Jerusalem – After a ceasefire with Israel, Hamas has claimed “victory” but the Palestinian Islamist group’s success lies more in marginalizing its political rival Fatah than in battle, analysts say.
The return of calm to the Hamas-run enclave of Gaza, after 11 days of Israeli air strikes on the coastal strip — and rocket fire sent in the other direction — was celebrated Friday by large crowds waving Palestinian flags.
“This is the euphoria of victory,” senior Hamas figure Khalil al-Hayya told jubilant Palestinians in the densely populated enclave after the Egypt-brokered truce.
Hamas began a barrage of heavy rocket fire from Gaza toward Israel on May 10, in response to repeated clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces inside annexed east Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound.
In total, Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched more than 4,300 projectiles, according to Israel — an intensity of fire seen as unprecedented, even if most rockets were intercepted by its Iron Dome defense system or fell short.
A major factor in Hamas’ own claim to victory lies in “being seen as defending Palestinian rights, especially in relation to Jerusalem — and (in) facing down Israel”, said Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Jamal al-Fadi, a professor of political science in Gaza, said Hamas feels victorious “because it was able to strike deep inside Israel … (and) Israel could not prevent it.”
Fadi also said the militants had proved their ability to build up a substantial arsenal, despite the Gaza Strip having been under blockade for 14 years.
On the other side, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Israel’s intense bombardment of Gaza by air strikes and mortar fire as an “exceptional success” that had killed “more than 200 terrorists”.
The Jewish state can “point to its degradation of Hamas military capabilities,” Lovatt said.
But one area where Hamas can claim a clear victory is in further sidelining Fatah, which runs the Palestinian Authority from Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.
Hamas and Fatah, a secular organization led by president Mahmud Abbas, have been at loggerheads since the last Palestinian elections, before a partial reconciliation in recent months.
Held in 2006, those polls were won by Hamas, which pushed Fatah out of Gaza the following year, in what came close to a Palestinian civil war.
Elections were due on May 22, but 86-year-old Abbas abruptly postponed them earlier this month, alienating Hamas afresh.
Hamas saw elections as way “to relieve itself from the burden of governance by eventually bringing back the PA” to poverty-stricken Gaza, said Lovatt.
“The prospect of … a government of national unity which Hamas would (have) supported or been a member of could have allowed for more progress,” he added.
“But because the path for political engagement was closed, they had to reconfigure their calculations.”
Hamas uses cycles of violence as attempts to extract “concessions” from Israel over Gaza, including relaxations of import curbs and increased export permits for residents.
For Hamas, periodic bouts of violence are its main competitive advantage against Fatah, said Hussein Ibish, a Middle East expert.
“They claim to be the defenders of Palestine … in contrast to a supine PA government,” he added.
Fadi said: “Abbas has become powerless. … His political performance is no longer acceptable to the public.”
His tenure began in 2009 — the same year as Netanyahu began his 12 successive years as Israel’s premier.
Netanyahu’s governments have expanded settlements — seen as illegal by much of the international community — and the U.S. has recognized Jerusalem as the Jewish state’s capital.
According to Fadi, it remains to be seen if Hamas, branded a “terrorist organisation” by the U.S. and the European Union, is able to manage the post-conflict period, notably the challenge of reconstructing Gaza.
Lovatt describes the ceasefire with Israel as “very fragile”.
“There is no reason to believe it’s going to be any more sustainable than the past ones — so it’s just a question of when … the next war” erupts, he said.
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