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As the United States enters the July Fourth weekend, the Hamas leadership in Gaza faces a difficult and potentially important decision.
The last couple of years have hurt Hamas. The level of support it receives from Iran has declined, so it is short of cash. The Egyptian Army has closed the smuggling tunnels between Sinai and Gaza, further hurting the Gaza economy and Hamas’s tax revenues. The kidnappings in the West Bank last month turned into a disaster for Hamas: instead of having captives to trade for Israeli prisoners, Hamas was condemned universally for the crimes and suffered severe blows to its organization in both the West Bank and Gaza.
In response Hamas has started attacking Israel with rockets and missiles, something it had kept to a minimum and had prevented other terrorist groups from doing. Indeed the weeks when Israeli troops were searching desperately for the three young kidnap victims was precisely the moment when Hamas rocket attacks began to increase each day. Israel has now warned Hamas that the rockets must stop this weekend--or there will be a severe Israeli response. For Hamas, each option has costs and benefits. An Israeli attack could deprive Hamas of most of its stores of rockets and missiles, which are harder to replace now that the tunnels are largely closed. And at least some of the Hamas high command would likely fall to Israeli targeted attacks.
But for Hamas there is, we must be aware, an "up side" for provoking an Israeli response. Once again Hamas would play the victim, and the condemnations of last month for the kidnappings and murders of three Israeli teens would quickly turn into cries of solidarity with the poor targets of Israeli assaults. This is the dynamic that produced the wretched "Goldstone Report" of 2009. The Arab League and the EU --and the White House-- would start demanding Israeli "restraint" (indeed they already are), and more important for Hamas it would once again have support in the Palestinian "street."
As of now, Israel has threatened Hamas but held back--sending clear messages that the rocketing must end. Hamas knows the price it will pay (and it seems unconcerned about the price the Gazan economy will pay), but the terrorist group’s own interests may lead it to keep going and ensure an Israeli attack. Portrayals on Al Jazeera of damage to people or structures in Gaza (where Hamas can easily pose fraudulent cameos of children, hospitals, schools under attack) to elicit the world’s pity, pictures of damage in Israel to stir the blood of their own terrorist ranks--the Hamas high command may be unable to resist. In which case Israel’s messages asking for restraint will be ignored, and next week will be a time of war.