The winds of war have blown across the Gaza frontier, undoing the four years of relative quiet since “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014. Truth be told, both sides could find themselves mired in a war, despite their lack of interest in one and despite the fact that both know they will end up in the same place after another round of fighting.
One factor pushing Hamas towards an escalation is, of course, its state of crisis; more specifically, the economic crisis afflicting the population in Gaza under its rule. Hamas has failed in its attempts to break the physical and diplomatic blockades imposed by Israel and Egypt along with other Arab countries.
Its hopes of securing financial aid for the Gaza Strip, without providing anything of substance in return, have been dashed. Consequently, the terrorist organization would rather charge into the unknown, in the assumption that anything, even a military skirmish or war, is preferable to the current dead-end, which could turn the population against it.
There are other reasons behind Hamas’s completely illogical decision to play with fire. They apparently pertain to the sense within the terrorist group that it has convinced Israel it is prepared to go all the way, as it has nothing to lose. As a result, Israel has been careful not to pressure Hamas or to get entangled in a military conflict with it.
In this context, we should recall comments by Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by Israel during the Second Intifada. According to Yassin, Hamas’s advantage over Israel is that its people, mainly it suicide bombers, are not afraid of death. Rather, they seem to desire it—unlike the Israelis, who love life. In the same vein, it seems Israel is the one behaving as if it fears the collapse of Hamas and its rule, even more than Hamas itself. Hence Israel’s restraint and caution towards Hamas, and conversely Hamas’s willingness to take things to the edge.
In this reality, Hamas has been digging in its heels and is seeking to impose a balance of power on Israel similar to that which exists on the Lebanese border against Hezbollah, whereby anytime Israel hits its people Hamas will respond by firing rockets, even at the cost of possibly sparking an all-out war. Israel, for its part, cannot come to terms with these restrictions on its freedom to act in Gaza.
Hamas, it also seems, believes that it has a winning card up its sleeve: the incendiary kites and balloons it’s using unimpeded to scorch Israeli fields near the Gaza border. Similar to other instances in the past, the media coverage in Israel has given Hamas a sense of considerable achievement and even victory; thus, its motivation to continue undeterred. Ultimately, Israel will find a technological and operational solution to the arson terrorism. Until then, the fires are burning a direct path to conflagration.
Over the past several weeks, Israel has exhibited restraint and avoided an escalation. This has been aided by the fact that the cross-border arson campaign has hurt the economy and morale, but thus far has not claimed any lives.
More importantly, though, is that the true, long-term challenge facing Israel does not lie in the Gaza Strip, but rather in Iran and its efforts to establish a presence in Syria. Therefore, Israel’s attention and focus was and still is aimed northward, and it is clear that any distraction or sideways glance southward will allow Tehran to deepen its military foothold in Syria.
Israel’s mission is to find an answer to arson terrorism, maintain diplomatic and economic pressure on Hamas without collapsing Gaza, and mainly to defeat Hamas in the psychological sphere. Regardless, the problem with Gaza is not defeating Hamas; it is dealing with Gaza should Hamas fall. Until a good solution to this dilemma is found, it is best to be patient and pursue the path of restraint.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.