Gaza’s Hamas movement wanted a showdown with Israel because its leaders are high on something called the Arab Spring and competing to become martyrs to the Palestinian cause.
Or, from another perspective, cynical Israeli politicians think a Gaza offensive will be a walkover that will assure re-election in January and at the same time provide a death-blow to Palestinian statehood moves at the UN.
Those are two ends of a spectrum of theories among Israelis and Palestinians about what has propelled the two sides towards their second war in four years, escalating a low-level, slap-for-slap conflict to the brink of an Israeli invasion of Gaza.
Without going back 2,000 years to the origins of the dispute, the roots of the latest high-explosive crisis can be traced in a series of “red lines” that have been crossed.
Specifically: firing a Russian Kornet anti-tank missile on Nov. 10 against Israeli soldiers; Israel’s assassination of top Hamas commander Ahmed al-Jaabari on Wednesday last week after both sides appeared to have agreed to a tacit ceasefire deal; and Hamas firing long-range rockets at Tel Aviv the following day.
These were big steps that wrecked a fragile “status quo.”
Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip seven years ago and has regularly used its airpower to deter Hamas and other Islamist groups from firing their rockets into the Jewish state. The militants do not recognize Israel’s right to exist.
In a bruising three-week campaign in 2008 and 2009, Israel first bombarded then briefly invaded Gaza, hoping to put a halt to the rockets once and for all. Operation Cast Lead left 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.
For a while, there was quiet, then the round of retaliations resumed. Missiles were fired, Israel struck back, sometimes targeting empty smuggling tunnels, sometimes targeting rocket crews. Palestinian civilians were also getting killed.
Both sides speak of “the rules of the game” and now both accuse the other of “stepping over the red line.”
Palestinian analysts agree Hamas has the wind in its sails since the Arab Spring swept away pro-Western autocracies and replaced them with Islamists, especially in neighboring Egypt where the ruling Muslim Brotherhood is their spiritual mentor.
“Of course, Hamas feels empowered by the change in the Arab countries around them and many believe Israel cannot isolate it any more,” said a source close to Hamas, who did not wish to be identified.
However, while Hamas craves the legitimacy it needs to assume the moral leadership of the Palestinian national movement from those it considers Western poodles chasing peace with Israel, it shares Gaza with armed Salafists groups intent on violence.
“Hamas has been under continuous blackmail from other factions since it has been more interested in calm in order to preserve its authority in Gaza,” Gaza-based political analyst Hani Habib told reporters.
Trying to face both ways, Hamas abandoned efforts to stop these groups firing rockets at Israel and last month joined in, to show it was not getting soft in the chair of office.
In doing so, it tried to change “the rules of the game,” but overplayed its hand, triggering a massive Israeli operation for which the military planning was sitting ready in a drawer. It came far faster and much heavier than Hamas expected.