Since Israel’s last incursion into Gaza in December 2008 (Operation Cast Lead), Hamas and its fellow “resistance organizations” in Gaza have been taking advantage of weak Egyptian control over the Sinai Peninsula to hasten the smuggling of medium and short-range rockets, many of them supplied by Iran, into the Gaza Strip. Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and various international Jihadist groups have also taken advantage of the significant absence of Egyptian governance in the Sinai to use Egyptian territory as a base of operations. As a result, approximately 700 rockets were fired into Israel this year prior to the current hostilities (with most from within the Gaza Strip and a few from Egypt), and there have been a range of border and cross-border attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians from Gaza and from Egypt.
Hamas’s strategy is clear (and mirrors that of Lebanon’s Hizballah): to attempt to deter Israel from launching attacks against the organization or otherwise undermining its rule in Gaza via amassing a rocket arsenal that will allow it to strike deep into Israel. Hamas seems to be under the impression that it is possible to create enough damage and loss of life within Israel that Israel’s leadership will feel compelled to halt military operations against Hamas and will be deterred from conducting future operations. In addition, Hamas is clearly hoping the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt will feel compelled to further downgrade its relations with Israel and to loosen or abolish restrictions to the movement of people and goods on the Egypt-Gaza border.
It may be tempting to view the conflict between Israel and Hamas as one in which the two sides have similar objectives: to protect their territory and citizens from threats to life and limb from the other side. However, this symmetric view is misleading. Gaza is not governed by a government that is interested in holding its own. Rather, the Hamas government is committed to the principle of a long-term and even multi-generational struggle with Israel that will lead, in their view, to the dissolution of the State of Israel and its replacement by an Islamist Palestinian state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.
It may be convenient to argue that Hamas’s charter and statements made by its leaders are just political statements and do not reflect what Hamas really intends to do. Clearly there is no question that Hamas is able to maintain long periods of comparative quiet with Israel and even to act to prevent its personnel and those of the other Palestinian groups in Gaza to fire rockets and mortars into Israel. However, this does not change the reality that Hamas is committed to Israel’s destruction and that it cannot make due with ruling Gaza or even with attempting to extend its power to the West Bank. Hamas cannot continue to be Hamas and at the same time accept Israel’s existence as Jewish State.
At the same time, it is highly unlikely that this round of fighting will fundamentally change a reality in which Hamas continues to rule in Gaza and Israel lacks any realistic alternatives to changing the equation.
As it now appears that Israel is unlikely to invade the Gaza Strip, this is probably for the better. A ground invasion, given the tremendous risks involved, would only make sense if the Israeli leadership decided that it wanted to put an end to the Hamas state in Gaza once and for all by reoccupying the Gaza Strip indefinitely. It is, however, highly unlikely that anyone in Jerusalem has the appetite for this, and consequently, the current military operation can only hope to achieve a limited period of quiet before the next round.
Given the above parameters, the only feasible political arrangement (which is by no means a solution, just something that may improve the situation) is one in which Gaza becomes more closely tied to Egypt, politically and economically. The Egyptians certainly do not relish reasserting control over the Gaza Strip (they occupied the territory between 1948 and 1967) and that, in any case, would not be in the cards, but an open border between the Strip and Egypt (and bringing Gaza into Egypt’s economic orbit) would probably act to calm things by improving the situation for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and perhaps make similar engagements between Israel and Hamas fewer and farther between.