Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Why Did Hamas Provoke a War?

by Elliott Abrams
July 9, 2014

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 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’s 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. 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 non-party government in Ramallah that held the promise of bringing Hamas into the PA and PLO 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 ISIS, 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. Teen-age boys and young men do not join Hamas in order to police Gaza’s borders and prevent Islamic Jihad from attacking Israel; they join in order 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’s 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’s 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 Shalit, and recently re-arrested, 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.

Post a Comment 10 Comments

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    It’s long past time to clean house in Gaza and other Hamas rat-holes . The Palestinians have placed their hopes on a losing proposition .

  • Posted by Brent

    Those who see a moral equivalence between Hamas and Israel should consider one thing. Not long ago Israel made noises about surgical strikes against Hamas leaders in the Gaza. Groups of people gathered around the home of one of the leaders as human shields – and the Israeli planes and attack helicopters backed off.

    And there’s the difference. There are no people in Israel who could encircle the home of an Israeli leader who would lead to restraint on the part of Hamas. Ringing such a home would simply make it a more choice target – as the suicide bombers have shown, by targeting hospitals, markets, places filled with women and children.

    There are no human shields in Israel who would be respected by the Gazans. That’s the difference.

  • Posted by Adam

    While I am skeptical that the decision to go on firing rockets was well-considered, the point that Hamas is desperately seeking financing, relevancy and headlines is true. The unity government was one such gambit, but it never really played out and it was soon overtaken by the murder of the three israeli students. One suspects that the arrest of the entire Hamas leadership in the WB was the tipping point. The Hamas had no means of responding other than rockets and soon it got carried away.

    A comparison comes to mind from game theory: a short-stacked poker player will tend to go “all-in” on a marginal hand in order to salvage his position and scare the large-stack players out of a full confrontation. Statistically, the odds may be against the short-stacked player winning, but the psychological momentum and spotlight belongs to him for a short while. Likewise, Hamas is hoping to get lucky with a horrible terror-strike in order to declare moral victory, even if it is militarily out-matched. It might even have hoped, however delusionally, that Israel would back-down when its people were under a rocket barrage. History would have taught it differently.

    Now that Hamas has gone ‘all-in’ is it even capable of backing out of this or will it face certain defeat by Israel in a ground offensive? My guess is that they know Israel doesn’t want to topple them completely and they will go into hiding as they did in 2009 “Cast Lead’.

  • Posted by Donzi Boy

    Hamas leadership are in bunkers under Shufa hospital and other hospitals in Gaza. They can’t be targeted without a ground operation that will kill hundreds if not thousands. The reality is that Israel-Palestine is a land of refugees who have nowhere else to go. Apart from a few hundred thousand descendents of the original jewish population of Palestine, Israel’s 6.4 million jews are refugees and descendents of refugees, from Europe & Arab lands. The Palestinians have been made refugees by the Arab countries through war and policy to ensure they have nowhere else to go. The resulting conflict is the distraction that the Arab leadership use to divert their people from the truth of their lives under dictatorship. The rest of the world benefits from this charade because the Arab rulers deliver their oil to us. We pretend to try to resolve the conflict so that the rulers can pretend they are pressuring us to make Israel bend.
    One day the Palestinians will wake up to their role as pawns. The Jews already know but have no other option.

  • Posted by jeb stuart

    Wow, lets look at the possibility the only reason Hamas suspended terrorism was because they held the hope Morsi with Obama’s blessing would have placed Egypt fully behind its Muslim brotherhood client Hamas.
    And that failing we now see Al-Qaeda’s formerly, “rebels” and “activists” in Libya, Syria most anywhere, and where is that going?

    With a 8 billion dollar cost for waging war Hamas is doing what they claimed they would make terrorism too expensive for Israel to exist.

    Kerry is about as useful as hair on a fish.

  • Posted by General Lee

    If Shufa hospital’s basement is the operation center of Hamas, the Hamas leadership is safe.

    But when they come up for air, they may find all their money and homes gone. That result requires cooperation with the US Treasury Department and some EU Banks who have recently paid Billion dollar fines to Treasury, but it is not an impossible goal.

    To conclude that only a stalemate is possible is not only cynical but wrong.

    The population of Gaza that does not want to live under the thumb of dictators can choose to migrate to Chinese or Russian cities where every opportunity for economic progress awaits them,

  • Posted by Matthew Johnston

    It is political Hamas or IJ after all Hamas are the authority in Gaza fire rockets all the time. It is the murders, it is the break up of Likud with the coalitions. It is public sentiment, even among moderates. The PM looks or made to look weak by political opponents. That is not to say Hamas did not look for the current escalation. The murderers are a rogue faction and possibly aligned with IJ. That give Hamas a need to show they are strong on resistance, anytime you enemy is not ready for a war is a good time to start one. We all know how these tiffs end, ceasefire, they fire a couple rockets declare victory. Ehud Olmert he was a real tough guy, mates with Iron Mike Kelly. I feel for Netanyahu and the position he is in, lot of the blow horns, if they had the reins. I say we wrap it up with a ceasefire it is not the end of this issue or of Hamas. Either Obama comes to Israel or Netanyahu goes to DC, and Sisi speaks to Hamas. Many in the world or Israel do not have the stomach to end Hamas as Olmert and Cast Lead showed, he had to hide from Livni and Barak because they wanted to halt the operation.

  • Posted by Matthew Johnston

    I had permissions and a letter to the VP prior warning which stop the investigation but even Cast Lead made Bush sick, whom people call a warmonger. Which is why the US abstained after messing with the wording of the UN statement. But if you want to box on I am your man. The real violence sickened 43.

  • Posted by Matthew Johnston

    Keep fighting the same war over and over like a game of stratego, after Cast Lead they learn so we adapt, like Lebanon 200,000 rockets frontal attacks like WW1 you can go left or right but it is front on bogged down south of the Litani. So I need the Syrian/Lebanon border to hit the flank. I need to be in the Be’ekka in hours not days, not bogged down south of the Litani and encircle Beirut and hit them north of the Litani. Otherwise there will be nothing left of Tel Aviv. Hamas has adapted the flanks are reinforced, after we carved them up in 2008/09.

  • Posted by Matthew Johnston

    Like I said 200,000 rockets the real fight is in the the north, like the need for the flank in Syria a non WMD Syria, so personally I think after Hamas will disarm, I would go for a ceasefire.

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