On the surface, one would have thought that both Israel and Hamas had good reason to avoid the escalation in fighting that now holds the risk of developing into an all-out Israeli ground offensive in the Gaza Strip.
For Hamas, memories are still fresh from Israel’s Operation Pillar of Cloud in 2012, when Israeli aircraft pounded the Strip. Israel, meanwhile, would also want to avoid sustained barrages and exposing Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, within range of Hamas’s arsenal, to attack.
The main reason these vested interests and this logic has not prevailed, it would seem, is that Hamas has an interest in a limited escalation and thus did not put a stop to rocket attacks on Israeli targets. Israel, for its part, seems intent not just on safeguarding its citizens but achieving a clear victory over Hamas.
Today’s devastating Israeli strikes on Gaza and Palestinian rocket fire at Israel have their roots as a spin-off from Israeli-Palestinian confrontation in the West Bank, where Israel responded to the kidnapping of three teenagers, which it blamed on Hamas (without proof) with a military operation in which Hamas’s West Bank civilian infrastructure was targeted and hundreds of its members arrested. Six Palestinians were killed.
Hamas, not willing to watch, first let other factions fire rockets into Israel and then joined in. The Israeli army moved towards more devastating air strikes because the government could not be seen to be weak.
One of the key questions is why Hamas kept up the barrage even after Israel signalled that it would stop air strikes if Hamas stopped the rockets. It seems that Hamas is not averse to a limited crisis and even a mini-war and is calculating that Israel will not go all the way with a major ground offensive. The movement is in dire straits and its May reconciliation deal with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement is a dead end.
Hamas has been unable to pay its 40,000 government workers in Gaza, something it assumed would become possible from the reconciliation. It has lost its main Arab ally, Egypt. It seems to hope a limited confrontation with Israel can reshuffle the deck.
“Hamas is trying to press Mr Abbas, Egypt and the international community to improve its situation,’’ said Talal Awkal, a Gaza-based analyst for the Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam.
Video: Missile attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv
Another motive is that it wants to appear as defender of the Palestinian people against Israeli actions, including the murder of a teenager by terrorists in Jerusalem. The problem with the strategy is that it is hard to keep a limited confrontation limited.