With barrages of Kassam rockets being launched daily on Israeli towns from the Hamas-ruled Gaza strip and Israeli politicians competing over who would offer the harshest response, the question for Israel today has been reduced to whether or not to invade. But neither side is free of contradictions, and both are trapped in a seemingly insoluble conundrum.
As a government, Hamas is to be judged by its capacity to provide security and decent governance to Gaza’s population, but as a movement it is incapable of betraying its unyielding commitment to fight the Israeli occupier to the death. After all, Hamas was not elected to make peace with Israel, nor to improve relations with the US. However encouraging some sporadic signs of a shift toward political realism might be, it is not on Hamas’ immediate agenda to betray its raison d’être by endorsing the US-led Annapolis peace process.
Hamas’ offensive is not an attempt to draw Israel into a costly invasion that might shake its regime. Rather, it is a move aimed at establishing a balance of threat based on sustaining a low-intensity conflict even if a new lull is agreed upon.
A now increasingly arrogant and extremely well armed Hamas expects such a lull to be agreed upon only in exchange for new concessions from both Israel and Egypt. These include the opening of Gaza’s borders, including the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing, the release of Hamas detainees in Egypt, the suspension of Israeli operations against Hamas activists in the West Bank, and the right to respond to any perceived Israeli violation of the ceasefire.
But Hamas’ brinkmanship is a dangerous exercise, for a low-intensity conflict can easily degenerate into an all-out flare-up if its rockets cause a politically unbearable number of casualties on the Israeli side. In fact, Israel’s top leaders have already approved the army’s plans for an invasion of Gaza, with the timing and the nature of the casus belli left open.
Hamas is playing with fire on the Egyptian front, too, having haughtily interrupted the Egyptian-led reconciliation process with Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Liberation Organization and pledging to derail the Egyptian and Saudi initiative to extend Abbas’ presidential term until 2010. Hamas has made clear its intention to appoint as president the Palestinian parliament speaker — a Hamas member now in an Israeli prison — once Abbas’ presidency ends on Jan. 9.
Hamas radicalism is not devoid of a political purpose — to bury whatever remains of the two-state solution. The meager results of the Oslo peace process are regarded by Hamas as vindication of its consistent view that the Oslo accords were doomed to failure, and that Israel and the US never intended to respect the minimal requirements of Palestinian nationalism.
But while Hamas has never been indifferent to daily political calculations, nor is it confined to them. A fundamentally religious movement for whom the future belongs to Islam, Hamas sees itself as being engaged in a long-term armed struggle for the liberation of all of Palestine.
Nor is the movement’s brinkmanship entirely irrational, for the legacy of Israel’s abortive attempt in 2006 to destroy Hezbollah is that, for the first time in the country’s history, the military establishment is advocating restraint and actively curbing the more hawkish measures being proposed in Cabinet meetings. Israel’s reluctance to invade Gaza stems from a sober analysis of the meaning of such a move. Indeed, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader, might be ready to pay a high political price during an electoral season by accepting even a new lull that is intermittently violated by Hamas.