The recent escalation in the fighting between Israel and Hamas caught many observers of international politics in the U.S. by surprise. Until Israel’s assassination of Hamas’s military chief Ahmed Jabari last Tuesday, the fire exchange between Gaza and Israel appeared to be just another round in an almost routine never-ending cycle of violence between the two sides. While in this round Hamas seemed emboldened and raised the stakes, primarily by attacking an Israeli mobile patrol inside Israeli territory with an anti-tank missile, the fire exchange still seemed like “old news” in comparison to other developments in the challenging security environment in the Middle East following the Arab Awakening and the increased tensions with Iran.
There were good reasons to suspect that this round of violence would remain controlled and end quickly. After Israel’s operation “Cast Lead” (December 08-January 09) came to its end, the level of violence between the warring sides declined considerably. The resolution of the Shalit affair only a year ago, in which the kidnapped soldier was exchanged for a thousand Palestinian prisoners, led many to believe that Israel and Hamas had found a way to at least manage their conflict. The current escalation suggests otherwise. Given that it usually takes two parties for such an escalation, and that the devastation brought by Israel’s ferocious bombing campaign in Gaza is reminiscent of the scarring damage it inflicted on the Gaza Strip less than four year ago, Hamas’s part in the lead-up to this round of violence is puzzling.
Common explanations focused on Hamas’s effort to break the siege on the Gaza Strip are hardly satisfying. In many ways the notion of a siege on Gaza has become a myth. True, the specific characteristics of the Strip – a tiny territory, densely populated, squeezed between Israel and Egypt, and dependent on both for the passage of people and goods – make it feel claustrophobic. And yet, Israel’s efforts to affect Hamas’s policies by tightly controlling its ins and outs, initiated (with at least tacit support by Mubarak’s Egypt) after Hamas’s electoral win in 2006 and especially after it drove its main Palestinian rival, Fatah, out of Gaza, are mostly a relic of the past. International outcry and the public relations disaster that followed Israel’s mishandling of the Turkish aid flotilla forced Israel to significantly relent on its failed siege policy.
Moreover, the tunnels through which people and goods are smuggled across the Egyptian-Gazan border became so vast and elaborate that they started resembling official border entry points rather than rugged illicit smuggling routes. The regime change in Egypt, which brought to power the Muslim Brotherhood, allies and sponsors of Hamas formally committed to alleviating the restrictions on Gaza, was the most recent indication that while some restrictions still exist, the term ‘siege’ reflects a myth more than reality.
To some extent Hamas has a real political interest in perpetuating this myth, but also in preserving some limitations of the movements of goods as the smuggling industry ended up enriching the movement’s coffers. Thus, “breaking the siege” is not a very compelling explanation for Hamas’s role in the recent escalation in violence.
A better explanation would focus on a combination of two factors: the competition between Hamas and radical jihadi groups and Hamas’s belief that the change in the strategic environment, particularly the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, gives it greater space to use violence against Israel without provoking the escalation we are witnessing now.
Ever since it seized power in Gaza, Hamas found the salafi-jihadi groups much more difficult local rivals than the remnants of Fatah. With the Oslo peace process discredited and Israel’s retreat from the Gaza Strip largely attributed (at least in the Gazan psychology) to the militant activities of Hamas, Fatah could hardly challenge Hamas’s authority and control over the Strip. After Hamas routed it from Gaza, Fatah was simply too dogmatically institutionalized, thus inflexible and lacking edge to mount any serious challenge to Hamas.
But the small jihadi outfits in the Strip presented a much more significant threat. Contrary to Fatah, they represented the fighting ethos and the religious and ideological commitment always identified with Hamas. And contrary to Hamas, these groups were free from any responsibility for the management of Gaza and for the welfare of its huge population. Thus, in the battle for authenticity the jihadis enjoyed a clear advantage.
Apprehensive, Hamas repeatedly took measures to quell the jihadi threat and did not shy from using brute disproportional force when it believed a rival’s challenge went too far and threatened its dominance and authority. Indeed, in the clearest demonstration of its resolve to suppress challenges, in August 2009 it killed a number of members of the salafi-jihadi group Jund Ansar Allah (JAA), along with the group’s leader, Abdel-Latif Moussa.
Disaffection among some of Hamas’s operatives, who viewed its inevitable institutionalization following the assumption of control and responsibilities over Gaza as the abandonment of its ideology, further complicated Hamas’s considerations. It forced Hamas to balance between the need to demonstrate some commitment to the struggle against Israel and the imperative of avoiding a repeat of a confrontation on the scale of Cast Lead.
The pressure on Hamas from the more extremist factions increased since the beginning of the Arab Awakening nearly two years ago. The Egyptian revolution and the subsequent chaos in the Sinai Peninsula in particular were like a backwind in the sails of Gaza’s jihadis. The changes in the Middle East strengthened radical Islamist groups throughout the region. The situation was no different for Gaza’s jihadis who found their position significantly improved. The collapse of authoritarian regimes in North Africa allowed much easier access to weapons, and the inability of the Egyptian military to control Sinai turned the Peninsula into a logistical hub for Gaza. In addition, these small jihadi factions now enjoyed reinforcements by foreign fighters from Egypt and elsewhere. Emboldened, they increased their efforts to target Israel.
In some of their operations they even took advantage of Egyptian incompetence; they utilized Sinai as a staging ground for attacks on Israel, believing correctly that Israel’s ability to take action within Sinai is severely limited due to the fear of the Egyptian response to any violation of Egypt’s sovereignty. Egypt’s struggle to gain control over anarchical Sinai, and its unwillingness to pay the political and military costs of reasserting its authority in the Peninsula, also led it to tolerate some of the anti-Israeli activity emerging from its territory as long as these actors did not direct their resources against the Egyptian state.
Unable to operate in Sinai for fear of further undermining strained relations with Egypt’s Islamist rulers, Israel had to resort to thwarting attacks emerging in the Gaza Strip before its attackers could enjoy the immunity of Egyptian territory. In the absence of Egyptian action to prevent the abuse of its territory to attack Israel, Israel chose to preemptively target jihadi actors in Gaza. The jihadis responded by lobbing rockets at Israeli’s southern towns, which in turn prompted Israeli retaliation and the creation of a cycle of violence. Periods of quiet between rounds of violence became shorter and rarer.
The new dynamic presented Hamas with a serious dilemma. As the rulers of Gaza they could not sit on the sidelines while the fight between Israel and the jihadi groups affected the territory under Hamas’s control. Assuming responsibility, as state authorities are expected to, by reining in the jihadis who challenged Hamas’ authority, would have been antithetical to Hamas’s resistance ethos and prompted criticism from these groups and the Gazan public. Israel’s strikes on jihadi elements within the Gaza Strip exposed Hamas’s inability to provide deterrence from Israeli attacks and made it look weak.
Furthermore, while it must have been unhappy to see the strengthening of rival groups, Hamas also came to see advantages in using these jihadi factions as proxies against Israel. It viewed the activities of the jihadis as a way to preserve the struggle against Israel, maybe even extract more concessions from it, while reducing the danger of a backlash against Hamas. Like when riding the back of a tiger, Hamas calculated that the benefits from using ideological proxies outweigh the costs that come with their uncontrolled nature. Paradoxically, similar logic influenced Yasser Arafat’s attitude toward Hamas during the 1990s when he sometimes relied on the Islamist movement to extract a heavy toll from Israel while claiming innocence and rejecting responsibility for Hamas’s actions.
The most serious flaw in Hamas’s logic was that Israel refused to cooperate with it. Israel refused to let Hamas avoid taking responsibility. It demanded that Hamas exert its authority over the radical factions. To reinforce the message that it holds Hamas accountable for the factions’ actions, Israel also carried out a number of attacks against Hamas targets. If Hamas was hardly able to sit idle while other groups fought Israel, it had even greater difficulty showing restraint when it became the target for Israeli strikes.
But while the smaller factions were responsible for most of the attacks on Israel, Hamas’s actions were not strictly reactive. Pressure from rank and file and the fear of possible erosion of Hamas’s ability to prevent their defection to the more radical and active jihadis probably impacted Hamas’s decision to openly adopt a more confrontational posture and initiate attacks against Israel, in what it believed were measured and controlled actions.
Although Hamas’s considerations stemmed primarily from domestic needs, the movement was also influenced by a perception that the changing strategic environment offers it greater freedom of action in its violent dialogue with Israel. Like the jihadi factions, Hamas saw the regime change in Egypt as presenting new opportunities and increasing its options against Israel. The fall of Mubarak and the subsequent rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s main ideological ally, led Hamas to expect that Egypt would be supportive of its actions. Hamas believed that Israel’s anxiety about the future of its peace accord with Egypt, now that the Islamists who oppose this treaty are in power, would increase Hamas’s ability to use controlled violence against Israel without triggering a harsh Israeli retaliation.
This belief must have been strengthened in August when the Egyptian President Morsi retired the military’s top brass and took full control over Egypt’s foreign and security policies. This development was particularly significant given that the Supreme Military Council, who maintained close relations with the U.S., continued Mubarak’s policy of resisting Hamas’s violent adventures against Israel. With the Muslim Brotherhood in power and the old leadership of the Egyptian military out of the way, Hamas expected less pressure from Egypt to restrain its actions and those of the smaller jihadi factions in Gaza.
It is also likely that Hamas thought that the turmoil in the Middle East would reduce Israeli’s appetite for escalation in its Palestinian front for fear that the violence will spread to Israel’s other fronts. The combination of these factors made Hamas believe that the strategic environment strengthened its hands and improved its deterrence position versus Israel. The clear implication was that it could push the boundaries in the dialogue of violence with Israel.
As the events of the past few days clearly indicate, Hamas severely miscalculated once again.
Barak Mendelsohn – an FPRI Senior Fellow – is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Haverford College, where he teaches courses on Jihadi movements and on the Middle East. He is author of Combating Jihadism: American Hegemony and International Cooperation in the War on Terrorism (University of Chicago Press, 2009). He served in the Israeli army for five years and received his Ph.D. in Government from Cornell University. His “Global Terrorism Resource Database” can be found at https://gtrp.haverford.edu/aqsi/. This expands upon the recent analysis he published on the Foreign Affairs website.