In by far the sharpest escalation since late 2008, scores of rockets have been fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel during recent days following Israel’s killing of the Gaza-based leader of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) Zuhair al-Qaisi and one of his lieutenants. Al-Qaisi was in the last stages of planning a major terror attack when he was killed.
The rocket attacks, creating a dilemma for Gaza’s Hamas rulers, are mainly being carried out by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad with involvement from the smaller PRC.
From Hamas’ standpoint the escalation comes at an unwelcome time. The movement is in the midst of a tricky political process whereby it is seeking to extricate itself from the regional bloc led by Iran and to realign with the Sunni rulers of Egypt and Qatar. This move comes as a result of both problems and opportunities opened up by political upheavals in the Arab world — especially the largely Islamist revolution in Egypt — and by Iran’s backing for the Syrian government’s assault on the largely Sunni Arab population in the civil war there.
This already difficult transformation is further complicated by the fact that Hamas is now in the midst of an internal power struggle. The rulers of Gaza are pursuing a policy opposed by the official Hamas leadership of Khaled Mashaal, who rules over nothing at all. The battle is over whether Egypt or Iran is to be Hamas’ patron.
In the midst of this complex situation the escalation and rocket fire has erupted.
The dilemma from Hamas’ point of view is as follows: until now, the impressive performance of Israel’s Iron Dome system has minimized Israeli casualties and thus enabled Israel to calibrate its response accordingly. But if Israeli civilians are killed, the government may well opt for a significant ground invasion. Consequently, if Gaza’s rulers continue to let Islamic Jihad and the PRC escalate the situation, at a certain point an Israeli ground incursion will become inevitable.
This will then potentially place the survival of the Hamas regime in jeopardy at a time when the Gaza rulers perceive a historic opportunity to achieve dominance within their movement, including control over the West Bank. Moreover, Hamas would also prefer to wait until a time when the Muslim Brotherhood has more control over Egypt and can offer it stronger backing.
So Hamas doesn’t want to see a major IDF operation into Gaza right now.
However, if Hamas appears too eager to secure a renewed ceasefire with Israel, Gaza’s leaders risk being presented by their rivals as a client regime of America and Israel in exactly the same way that Hamas has historically used to excoriate the PA. Islamic Jihad, once a marginal group, is now emerging as a major force in Gaza. This movement, unlike Hamas, has no problem working with Iran and getting money, guns, and orders from Tehran.
It is quite possible, though one doesn’t know for sure, that Iran is involved in some way in the Islamic Jihad decision to escalate. This would constitute a shrewd message to Hamas regarding the potential cost of leaving its patronage. And it could also be taken as an Iranian response to threats from Israel, and the United States as well, about attacking Iranian nuclear facilities. The message: Iran has resources for striking back against Israel.
So Hamas needs to make a decision with no easy options.
From Israel’s viewpoint, the disruption caused to a million Israeli citizens’ lives in the south of the country is intolerable. Israel is aware of Hamas’ dilemma, but has no reason to do the movement any favors. So Israel’s message is clear and uncompromising: for as long as the rocket fire continues, Israel will continue to retaliate. If the Hamas regime wants to engineer a return to the de facto ceasefire, then it better go ahead and do so before it’s too late.
So which course will Hamas choose? The indications are that Hamas, fearing a major Israeli attack more than the potential political loss of face of a renewed ceasefire, is hurrying to secure a return to the shaky and partial calm that preceded the current escalation. The Hamas rulers have rushed to the authorities in Cairo to ask them to broker a renewed ceasefire.
Hamas spokesman Taher al-Nunu stated March 10 that “all Palestinian factions” wanted a renewed truce but that Israel must stop firing first. Hamas is also currently insisting that Israel commit to avoid targeted killings in Gaza in the future — a condition entirely unacceptable to Jerusalem. Islamic Jihad spokesman Daud Shihab, however, denied that the organization was involved in any contacts to end the clashes.
The political game in which each group tries to claim the mantle of greater militancy against Israel is once again in play. But the words of the Hamas spokesman suggested that the stage of bargaining had begun. So this round is likely to end in the coming days — barring unforeseen developments — with a return to an uneasy de facto ceasefire.
If this happens, the Israel defense establishment will be able to register an achievement. It will have showed it can act decisively to ensure the security of Israeli citizens, and then use sophisticated techniques to minimize the damage of the response from Gaza and force a return to quiet.
Meanwhile, the Hamas authorities in Gaza remain in an uncomfortable dilemma, caught between their desire to keep control of Gaza and the lure of militant violence against Israel. For its part, Islamic Jihad will have proved its worth as an asset for Iran to remind everyone in the locality of its continued presence and possibly of what might happen if Israel attacks Iranian nuclear facilities.
A bigger issue is how changes in Egypt — including the projected turnover of power from the military to an elected president — will affect the Gaza Strip and the situation on Israel’s southern border. If Cairo turns toward greater Islamist militancy, the chance for a major confrontation being sparked in Gaza would exponentially increase. For now, though, efforts have begun to end this current round of fighting.