There is a conflict now between Israel and Hamas because Hamas insisted on starting one. After relatively few rocket and mortar strikes into Israel in 2010 and 2011, Hamas increased the numbers strikingly this year, and finally fired more than 100 into Israel this past weekend. This was a deliberate effort by Hamas to elicit an Israeli response, for it was obvious that as the numbers grew any Israeli government would have to protect its population. One must assume that if Israel had not responded to the hundred rockets last weekend, Hamas would have upped the ante even more until it got what it wanted.
The question is why. Why did Hamas want to provoke an Israeli attack?
I would offer two theories. First, in recent months the Palestinian Authority under Hamas’s enemies in Fatah has been doing better than has Hamas. While the PA has been and remains short of cash, its initiative at the UN to raise itself to “non-member state” status looks like it will succeed. Meanwhile, Hamas has been forced to leave its long-time headquarters in Damascus, and the advent of a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt has done nothing for Hamas. The border is still largely closed and worse yet for Hamas the Egyptians are destroying the smuggling tunnels that bring Hamas income and bring Gazans goods. So Hamas may have wanted to get back to center stage, reminding people that while the PA talks, it acts. The events of the last few days have, as Hamas must have liked, pushed the PA to the margins and made it seem irrelevant.
Second, Hamas commits acts of terror because it is a terrorist organization. By this I mean that no Hamas leader glories in collecting garbage in Gaza, or even in receiving the Emir of Qatar’s money when he visits. The glory comes in fighting, and killing–but since the last round with the Israelis in January 2009 Hamas has not only been very careful. It has also restrained other terrorist groups like Islamic Jihad from firing into Israel. This situation cannot be attractive to Hamas’s leaders, and they know they risk losing the loyalty of many young men in Gaza to other more active groups if it goes on for too long. So, they have decided to provoke a conflict.
Now the question is how big a conflict they want. Do they wish to provoke an Israeli ground attack? We will know the answer very soon. It would be easy to for Hamas leaders to say they have shown they have longer range rockets and missiles now, have terrified Israelis, have killed Israelis, and this round can end. If they continue to fire at Tel Aviv and other locations in Central Israel, this will suggest that the Israelis cannot find and eliminate all these longer range rockets using only air power. In that case they may go in on the ground to find and eliminate the rest.
The choice is largely that of Hamas. Its leaders deliberately provoked this conflict, once again treating Gazan civilians as nothing more than useful victims. Israel would prefer to avoid entering Gaza in the ground, and would prefer to end this round of exchanges. So far, it seems Hamas’s leaders want to keep it going.