Israel and Gaza are locked in the worst cross-border violence since the November 2012 war, with rockets flying into southern Israel at a fast clip and Israeli airstrikes leveling homes in Gaza. How this will develop is unclear – Israel has signaled reluctance to stage a ground operation, but Hamas sees little reason to exercise restraint.
More than a quarter of the 300 rockets fired since Israel launched an operation against Hamas last month have been fired Monday alone, making it the heaviest day of rocket fire since 2012. For the first time in this latest escalation, Hamas took direct responsibility for the rocket fire, seemingly unconcerned about the Israeli retaliation it would invite.
When events unfolded similarly in 2012, a cease-fire was only reached after Israel amassed 75,000 reservists on the border and threatened to invade.
“Hamas has nothing to lose, it no longer rules Gaza, the [border] crossings are closed, and things get worse every day,” says Mkhaimer Abu Saada, political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. “It is the people of Gaza who will lose more in case real war erupts."
Israel has staged more than 40 airstrikes since last night, many of them on the homes of suspected Hamas militants. At least 14 Palestinians have been killed.
Umm Sami al-Zaabout's home crumbled in one of those strikes. The three-story building, now a pile of smoking concrete, is not far from olive groves, which witnesses say are used by militants to fire rockets. She says her family rushed out when a cousin next door got a phone call from the Israeli military warning both houses would be hit imminently.
“We are all homeless now. The Israelis say they destroy the houses of Hamas members who fire rockets into Israel,” says the mother. “None of my sons works for Hamas, we don't fire rockets at Israel. Why did they destroy our house?”
Mixed messages from Israel
Jerusalem is sending a message that it is preparing for greater action. Israel today made plans to call up 40,000 reservists and emphasized that a ground offensive was an option on the table. There is significant pressure from right-wing government ministers and the Israeli public for a full-out offensive after the kidnapping and murder of three Israel teens, which Israel has blamed on two Hamas members.
“We’re at the stage where the government has made a clear choice that what’s going on now is beyond the realm of the acceptable,” says an IDF spokesperson.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's resistance to calls for a ground invasion hint at his strong opposition to such a move. He has emphasized that the primary goal of any military action is defensive, protecting Israeli citizens who live within range of Hamas rockets.
“We know what a ground offensive entails and we would resort to that only if we believed that there was no other way to achieve peace and quiet for our citizens,” says an Israeli official speaking on condition of anonymity.
Palestinians see Israel’s actions in Gaza as murderous and provocative. But they reflect greater restraint than past conflict, says Shaul Shay of the Institute of Policy & Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.
“In comparison to the past, the Israeli response is very, very cautious and the prime minister is paying for it because many people in Israel are criticizing his decisions,” says Dr. Shay, former deputy head of the Israel National Security Council. “So far I think that they are calculating the situation successfully.”
How a fresh conflict could boost Hamas
Hamas is effectively bankrupt and has lost much of the popularity that swept it to power in 2006. It has lost powerful regional allies and patrons, including Iran, Syria, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and its reconciliation last month with secular rival Fatah failed to bring the financial and political boost expected.
It also lost an opportunity for leverage when Israel recovered the bodies of the three teens on its own. Although Hamas denied responsibility for the kidnapping, which may have been carried out by individuals without coordination by the leadership, it still could have used their remains to negotiate concessions.
Israel also weakened Hamas when it rounded up more than 400 Hamas operatives in the West Bank and raided 64 charities linked to the movement. Palestinians saw the broad operation as an attempt to ruin the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, which would have brought Hamas greater legitimacy and international support.
Hamas may see a fresh conflict with Israel as a way to re-up its reputation as a resistance organization and gain leverage to secure greater freedom of movement for people and goods in and out of Gaza, which are currently tightly controlled by Israel and Egypt.
“For Hamas, confrontation with Israel is a solution to its problems in Gaza,” says Adnan Abu Amr, professor of political science at Al-Ummah University in Gaza.
“After each bloody confrontation there is a cease-fire deal and Hamas benefits from these deals very much as crossings reopen and more goods enter Gaza, fishermen and farmers have better access to sea and farms,” he adds. “A war in Gaza is always a gain when it ends."