Israel V Hamas: Why Is the Violence Picking Up?

Hamas and Israel are currently duking it out against each other in the Middle East. The number of rockets launched at Israel from the Gaza Strip has risen sharply recently. Rockets so far this year total at least 1,197, with 396 having fallen on Israel since November 14th! What is going on? What explains this sudden uptick in violence?

Hamas seems to have been deterred after the 2008-09 Gaza war. The number of rocket attacks increased throughout the years 2007 and 2008 and then fell off a cliff in early 2009. Things were then quiet through 2010, and even in 2011 during the upheaval of the Arab spring, things still remained relatively quiet. In the past few months, however, this has changed. Why?

The simplest answer is that Hamas perceives its circumstances to have changed. These changes include a great improvement in its own capabilities – it now possesses rockets in greater numbers, including some that are much more advanced, capable of reaching Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, there are political changes in the world around the Gaza Strip and Israel. The most obvious of these is the changed situation in neighboring Egypt. The Egyptian government is now headed by Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother. At first, this didn't seem to have made much of a difference. But if anyone thought that things would continue as they were before, they were mistaken. One big sign of this change was the visit to Gaza of Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. This was a huge show of support for Hamas, but it pales in significance when compared with the visit earlier this week by Egypt's Prime Minister Hesham Qandil.

To understand why, picture this: The Egyptian Prime Minister visits Gaza. During this time, Hamas launches rockets at Israel and Israel retaliates. (So far so good: All this happened.) Imagine that, during Israel's retaliation, the Egyptian Prime Minister was injured or killed. The political consequences for Israel would be dire. Egypt would have the pretext to turn wholly against Israel and, perhaps more importantly, Israel's allies might find it more difficult to provide Israel with solid backing. Under the circumstances, Egypt might not care about losing the vast aid that it receives from the United States. If it turned down this aid, that would remove substantial leverage that the United States has on Egypt that it has so far been able to use to moderate Egypt's position regarding Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Of course, none of this happened. Egypt's Prime Minister was in Gaza for only a very short time, no doubt because he had no intention of risking his life for the conflict. Nevertheless, all of this is symbolic of massive changes on the political front in the Middle East. Specifically, it shows Egypt is increasingly willing to throw its weight into the conflict on the side of Hamas. In my view, it is this, combined with the domestic pressures that Hamas faces, that have emboldened it to these unprecedented attacks on Israel, including never-before-seen attacks on Tel Aviv, Israel's main city. The chaos in Syria may also be playing a role: Bashar al-Assad's regime supported Hamas, and Hamas's external leadership long called Damascus its home. Hamas may thus be using a fight with a hated neighbor in order to distract from its involvement with a bloody regime in Syria and rising dissension at home within the Gaza Strip.

Hamas is this now testing the new limits it now perceives. How much can it get away with? How deep is its support within the Arab world? How much influence does the United States continue to have there? Overall: How much have things shifted in its favor? In essence, Hamas is attempting to change the "rules of the game" that were set in 2009 to gain itself more leverage. None of this bodes well for Israel, not only now, but also over the medium to long term.


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