Living in the shadow of terror

Nathan Jeffay (right) being briefed by an IDF captain on the Gaza border.

IN southern Israel, the start of Passover came with a sense of foreboding for some. “There’s an element of fear going into the chag,” said Yosef Dahan, a 74-year- old technician as he loaded shopping into his car in Sderot. He added that “all the family worries”. 

Hamas is vowing revenge after the death – allegedly an assassination by Israel – of Hamas commander Mazen Fuqaha, and the group’s new leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar is seen as a hard-liner and thought to be pushing his militants hard. And while rocket attacks are rare as they have been since the 2014 Gaza War, there has been an increase in fire over recent weeks. 

Dahan said, “Normally nowadays there isn’t fear, but now, after what was, there are worries of something happening. Now, they want to take revenge and it’s possible that an operation could follow.”

A few minutes after talking to Dahan and other locals, I was standing on the border, being briefed by a captain from the Israeli army. From there, it’s clear what a high-power threat Israel faces today from Gaza. Long gone is the era when Hamas was chaotic military group – today it is so well organised that Israeli soldiers even have a sneaking admiration.

Today, every two or three kilometres on the other side of the border there are Hamas flags and uniformed Hamas militants. They have powers given to them by Gaza’s rulers, and act as “law” enforcers. On appearance alone, they “look more and more like us,” said an Israeli army captain who was with me at the border. The captain told me: “I don’t know whether to say it’s good or bad but it’s impressive.”

What is more, it’s clear that the missiles that Israelis will face in the next round of violence are stronger and will travel further than what has been seen until now. “We know to say for sure that they have all the sorts of missiles that the countries around us have,” the captain told me. 

At the Sderot shopping centre before I headed to the briefing, some residents like Dahan had been pessimistic, while others said that calm would continue for a while. But nobody predicted long-term calm, indicating that residents are mostly asking when, not if, the next round of violence will come. 

Dudu Yehubai, 52, predicted a confrontation with Hamas, but not quite yet. “I think more than ever they are trying to start something,” he said, reasoning that Hamas is under pressure to prove its strength to its people. Ofir Sror, 50, disagreed, saying: “I don’t feel they are under huge pressure.” But, he added, “I worry about the future.”

Standing overlooking the Gaza border, just 800 metres from the nearest Hamas post, the big news story that is focusing international attention on Hamas seems rather academic. It’s the story of Hamas’s new charter, which is expected to be released any day. 

Seemingly, Passover isn’t just the season for Jews to focus on liberation. Hamas is using these days to put the finishing touches to this new charter complete with its anticipated rejection of “any alternative to the liberation of Palestine”.

According to the latest leak, the document will mention the possibility of a Palestinian state only in the West Bank, Gaza and eastern Jerusalem – but conclude that all land controlled by Israel should be Palestinian. 

Fighters from Hamass Ezz-Al Din Al Qassam Brigades at last month’s memorial service for Mazen Fuqaha. Photo: EPA/Mohammed Saber

Hamas will “not relinquish any part of the land of Palestine,” it will pledge.

The new charter doesn’t change Hamas’s core beliefs, but it does have sections that build bridges with the Western-backed Palestinian Authority. 

And it has a notable absence compared to its 1988 charter: explicit anti-Semitism. 

The new document is expected to differentiate between “the Jews as a People of the Book and as followers of a religion on one hand, and the occupation and the Zionist project on the other hand,” affirming that “Hamas does not view the conflict with the Zionist project as a conflict with the Jews because of their religion.”

THIS fascinates commentators around the world, but up on the border what does the distinction amount to? Are Hamas’s men with binoculars on the other side of the border, who can see my every move and could fire a rocket in my direction at any moment, officially interested in the fact that, as they can probably see, there’s a small kippah on my head? Or are they just interested in the fact that the state where I’m standing is the “usurper Zionist entity”?

Of course, if Hamas were genuinely rooting out all anti-Semitism from its mosques, media, education, and propaganda, this could be a step forwards, but all indications are that the new charter is being issued to ease relations with the Palestinian Authority, to calm tensions with Egypt, and to try to gain some benefits in the estimation of the international community. 

Its imams will continue to preach hatred against Jewish infidels, its media will continue their anti-Semitic segments, its teachers will continue to incite and its propaganda machine will continue unchanged.

Much will be said about this new document, but while there are some internal discussions within Hamas about the possibility of moderating some hard-line positions, the new document shouldn’t be misunderstood as evidence that these moderating voices have won some great internal victory. They haven’t. 

The writing of this new document doesn’t point to a significant change in what Hamas believes, but rather says a lot about the changes in its circumstances over the 29 years since the original charter was written. 

Today, Hamas has a territory, political power, and concerns of external relations. The new charter is just another stage in Hamas’s rise as a political power.

The consolidation of Hamas control means that rocket fire at the moment is limited. Its men are only rarely firing, and rockets from other groups are limited. 

“Hamas is controlling all the small groups and telling them what to do,” said the captain. 

As well as building fire-power Hamas is developing terror tunnels and, as suggested by Israel’s confiscation last week of 30 wetsuits being smuggled to Gaza, its strength to send divers to carry out attacks. 

The new charter will not reduce, by one iota, its desire to perpetrate attacks. The real question whether the maturity it has shown by reaching the realisation that a new charter is very smart spin, will also make it realise that, at least for now, renewing major attacks, isn’t in its interest. 

Or will its increased strength translate to increased military boldness, and more bloodshed on both sides?

NATHAN JEFFAY