On the face of it, Hamas’s escalated stance towards Israel in recent days doesn’t make much sense for the Palestinian Islamist group. Hamas is unpopular and has lost much of the support it once received from Iran and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which was ousted from power in Cairo a year ago. And it recently entered into a unity government with its rival, the nationalist and comparatively secular party Fatah, bringing the group back into the political fold.
Hamas’s barrage of rockets and attacks on Israeli population centres this week ends a long period of relative calm following Operation Pillar of Defence in November of 2012, an escalation that ended with a seemingly durable ceasefire — indeed, 2013 was one of the quietest years in the past decade in terms of rocket attacks originating from Gaza. A full-scale war with Israel might endanger a group working from a position of weakness, one that only recently wanted to be included in the Palestinian political process. And yet Hamas has invited disaster anyway.
Here are the more plausible theories as to why.
The attacks are Hamas’s response to the Palestinian unity government falling apart. The unity government is limping. Even though Hamas is a signatory to the documents that established the government and chose four of its cabinet-level ministers, it has no official members in the government, and the Palestinian Authority was withholding salaries from Hamas civil servants in the Gaza Strip even before the latest escalation began. After Hamas operatives abducted and murdered three Israeli teenagers earlier this month, Fatah reportedly realised that it was better off going it alone.
“At the end of the day, the unity government collapsed by itself,” Ido Zelkovitz, a scholar at the Jerusalem-based Mitvim Institute, told Business Insider. Yet the rocket attacks send a message to Fatah that they can’t afford to cut Hamas out of the political process, even after the abductions. And it potentially rallies the Palestinian street around them at a time when the group seems to be at its weakest. As Zelkovitz put it, “From their own perspective, Hamas is ready to sacrifice their own infrastructure and their own members in order to be back into the political process in the Middle East.”
Hamas’s control over Gaza is shakier than everyone thinks, and this is a last-ditch effort at maintaining control. If Hamas really thinks its seven-year rule in Gaza is in jeopardy, it would make a certain rational sense to begin heaving rockets at Israel. The group would have nothing to lose — and everything to gain from a potential spike in sympathy in the event of an overwhelming Israeli response. Hamas also extracted certain concessions from Israel during the last two flare-ups in 2012 and 2009, including the lightening of import controls. If Hamas really is doubting its ability to remain in power, it has a perverse incentive to escalate.
Hamas also might have little to fear from an Israeli response. Israel is mobilizing for a ground operation, but as Israel Defence Forces colonel Peter Lerner told journalists today, this is an option for which Israel has very little appetite at the moment. “We don’t really want to go there,” he said of a possible ground operation, “but we need the flexibility and capability to launch and mobilize as soon as possible if it requires.”
Anything short of an invasion might actually straighten Hamas’s position, as Zelkovitz explains. “For Hamas, every crisis which has a violent dimension in it is more opportunity than a threat.” Gazans tend to blame Israel for reprisal attacks on the Strip far more than Hamas, whose popularity is only bolstered. “Hamas is going into this escalation to give itself an image of the people’s guard,” says Zelkovitz.
It’s useless to talk about a unified Hamas anymore, and the group’s militant wing is acting on its own initiative, for its own reasons. It’s entirely possible that Hamas’s political leadership doesn’t want this. But as Zelkovitz explained, the group’s Gaza cadre is increasingly cut off from the rest of the organisation, which is spread between Gaza, the West Bank, Qatar, and Turkey. “There is no doubt that Hamas has become more Gaza-centered,” he said.
The Qassam Brigades might have any number of reasons to escalate. Maybe they want to doom the unity government for good, or are attempting to co-opt popular rage after Jewish extremists lynched an Arab teen in Jerusalem last week.
Hamas isn’t acting rationally, and there’s no strategic or tactical reason for this. Hamas has had moments of pragmatism in the past, but its charter commits it to the violent destruction of Israel. It’s recieved long-range missiles from Iran, and condemned the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Hamas is a U.S. and EU-listed terrorist organisation, and is responsible for launching thousands of attacks on civilian areas.
In a way, this week’s events aren’t out of keeping with Hamas’s organizational profile. They might not need any specific reason to escalate.
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