Israel is officially engaged in the throes of a low-intensity conflict with Hamas.

The March 25 rocket attack on Israel, which destroyed a home and injured seven members of a family in Mishmeret, north of Tel Aviv, demonstrates that this conflict poses a real threat to the citizens of Israel. And even though Israel pounded Hamas targets in Gaza pursuant to that attack, this week’s attacks—one on Saturday night, which saw five rockets fired at Israel, and another one on Sunday—suggest that Israel’s deterrence has lost some of its power.

Eran Lerman, former deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council, suggests otherwise. He told JNS that “Hamas takes us very seriously.”

He explained that there is a paradox here. Hamas’s behavior reflects an understanding that because it is so weak and Israel so strong, Israel will be careful not to obliterate the terror group because “we can do so easily.”

Lerman said this is a “paradox within a paradox.”

“The reason Israel does not feel obliged to go in and destroy Hamas,” he said, “is because Hamas is not a threat to our existence. It gets on our nerves. It’s an irritant.”

Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told JNS that “deterrence is a tricky notion. Of course, Hamas is afraid of Israel,” but it tests Israel’s tolerance threshold all the time.

Inbar said Hamas understands that Israel does “not want an escalation, particularly at this time before the elections,” and that Israel does not “object to Hamas rule, which weakens the Palestinian national movement.”

He explained that Hamas launched missiles towards Tel Aviv as a threat to escalate in order to get concessions from Israel, immediately announcing that it was a “mistake,” hoping the Israeli response would be tolerable.

“Bearing in mind that Hamas is not very sensitive to the cost Israel exacted, this is what happened. Once in a while, Israel has to escalate its responses to signal that the brinkmanship game could be very risky.”

‘A complex, psychological equation’

Lerman agreed, pointing out that the Israel Defense Forces and professional defense establishment take this into account in terms of the cost-benefit analysis, which includes the cost in human sacrifice; resources and Israel’s international standing; and what the price would be of “completely destroying Hamas, rather than the cost of these occasional cycles of violence, which comes from the limited erosion of our deterrence [and] in turn is only a function of the fact that they know we are not going to use the full force we have.”

He added that “this becomes a very complex, psychological equation because deterrence is not a physical thing. It is a psychological condition that exists on the other side.”

Lerman conceded that Israel has indeed lost some of its deterrence, but not in the classic sense. He said that while there has been “some erosion of this psychological imprint,” there has also been an attempt by Hamas now “to gain some very specific material outcomes. This is not about Hamas thinking they can destroy us. Hamas is trying to get the best deal they can through Egyptian mediation, using the irritant capacity as a tool of extortion.”

The Egyptians are interested in having Hamas removed, but at the same time, also act as intermediaries, he noted.

He also suggested that Hamas is trying to manage its conflict with Fatah by attacking Israel, in addition to diverting attention from the increasingly overt and noisy protests within Gaza against Hamas rule.

It is wholly possible that the main reason for Israel’s perceived failure in deterrence is due to Hamas’s dissatisfaction with the status quo, even though the terror group is fully aware of its military inferiority compared to Israel.

Lerman supported this idea when he said that Israel finds itself “in a very delicate situation. This is not a straightforward deterrent equation.”

He said that Hamas is “checking how far they can go in irritating us in order to obtain certain limited gains through the negotiating process. And our gain is to send the Egyptians with messages that underline our capacity to do Hamas much more harm than we did already. This is why it was necessary to deploy ground forces down south—to indicate to Hamas that we will not flinch at a territorial maneuver into Gaza if the need arises.

“And therefore, we need the tanks to be very visible, so it can actually underline and help the Egyptians explain the situation to Hamas in good colloquial Arabic,” he quipped.