The isolation of Hamas, which Israel has accomplished over the last decade and a half, was illustrated on Tuesday when Israel revealed that three months ago it intercepted a small vessel attempting to smuggle arms to Gaza.
While it is not known what materiel was found on board, the size of the vessel and the infrequency of reports like this indicate a larger regional picture for Hamas. It is isolated, and its recent decision to send Ismail Haniyeh on a world tour is part of its attempt to pursue a diplomatic-political track due to its failure on the battlefield.
Twenty years ago, Hamas was nearing the peak of its power. Its engineers were expert bomb makers. Its leaders were railing against Israel. Yahya Ayyash, the engineer, had been killed, but Khaled Meshaal had survived an assassination attempt. Hamas was pretending it represented a different path than Fatah and the leaders in the Palestinian Authority. It would resist and destroy Israel, whereas the PA was working on Oslo.
In the early 2000s, Hamas, like Hezbollah, had watched Israel withdraw from southern Lebanon and believed time was on its side.
Hamas appeared strengthened by the Second Intifada, growing its networks in Gaza and the West Bank. Like Hezbollah, it had watched Israel withdraw from southern Lebanon and believed time was on its side. Then Israel killed Salah Shehade in 2002, Ibrahim al-Makadmeh the following year and then Ahmad Yassin, Adnan al-Ghoul and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi in 2004, Abu Zakara al-Jamal and others in 2009 and Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in 2010.
Since the 2014 war, Hamas has lost its tunnels, and Israel has found a way to foil the tunneling problem.
Hamas bounced back from these killings by winning Palestinian elections and taking over Gaza in 2006. But it was increasingly frustrated in its attempts to import rockets and defeat Israel's Iron Dome after 2009. Chaos in Sinai after the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 helped it a bit, but a crackdown in Egypt after 2013 strangled it. Since the 2014 war, Hamas has lost its tunnels, and Israel has found a way to foil the tunneling problem almost hermetically.
What can Hamas do? The last years have seen the use of civilian protests and around 2,600 rockets fired (some by Palestine Islamic Jihad as well).
But Hamas has begun thinking about a long-term ceasefire. Gaza has been receiving paltry amounts from Qatar, and Hamas knows that international support is not forthcoming.
What it does have is some meetings in Turkey and discussions with Qatar, Malaysia and Iran. But the era of its powerful military wing, Izzadin al-Qassam, is largely over. Its attempt to leverage military failure to political and diplomatic success has been frustrated in the West Bank and elsewhere.
This isn't to say Hamas has nothing left in its arsenal. It is due to Israel's daily security struggle to prevent a resurgence that it has been kept the way it is. But even Israeli and Egyptian calculations have seen Haniyeh enter into his recent diplomatic offensive, traveling to Turkey, Malaysia, Qatar and back to Turkey and wherever else he thinks he might momentarily find a welcome.
Hamas' arsenal seems greatly reduced compared to the glory days when ships like the Karine A and Francop were intercepted by Israel smuggling weapons destined for Israel's enemies.
Iran would like to use Hamas and Islamic Jihad against Israel. But the days when rockets and engineers poured across Sinai and when smuggling could really be a game changer in Gaza appear in the past. Hamas has anti-tank Kornet missiles and rockets. But its arsenal seems greatly reduced compared to the glory days when ships like the Karine A and Francop were intercepted by Israel smuggling weapons destined for Israel's enemies.
Compare the cargo of the Karine 1, some 50 tons of weapons; or the Francop's estimated 3,000 Katyusha rockets, with what is being smuggled today.
Hamas's inability to put together major military operations and its use of civilians for a year and half of protests at the Great March of Return weekly border protests point to its decision to reduce tensions is due to frustration and challenges.
Hamas has ruled Gaza for a decade and a half, and has nothing to show for that rule.
Hamas has ruled Gaza for a decade and a half. That's a long time. It has nothing to show for that rule. Gaza remains under blockade. It has no real international support, at least not much that Hamas can profit off of. Hamas hasn't been able to transform itself into a Hezbollah or a Taliban. It also hasn't become a successful Muslim Brotherhood regime, capturing the state the way other parties rooted in the Brotherhood have tried to do so in Egypt or Turkey.
It hasn't become welcomed into the halls of the Mukata in Ramallah either. It can't decide if it is a terrorist organization or a political one. It can't put down the gun, or it will feel betrayed and outflanked. It can't put down the politics, or it will lose Gaza. Instead it ossifies. Its leaders grow older, and its young men don't remember the days when they could travel to Israel or have rallies in the West Bank. The greatest symbol of that ongoing failure may be the small boat intercepted three months ago.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.