from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Why Did Hamas Provoke a War?

July 09, 2014

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The current battles between Israel and Hamas were provoked by Hamas. Why?

When increased levels of rocket fire began about a week ago, Israeli prime minister Netanyahu responded with restraint. He sent clear messages to Hamas in public statements, and via Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt, that he wanted no war, and no incursion into Gaza; if the rocket attacks ended, this confrontation would be over.

But Hamas chose to increase the pace of firing, guaranteeing an Israeli response.

The question is why, and there are several answers.

First, consider Hamas’s situation a week ago. The economic situation in Gaza is dire, due both the reduced Iranian support and to the closure of the border with Egypt by the Egyptian Army. Gazans are unhappy with Hamas, due to the repression and corruption they see in its rule in Gaza, and to the economic situation. When Mohammed Morsi was elected president of Egypt two years ago, Hamas thought its situation would change: it is part of the Muslim Brotherhood, and now Egypt had a Brotherhood president. But even in his year in office, Morsi could not deliver for Hamas; the Army blocked him. And then he was overthrown by a military coup, replaced now by a president who commanded that Army and is deeply hostile to Hamas and the Brotherhood. The sense of growing power and perhaps inevitable victory for the Brotherhood is gone now.

So Hamas needed a way out of its increasingly difficult situation. John Kerry’s peace negotiations might have delivered some shake-up in the overall Israeli-Palestinian situation, but they failed. Hamas then tried a political maneuver: a deal with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority to form a non-party government in Ramallah that held the promise of bringing Hamas into the PA and PLO after elections later this year. But that maneuver was getting Hamas little benefit and few Palestinians believed an election would actually happen.

Meanwhile, most attention in the region was directed to ISIS, Iran, Iraq, and Syria; Hamas, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more broadly, were no longer news.

Finally, the arrangement Hamas had reached with Israel—no rocket attacks out of Gaza, no Israeli attacks into Gaza—was becoming increasingly tough for Hamas to maintain. Teen-age boys and young men do not join Hamas in order to police Gaza’s borders and prevent Islamic Jihad from attacking Israel; they join in order to attack Israel. Hamas was risking the charge from other terrorists that it was an auxiliary police force for Israel, and risking that young men would drift away to those other terrorist groups.

So, the Hamas leadership decided it had to shake things up.

This new battle with Israel has several benefits for Hamas. To say that Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt are passing messages from the Israelis about mutual restraint, and are urging Hamas to back off, is to say that these governments are now in daily contact with Hamas leaders. Statements from Hamas are now, once again, front page news; Hamas is no longer irrelevant. Hamas is now in its eyes and those, it hopes, of many Arabs, back in the front line of the struggle against Israel. It will also, it must believe, be seen as the heroic victim of Israeli attacks, worthy of solidarity and support—both political and financial. And this episode in its long struggle with Israel allows Hamas to show its capabilities: longer range missiles that attack Tel Aviv and further north, sea-based attacks by swimmers who enter Israel from the beaches, tunnels that would enable the kidnapping of more hostages to exchange or permit heavily armed men to reach Israeli communities and exact a high price in lives, and a high volume of rockets to overwhelm Israel’s high-tech defenses like Iron Dome. Finally, Hamas must believe that Israel desires to damage it and restore deterrence, but not to destroy Hamas and its rule in Gaza. Believing that chaos and anarchy or rule by Islamic Jihad would be even worse for Israel than rule by Hamas, the organization may believe that it will emerge from this round of warfare bloodied but still in place.

It is a very big gamble for Hamas, and the size of the gamble is the measure of Hamas’s desperation. For so far, Hamas has not done much damage to Israel. The swimmers were killed the minute they came out of the water. The tunnels have been discovered and bombed. The missiles are causing Israelis to flee to bomb shelters, but thank God (and Iron Dome) they have so far not caused much property damage and no loss of life. Meanwhile Israel targets Hamas’s missiles and especially its missile launchers, headquarters, arsenals and warehouses, and leaders. There is not much Hamas can call a victory except proving the range of its rockets.

All this can change in an instant: a rocket can land in a hospital or school, in Gaza or in Israel—and much more likely in Israel, because the Hamas rockets are unguided. Significant loss of life in Israel would be viewed as a “victory” by Hamas, and enough of these “victories” could lead it to seek an end to this round and a return to calm. But Hamas wants more than calm: it has demands. It wants the men who were freed in exchange for Gilad Shalit, and recently re-arrested, to be freed again by Israel, and even has demands of Egypt—to open the border with Sinai far wider.

Hamas may have reached the conclusion that it must soon abandon those demands and agree to a truce, but be unwilling to stop until it can point to some “achievement” like hitting a major tower in downtown Tel Aviv or killing a large group of Israelis. But if there are no such “victories” and the Israeli assaults continue, that will change. This appears to be Israel’s assessment: keep increasing the pressure until Hamas, which started this war because it saw too many threats to its survival and dominance in Gaza, comes to see continued war as the key threat. Those who want the violence to end must realize that the larger is the Israeli effort now, the sooner Hamas will conclude this round must be ended.