, Hamas is more interested in forging ties with Egypt than with Israel, or even with the other half of the Palestinian body politic in the West Bank, Shaheen argues.
Hamas would like to see the Rafah border crossing with Egypt opened around the clock, allowing the passage of merchandise — not only people, as is the case today. Hamas is less excited about economic trade with the Palestinian Authority through Israel, as most of the tax revenue will end up in PA hands.
At his press conference Monday evening, Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal spoke very little of strategy. He portrayed his movement as merely reacting to Israeli aggression, outlining no grand plan beyond the tactical removal of Israel’s blockade and an end to Israeli targeted killings of Hamas operatives.
He blamed Israel for starting this round of violence, said Hamas did not seek an escalation, mocked Israel’s reluctance to use ground forces, and said it was Israel that was seeking a ceasefire. “Those who started the attack must hold their fire, and we will hold ours, under our conditions.”
Ultimately, he made predictably clear, Hamas seeks the elimination of Israel. ”The entity [Israel] is destined to disappear, even if it takes a few years,” he told the press in Cairo. Perhaps in the distant future, like a bad dream, he seemed to be saying, Israel will simply cease to exist.
Hillel Frisch, an expert on Palestinian affairs at Bar-Ilan University, says it would be unrealistic to expect a clear strategy for this conflict from Hamas, which was taken by surprise by the killing of its military leader Ahmad Jabari on Wednesday.
“Hamas didn’t initiate this round, but it would like to see an agreement that would bring Israel to its knees,” Frisch told The Times of Israel. “Hamas has lost its popularity on the street long ago, and when it starts cleaning up the broken glass following this round, it will face an angry street.”
Indeed, Hamas has greatly relied on Egypt, but that has proved to be a losing bet, says Frisch.
The new Egypt fundamentally deals with Hamas in the same way that the Mubarak regime did, he argues. The Palestinian portfolio remains in the hands of Egypt’s intelligence agency, not with the president or the prime minister.
Yes, Arab officials are now flocking to Gaza, but that hasn’t prevented some 1,000 Israeli strikes against the small Palestinian enclave since Wednesday.