Danger and Deflection in Gaza

Hamas is having political trouble at home and its major supporter, Syria, is threatened by spreading Arab upheaval. What to do? Refocus attention on Israel.

After several years virtually free of major violence, terrorism has returned to the Israeli-Palestinian arena. In the last two weeks, a family of five was knifed to death in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, a bomb at a bus stop outside the National Convention Center in Jerusalem killed a British tourist and wounded dozens of Israelis, and about a hundred mortars and rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip toward targets in southern Israel. Over the longer sweep of the conflict, such incidents are actually the norm rather than the exception. Nevertheless, the protracted lull since the end of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in early 2009 has led observers to speculate, if not why this eruption has occurred, then at least why it has happened now.

The motivations and identities of the attackers in Itamar and Jerusalem have yet to be revealed, and they may well turn out to be isolated actions by individuals acting on their own. But the renewal of mortar and rocket fire from Gaza seems to emanate from a calculated political decision. The most plausible explanation for that may be found in the upheavals sweeping over the Arab world. Unlike most Arab regimes, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas government in Gaza enjoy at least some residual legitimacy stemming from the fact that both PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas won relatively free elections in 2006. But those mandates have long since expired, and since the violent takeover of Gaza by Hamas in 2007 and the physical and political split between the areas, both have been ruled by executive diktat—the former through an administration of appointed technocrats led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; the latter through the remnants of the Hamas government headed by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyyeh. Of the two, it is Hamas that appears more vulnerable to public expressions of discontent inspired by the uprisings against authoritarian rule and corruption in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the region.

Hamas put on a brave face in response to regional developments because with the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, it lost an adversary, whereas Abbas lost a supporter. But the shakier domestic foundations of Hamas rule are reflected in its harsher repression of public demonstrations of support for protesters in Tunis and Cairo and, more importantly, its response to expressions of Palestinian discontent. Palestinian protesters have not directly challenged the regime in either the West Bank or Gaza. Instead, they have demonstrated in favor of national reunification. This is a seemingly anodyne demand—an apple pie and motherhood issue—but it has momentous political implications because of the way that Abbas has preemptively responded to any incipient challenge. More confident despite continuing disarray within the ranks of Fatah, he has conflated the demand for reunification with the sensed need for renewed legitimization by first proposing new elections and then, when that idea was rebuffed by Hamas, by suggesting a non-party unity government charged with organizing elections within six months. Hamas, embarrassed by what is a seemingly elegant solution to the reunification issue but reluctant to put its popularity to the test, has invited Abbas to visit Gaza in the hope of talking around the proposal without actually accepting it. Meanwhile, it has been further unnerved by the growing threat to the Syrian regime, its main pillar of support in the Arab world.

In a desperate attempt to wriggle out of these difficulties, Hamas has also tried to refocus attention on Israel. The tactic is familiar; the Syrian regime has also resorted to it with the publicized arrest of an Egyptian-American who admitted to having once visited Israel and with the claim that anti-regime demonstrations in Daraa were orchestrated by hundreds of text messages sent from Tel Aviv. So, too, is the method—tacit approval of renewed attacks by smaller organizations, especially Islamic Jihad, and then more massive attacks by Hamas itself in retaliation for Israeli strikes against the original perpetrators.

This is a dangerous game. The Israeli government has no desire to escalate and thus redirect the global spotlight away from the upheavals in the Arab world and back toward its own role in the parlous state of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. But it cannot ignore public pressure to do something dramatic about a state of affairs that last week left the parents of 100,000 children in despair after schools were shut by local authorities in the south of the country.

One stopgap measure was what defense officials considered the premature deployment of the first battery of the Iron Dome rocket interceptor system. Such signs of nervousness have apparently persuaded Hamas to ratchet down the violence. But if that restraint proves to be temporary because Hamas worries more about domestic political challenges than about the risks of renewed confrontation with Israel, escalation will almost surely be the result.