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The Psychology of the Waiting Game: Is Hamas in the Driver’s Seat?

An IDF map of the civilian evacuation of Rafah ahead of the planned offensive, released May 6, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)

Hamas is employing dilatory tactics in their mediated negotiation with Israel. This allows them to “play for time” and paralyze Israeli action such as entering Rafah, the final Hamas stronghold. Hamas will not give precise answers to negotiators while claiming that negotiations are still active.

  • During the delay, Israel is exposed to pressure to stay clear of Rafah, to increase humanitarian aid, and to allow Gazans to return to north Gaza – all Hamas goals.

  • Whether a deal is reached or not, a considerable number of Israeli hostages will remain in Hamas’s hands, allowing Yahya Sinwar to repeat this strategy again.

  • If Hamas succeeds in preventing Israel’s military action and the IDF fails to remove Hamas from power, the Palestinian “resistance” would claim justification for its invasion of Israel on October 7, 2023.

  • Hamas’s strategy needs to be actively countered to prevent their psychological victory.

As of May 6, 2024, there still is no certainty regarding the outcome of mediated negotiations between Israel and Hamas on the hostage issue and, despite pronouncements to the contrary, on an IDF incursion into Rafah.1

The lack of clarity on these issues allows Hamas, a non-state actor who follows no rules, to take the lead and determine the direction of the war that has been going on since October 7, 2023. Hamas’ strategy is becoming clear: Play a “waiting game” where time is the variable that serves to their advantage. The more time that passes, the greater the pressure on Israel to refrain from military operations,2 to formulate plans post-war (including normalization with Saudi Arabia),3 and to be subject to public and media demands to conclude a hostage deal.4

By appearing to engage in serious negotiations, leaking various statements that purport to show their interest in a deal, and continuing to negotiate while not deciding ostensibly, Hamas avoids being blamed for refusing to deal while simultaneously disrupting IDF strategy. In essence, Hamas is the party in control of the negotiations.

The strategy is one that outside actors are abetting. With repeated public pronouncements opposing Israeli action in Rafah,5 Hamas can take their time, believing that Israel will not act without the expressed consent of the United States. That this attitude exists is borne out by a brazen attack on Sunday, May 5, 2024, when a rocket barrage was directed at the Kerem Shalom crossing,6 the very crossing where humanitarian aid supplies pass into Gaza from Israel.7 Four soldiers were killed8. One would think that a weaker party, namely Hamas, seriously trying to avoid being invaded by a stronger party, namely Israel, would not engage in provocative actions that work contrary to that goal. Moreover, the attack originated from Rafah, the area targeted by the Israeli military. Unless another party initiated the attack, Hamas appears to have ignored the risk such an attack creates for Israeli action against them.

By delaying response to the mediated proposal, Hamas determines the path and pace of the negotiations. They are the ones who determine whether there will be a deal and do so while humanitarian aid continues into Gaza, while the Rafah border with Egypt is still not under Israeli control, and while they maintain the ability to prepare for a possible Israel attack. Meanwhile, they continue to bolster their return to areas in the Northern and Central areas of the Gaza Strip.9

If a hostage deal is reached and, as a result, Israel does not invade Rafah, the chances of future military action are likewise decreased since the United States is likely to oppose such a move. If a deal is not reached and IDF action does result, sustained military action will depend again on Hamas’s decision regarding willingness to negotiate at any point for the hostages. Their strategy of placing pressure on Israel to make a possible subsequent deal will likely continue, and the behavior we see now will undoubtedly be repeated, with dilatory tactics serving to delay and disrupt Israeli action and with international opposition to military action in Rafah and Gaza, in general, continuing to maintain Hamas’s ability to remain in power.

Time is on the side of Hamas, and their strategy will result in lowering the probability of sustained Israeli military action, increase the chance that all the hostages will not be returned without significant concessions, and, most notably for Hamas, ensure their remaining in power in an eventually rebuilt Gaza Strip. All this will hopefully not happen, but without effective opposition to Hamas’s strategy for the Palestinian resistance, the atrocity of October 7, 2023, will have achieved its goal.













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