The attack is undoubtedly a challenge to Hamas and its decade-long governance of Gaza, one that would have been unthinkable until a few years ago. If it was carried out by Daesh, the most likely perpetrators, it would be the latest in a series of attacks by the group against Hamas in Gaza over the past few years (in 2015, Daesh threatened to “uproot” and “overrun” the “tyrants of Hamas,” and to implement Islamic law in Gaza).
However, this attack is of particular significance because it is the first suicide bombing against Hamas in the besieged territory. Its dominance is not in doubt despite all the internal and external challenges it faces, but this suicide bombing will give Hamas cause for concern if it represents an escalation by jihadist opponents. Either way, it presents the faction with both opportunities and risks.
It may enable Hamas to actually consolidate its hold on Gaza, either via a heightened crackdown on dissent as part of a “war on terror” — a popular tactic in the region — or because Gazans might rally around Hamas for fear of Daesh.
In this regard, Hamas is likely to accelerate ongoing rapprochement with Mohammed Dahlan. The former Fatah leader in Gaza used to be a foe, but he is an old friend of Hamas’s newly elected leader in the territory, and has fallen out with its main domestic rival, Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
An alliance with Dahlan is a gamble for Hamas given that he is a highly divisive figure among Palestinians. But at a time when the PA is ratcheting up economic pressure on Hamas in Gaza, this presents Hamas and Dahlan with an opportunity to undermine Abbas, not least because of Dahlan’s good ties with leaders in neighboring Egypt and certain Gulf states, on whose support the PA relies.
As such, a Hamas-Dahlan alliance may ease the increased pressure on the faction since Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain cut ties with Qatar, citing among other things its support for Hamas. This would go a considerable way to alleviating the faction’s regional isolation. On Thursday, it was reported that the UAE, where Dahlan lives in exile, will provide $15 million per month in humanitarian and development aid to Gaza from September.
And last month, Dahlan said he expected an agreement between him and Hamas to entail an easing of Egypt’s blockade of Gaza. He said funding had been secured from the UAE for a $100 million power plant, to be built on Egypt’s side of the border, to ease Gaza’s crippling power shortages. These overtures are not meant for Hamas’s benefit, but it would certainly gain from an improvement in Gaza’s worsening humanitarian crisis.
The Gaza attack, probably by Daesh, is a challenge to the Palestinian faction — but one from which it could ultimately benefit.
PA officials are skeptical of a warming of ties between Cairo and Hamas, particularly given the enmity that followed the overthrow of Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi in 2013. But ties have improved recently following increased Hamas patrols of Gaza’s southern border with Egypt to stop the movement of jihadist militants. The PA has no leverage to thwart such a rapprochement.
While Cairo has accused Hamas of aiding the Sinai insurgency, last week’s suicide attack gives the faction the opportunity to present itself as on the same side against a common enemy in Daesh.
And while Israel would certainly not entertain any overtures toward Hamas, the suicide bombing may reinforce the view among some Israeli officials that however much they loathe the faction, it is more palatable than the likes of Daesh. Indeed, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy has said Hamas’s “battle against other organizations in the Gaza Strip, which reject its authority, serves Israel’s security needs.”
And Sami Turgeman, the commander of Israel’s forces outside Gaza who had a leading role in the 2014 war, said both sides “have shared interests,” including “quiet and calm.” He added: “There is no substitute for Hamas as sovereign in the Strip. The substitute is the Israeli army and chaotic rule... and then the security situation would be much more problematic.”
Abbas may not have qualms about seeing Hamas’s governance of Gaza crumble. But whatever the rhetoric from Cairo and Tel Aviv, the specter of Daesh and its ilk at their doorstep is far more troubling for them than for Abbas, whose bantustans in the West Bank are separated from Gaza by Israel.
Any hope from Abbas that the suicide bombing might be the prelude to a greater challenge to Hamas’s authority in Gaza may be misplaced, or at least premature. Played right, Hamas could turn the incident to its advantage.
• Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and commentator on Arab affairs.