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Analysis: Hamas’s emboldened risk-taking is fueling this escalation

The flare-up came after a deadly Israeli special forces operation in the Gaza Strip on Sunday that led Hamas to vow revenge
MAHMUD HAMS (AFP)
If Israel fails to restore deterrence in Gaza, it could embolden its more powerful adversaries in the north

An increasingly emboldened appetite for risk-taking and a belief that Israel is too busy elsewhere to want to seize their territorial base has led Hamas and other terror organizations in the Gaza Strip to initiate a mass rocket assault on southern Israel.

Gaza's armed factions feel they can tolerate Israel’s counter-strikes, and that the benefits they can achieve by initiating this escalation outweigh the costs. Israel has set out to disavow Hamas of this concept, and this is the purpose of the current Israeli air campaign in Gaza.

The first stage of Israel’s response involves the demolition of a growing number of strategic Hamas assets. These targets are high-value assets for Hamas, and are also symbolic of its rule in Gaza.

They include the central Hamas military intelligence headquarters, the Al-Aqsa television station building, and other high-profile targets being struck alongside standard Hamas infrastructure, like weapons factories, tunnels, and command centers.

Although such targets may seem unimpressive to many, they represent areas of heavy investment and planning by Hamas, and it will take the organization’s military wing a long time to rebuild them.

Still, this level of attack may not be sufficient to influence Hamas’s cost-benefit analysis.

AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

Hamas and its shrewd new leader, Yahya Sinwar, learned in recent months that Israel is reluctant to commit itself to an irreversible, large-scale military conflict in Gaza and that the Israeli leadership and defense establishment would prefer to focus on, and prioritize, the far more threatening northern arenas.

They have also learned that when they back up with violence their demand for "protection money" – funds to prevent the collapse of Gaza’s economy and civilian government – regional actors and the international community scurry to meet their demands driven by fear of a disastrous meltdown of the Islamist-ruled enclave.

The main question going forward is whether Hamas’s calculations thus far have rested on the wrong assumptions.

Israel’s other enemies, Hezbollah, Iran, and allied terrorist forces, are closely watching Gazan factions terrorize a regional power and will be looking to see what costs Hamas pays for these actions.

If Israel fails to restore a basic level of deterrence in Gaza, the lessons drawn by Israel’s more powerful adversaries could, in turn, embolden their own appetite to take risks against Israel.

Hamas senior commanders are hiding in, or under, heavily populated residential areas, where they fled to as soon as the security situation escalated. It is a familiar pattern, and one that enables Hamas’s senior military command level to feel that it can bombard southern Israeli civilians with relative impunity, using Gaza’s own long-suffering civilians as human shields.

(AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

But the IAF is operating on a low flame at this time, and could step up its strikes in a major way if directed to do so by the government. The deployment of back-up ground forces to the Gaza border is a clear Israeli threat to move beyond air power, and launch a land offensive, should the escalation continue. This is a threat that Hamas has yet to decide if it wishes to try and test.

Ultimately, this flare up is still at the stage of signal sending.

Hamas is not only striking a new aggressive pose against Israel, it is also banking on a boost to its credibility in the Palestinian arena, through its willingness to clash head on with Israel, while it accuses the Palestinian Authority (PA), its hated domestic foe, of collaborating with Israel.

Such messaging may not interest ordinary Gazans, however, many of whom are looking at the safer, more stable, and more financially secure lives of their fellow Palestinians in the West Bank with envy.

The combined rocket and mortar arsenal of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) exceeds 20,000 projectiles, and these factions are prepared on the ground to engage in persistent asymmetrical urban warfare if Israel enters the Strip with ground forces.

AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

This means the Gazan factions feel their aggressive posturing is sufficient to deter Israel, fueling their willingness to revenge tactical incidents, like Sunday night’s deadly fire exchange between Israeli special forces and Hamas, by taking it out on Israel’s southern civilians.

Israel, for its part, has dramatically improved the readiness and capabilities of its ground forces. But Israel has advertised its lack of appetite to engage in a full-scale war in Gaza, and its fear of finding itself in control of two million Gazans. Hamas has assessed that it can therefore get away with these actions.

Now, it is up to Israel to drive home the message that the longer this continues, the more Hamas will lose. The IDF’s actions so far amount to just an initial attempt to influence Hamas’s decision-making, before Israel feels the need to escalate further.

These events represent a collapse of the concept that it is possible to stabilize Gaza with money, fuel, electricity, and basic goods.

The escalation comes only days after initial signs suggested that Gaza and Israel were heading for calmer days. Israel permitted Qatar to inject Gaza with $15 million – money for Hamas’s civilian government officials – and Egypt was working intensively to try and bridge gaps between Hamas and its bitter internal foe, the PA.

The PA views Gaza as a breakaway rebel province that was hijacked by Hamas. The PA has been seeking to choke Gaza until Hamas submits to its demands to allow it to retake the territory.

In the past, Hamas had signaled that it would prefer to avoid a new war, but if faced with economic collapse, it would launch one anyway. Now, it is signaling that it is willing to risk war even if Gaza receives injections of cash.

Caught in in this complex web are southern Israeli civilians and Gazan civilians, who are bearing the brunt of Hamas’s cynical, violent, and dangerous calculations. Israel’s first goal will be to change Hamas’s logic for a long time to come.

Yaakov Lappin is an associate researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a correspondent for Jane’s Defense Weekly and the Jewish News Service.

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