August 3, 2014
by Avi Melamed
The next line will probably astonish many people.
When Israel formally announced that the IDF kidnapped Officer, Hadar Goldin, was pronounced dead – Hamas breathed a sigh of relief.
This sentence seems totally crazy; it doesn’t make any sense. After all, Hamas’ strategic objective was, and is, to abduct an Israeli – preferably a soldier – that will be a bargaining chip for the release of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. Hamas wishes to recreate the case of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was abducted and held in captivity by Hamas for more than 5 years (2006-2011) who was released in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Throughput the current military round Hamas proclaims their biggest desire is to capture an Israeli soldier.
During the early phase of the current round, Hamas published identification details of an Israeli soldier, hinting he had been captured by Hamas. That announcement evoked bursts of ecstatic joy and celebrations among Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. However, that didn’t last long. Israel formally announced that the soldier was killed.
Hamas’ ultimate dream was – and is – to capture an Israeli soldier. That could be the “winning card”; the card that will compensate for Hamas’ military defeat in this round; the card that will justify the death of hundreds of innocent Palestinians in the fighting; the card that will validate the inconceivable destruction and heartbreaking catastrophe to the Gaza Strip because of Hamas; the card that will counteract the harsh criticism in the Arab world towards Hamas for the catastrophe the organization brings on its people.
Given all of that, one would reasonably assume that Hamas would celebrate the capture of an Israeli officer. Why then did Hamas breathe a sigh of relief once it was clear that they were not holding an Israeli soldier?
The answer is that the unique set of circumstances surrounding that specific kidnapping could have caused Hamas strategic damage; Hamas could have found itself holding a strategic burden – not a strategic asset.
To answer that question we have to understand the circumstances.
In the hours following the event of the kidnapping of the Israeli Officer, Hadar Goldin, some interesting and quite unusual behavior on the part of Hamas captured my attention:
First, Hamas senior leader, Musa Abu Marzuk, announced that Hamas had an Israeli soldier.
Shortly afterward he retracted this announcement.
Second, Hamas spokesmen made no formal announcement that Hamas had an Israeli soldier. Rather, Hamas spokesmen chose vague excuses like “we have no idea what happened to the soldier” or “It’s possible the soldier was killed together with his kidnapers.”
Third, formal Hamas spokesmen – including Hamas’ senior leader Khalid Mash’al – in media interviews both in Arabic and English, expressed an apologetic tone; it was very clear that Hamas was trying to justify the abduction.
What was the reason Hamas was “apologetic”?
The reason for Hamas’ apologetic approach was the tough reaction of the United States’ president who described the abduction as an unacceptable violation of the ceasefire agreement. A White House spokesperson described it as “a barbaric violation.” US President Obama demanded the immediate, unconditional release of the abducted soldier, calling upon factors who have influence on Hamas (i.e. Qatar and Turkey) to put pressure on Hamas to get the soldier back.
Why was Hamas disturbed by the United State president’s reaction?
There are two reasons:
One, identifying Hamas with a “barbaric violation” perpetuates Hamas’ image as a cynical terror organization that has no respect for any moral or decent codes of behavior. Thus, it damages Hamas’ efforts to gain the recognition of the international community as a legitimate representative of the Palestinians.
Two, the US President personally addressed the issue because he was insulted – not by Hamas but by Hamas’ patron – Qatar. One should remember that Qatar guaranteed the ceasefire that was announced formally by the US Secretary of State as well as the UN Secretary General. Hamas’ violation of the cease-fire caused Qatar deep embarrassment. One can only imagine the Qatari intelligence officers screaming at Khalid Mash’al, Hamas’ leader – who comfortably resides in Qatar.
Here is a side note in that context. It seems as if Qatar is having second thoughts about hosting Hamas’ leader Khalid Mash’al. A senior Jordanian source who I evaluate as reliable, disclosed an interesting story…
Some time ago, Qatar asked Jordan to host Khalid Mash’al permanently. The Jordanians, in response, politely asked “why should we do that?” Qatar’s reply was that Jordan could be a good base for Mash’al to continue his Jihadist activity against Israel. “Well,” said the Jordanians, “in that case we would like to suggest that Mash’al move to the Gaza Strip.”
The Qatari screams about Hamas’ kidnapping of the soldier and violation of the ceasefire went down Hamas’ chain of command – or more accurately up Hamas’ chain of command – all the way to Hamas’ strongest man Mohammad Deff, the leader of Hamas military wing Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades. Deff apparently doesn’t care about the outcry of the people of the Gaza Strip, but he is very well tuned to the Qatari screams.
Understanding these circumstances can now help us address the question why holding an Israeli soldier could have caused strategic damage to Hamas? Why is Hamas better off not holding an Israeli soldier under these circumstances?
First, Israel rushed to announce that the Israel soldier is a POW. The meaning of that is that Hamas would have had to comply with international covenants – such as allowing the Red Cross to visit the soldier and/or the immediate, unconditional disclosure of information about the soldier. Hamas’ modus operandi in such cases is totally different – in the case of Gilad Shalit, Hamas made Israel pay a price for every single piece of information regarding Shalit. Hamas’ modus operandi is inspired by Hamas’ role model and mentor – Hezbollah in Lebanon. In this case however, adopting a similar modus operandi and refusing to comply with international covenants could have boomeranged on Hamas because it would reconfirm Hamas’ negative image as brutal, cynical terror organization, thus diminishing Hamas’ efforts to gain international legitimacy.
Second, Israel announced that any talks were off the table as long as Hamas had the Israeli soldier. On that matter Israel enjoys the decisive support of the US president. That is very problematic for Hamas because it means that Israel could – and would – continue its pressure on Hamas, who is already in a desperate situation.
Third, Qatar and Turkey, the major patrons of Hamas in recent years (Turkey for example gave dozens of millions of Euros to the Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades and may be connected to the kidnapping and murder of the three boys a month ago) wish to be part of the future arrangements in the Gaza Strip. President Obama made it very clear that there is a price they have to pay to be in the game – the immediate, unconditional release of the abducted Israeli soldier. Both Qatar and Turkey (but mostly Qatar) would have left Hamas no choice but to release the soldier. Hamas would have had no say and no option since they have to comply with Qatar and Turkey who are currently their big funders. Clearly Hamas would not be able to monetize the card the same way he did in the case of Gilad Shalit.
Hamas positions itself as the spearhead of the efforts to release Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. This topic is of ultimate importance in the Palestinian agenda and in Palestinian politics. The abduction of Gilad Shalit was one of Hamas’ biggest achievements; the swap deal that resulted in Shalit’s release earned Hamas important points within Palestinian society as well as in the Arab world. Yet, at the same time, it presents Hamas with a growing challenge. Families of thousands of Palestinians who are still imprisoned in Israel were disappointed with the fact that their sons were not released in the swap deal. Hamas found itself under growing pressure to recreate the case of Gilad Shalit. To read more I wrote on that issue please see Israel – Hamas Prisoner Swap Deal: Arab Perspectives (2011) and One Israeli Soldier Impacts the Arab World (2013).
One should remember that one of the major justifications Hamas made for initiating this military round was the issue of Hamas activists and leaders in the Palestinian territories in the West Bank who were arrested by Israel following the June 12th kidnapping and subsequent murder of the three Israeli teenagers Gil-Ad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Fraenkel. Hamas made it very clear that the unconditional and immediate release of all of these people is a non-negotiable condition to end the fight. One has to remember another important fact, as an outcome of the fighting in this round, Israel holds some 280 Hamas militants, including some commanders of Hamas elite units. Under tough Qatari pressure to release the Israeli soldier, Hamas’ ability to monetize that card could have been narrowed dramatically. Hamas could not monetize that card as he did in the case of Shalit. In fact, it is more likely that Hamas would have found itself in an unbearable situation, forced by the circumstances to release the soldier for a very modest compensation – perhaps the release of some of its captured militants, perhaps the release of some of its West Bank arrested leaders – not more than that.
Having an Israeli soldier under these circumstances would have been a nightmare for Hamas; failing to monetize the card of an abducted Israeli soldier that would somehow compensate the growing rage among the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip for the suffering and destruction Hamas has caused them; facing the rage of the families of the Palestinian families who – again – will be disappointed with the fact that their sons are still imprisoned and; Hamas needing to decide if they would trade the soldier for either their West Bank people or the 280 militants captured by Israel would have caused Hamas enormous stress that could escalate and accelerate the growing rage against Hamas, resulting in an open, massive uprising against Hamas’ rule in the Gaza Strip. No wonder that Hamas releases a sigh of relief. Yet, it is very doubtful Hamas is heading towards tranquility.
I would like to share one last observation regarding this event. Quite often, I talk about the misperceptions of West regarding the mindset and codes of behavior in the Middle East. This time, I present the opposite perspective. Hamas’ violation of the ceasefire was a miscalculated move and a major mistake, stemming from the fact that Hamas did not understand that in the Western mindset and codes of behavior, agreements and formal commitments are to be kept and fulfilled strictly. Hamas was clearly surprised with the decisive, cut clear reaction of the US president.