Friday, July 11, 2014

Why did Hamas Provoke a War?

by Elliott Abrams

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 Benjamin ‎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' 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. U.S. Secretary of State 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 nonparty government in Ramallah that held ‎the promise of bringing Hamas into the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization 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 the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, 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. Teenage boys and young men do not join Hamas to police Gaza's ‎borders and prevent Islamic Jihad from attacking Israel; they join 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' 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' 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 Schalit, and recently rearrested, 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.‎

Elliot Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This piece is reprinted with permission and can be found on Abrams' blog "Pressure Points."


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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