The latest escalation along the Israel-Gaza border – which saw Palestinians fire more than 250 rockets at Israel in one day after Israel, responding to days of only slightly less intensive rocket fire, assassinated a senior Hamas terrorist and destroyed most of Hamas’s long-range missiles on Wednesday – may yet be interrupted by another temporary cease-fire, of which there have been many in recent years. But that’s unlikely to change the trajectory: Israel and Hamas appear to be heading for another full-scale war, one more devastating than the one they fought in January 2009. In large part, this is thanks to the “Arab Spring,” which eroded the deterrent effect of that earlier war by strengthening Hamas’ position and weakening Israel’s.
Hamas’s newfound confidence was evident not only from the rise in the volume and frequency of rocket attacks from Gaza – prior to Wednesday’s escalation, Palestinians had fired more than 900 rockets and mortars at Israel this year, up from 680 in 2011 and 158 in 2010 – but even more from the fact that recently, for the first time in years, it began openly claiming responsibility for many of these attacks. After the 2009 war, Hamas generally left rocket launches to smaller terrorist groups that it claimed it couldn’t control. This effort at deniability was a transparent ruse; Hamas openly supported most of these groups. Nevertheless, it showed that Hamas wanted to avoid goading Israel into attacking it directly. By brazenly claiming credit for attacks, it showed it no longer feared doing so.
As JINSA Visiting Fellow Yaakov Lappin noted earlier this week, one major factor in Hamas’ new confidence was the rise to power of its Egyptian parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. The new regime hasn’t fulfilled Hamas’ fondest hopes; it rejected Hamas’ request for an Egypt-Gaza free trade zone and has repeatedly accused it of sheltering Islamic extremists who attacked Egyptian forces in Sinai. Nevertheless, Hamas remained confident that the Muslim Brotherhood couldn’t acquiesce in a major Israeli operation in Gaza like former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak did. It therefore believed Israel would fear to launch such an operation lest it endanger the peace treaty with Egypt – and presumably still hopes Egypt’s clear displeasure will force Israel to back down quickly.
Perhaps equally significant, however, was the Sunni-led uprising in Syria, which unexpectedly benefited Sunni Hamas by forcing it to break with its Alawite and Shi’ite patrons in Damascus and Tehran.
This is what finally ended Hamas’ diplomatic isolation: The emir of Qatar, a major backer of the Syrian opposition, became Hamas’ first state visitor in October, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, another key backer of Syria’s opposition, plans to follow suit. The Qatari emir also brought a $400 million gift – which, aside from its intrinsic value, boosted Hamas’ stock among its Palestinian constituents: With the rival Palestinian Authority facing chronic budget deficits due to dwindling foreign donations, Hamas’s ability to secure such a windfall was clearly a coup.
Moreover, this gave Hamas a voice in Washington, something it lacked when its main patrons were Iran and Syria. Unlike those countries, Qatar and Turkey are American allies; Erdogan in particular is one of the leaders President Barack Obama consults most frequently. That may have led Hamas to hope Israel would face more American pressure to avoid war than it did in 2009.
A third critical development was Egypt’s post-revolution loss of control over Sinai. This gave Hamas vital strategic depth: It maintains bases and arms factories in Sinai that are immune from Israeli attack due to the Israeli-Egyptian treaty. Additionally, however, the rise in cross-border attacks on Israel from Sinai provided Hamas with a perfect excuse for escalating its own anti-Israel activity: Because Israel can’t target terrorists in Sinai due to the treaty, the only way it can forestall such attacks is through operations in Gaza, which often supplies personnel, weaponry, training, planning and organizing for Sinai-based attacks. Consequently, the volume of Israeli strikes on Gaza rose significantly over the past year. This allowed Hamas to tell both its own people and its Arab backers that it was merely responding to Israeli “aggression,” when in reality, Gaza was the one attacking Israel – both via Sinai and through hundreds of rockets launched long before Sinai-based terror became an issue.
But despite the undoubted improvement in its position, Hamas appears to have overlooked one thing: Israel’s government simply couldn’t sit with folded hands while its citizens were under constant rocket fire. In a transparent effort to mobilize international support for tougher action against Hamas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained this bluntly to a group of foreign ambassadors he brought to the southern town of Ashkelon on Monday. “A million Israelis, including many little children … are targeted on a daily basis,” he said. “I don’t know of any of your governments who could accept such a thing. I don’t know of any of the citizens of your cities, who could find that acceptable.”
Israel’s first step has been an extensive air campaign. But if that doesn’t work, the next step will almost certainly be a major ground offensive.
Two months ago, Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that Israel might even reoccupy parts of Gaza in a future conflict. And indeed, should the rocket and mortar fire persist, Israel may well seriously consider creating a territorial buffer against the short-range weapons that are responsible for the bulk of it. Long-term control of territory has proven its ability to prevent terror in the West Bank, reducing Israeli fatalities from more than 400 in 2002 to nine in 2011 while ensuring that not a single rocket has ever been fired from there, compared to more than 8,000 fired from Gaza. And reoccupying even a relatively small strip of Gaza near the Israeli border would push short-range weapons out of range of Israeli communities. These are weapons the Iron Dome antimissile system can’t handle, though it has proven relatively effective against longer-range weapons.
This would also have a major deterrent effect: Just as West Bank Palestinians have been reluctant to resume terror in part because the second intifada cost them control of significant chunks of territory (Israeli forces still haven’t withdrawn to the September 2000 lines), Hamas, even if it remained in power, would be much less likely to launch a future war if it knew the price would be loss of territory.
In truth, even the smaller quantity of missiles aimed at Israel before the recent escalation ought to have been intolerable for any self-respecting government. But the current volume certainly is. Hence unless Hamas unexpectedly backs down, a full-scale Israel-Hamas war now looks inevitable.
This article was originally published by JINSA.