Hamas is in a very different position today than it was during the 2008 Israeli incursion into Gaza. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Syria and Jordan gave Hamas a strong enough reason to move out from under the wings of Iran and Syria and position itself alongside the Brotherhood, its Islamist parent organization. Hamas' intent was to use the Brotherhood's rise to strengthen its own political legitimacy and end its isolation in the Gaza Strip. At the same time, Hamas' exiled leadership in Damascus scattered throughout the region, while the Gaza-based leadership began to face growing challenges from an increasing number of Salafist-jihadist groups in the region.
Hamas has fluctuated between openly claiming rocket attacks on Israel and calling for truces over the past month. But the Nov. 14 assassinations of top Hamas commander Ahmed Jabari and other senior commanders, along with Israeli strikes aimed at eliminating Hamas' long-range rocket arsenal, demanded a Hamas response. Hamas is now putting those long-range rockets to use and appears prepared to bring the war to Gaza.
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Engaging Israel in war carries a number of risks for Hamas. Israel will continue to focus on eliminating the group's arsenal of long-range Fajr rockets and the group's senior commanders. A weakening of Hamas' leadership could create additional space for other groups to challenge its authority.
An Israeli ground incursion in Gaza would also place tremendous pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Cairo. Egypt's Brotherhood will do what it can to demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinians, but it will also be concerned about the outflow of refugees and spillover of violence from Gaza into Sinai, a region that has already witnessed an uptick in Salafist-jihadist activity over the past year. The last thing Egypt's Brotherhood wants is to be seen as complicit with Israel in cracking down on Gaza border crossings as it tries to insulate itself from the violence. However, any leniency by the Brotherhood in managing the Gaza-Sinai border could invite Israeli action on Egyptian soil — a scenario that neither the Brotherhood nor the Egyptian military is prepared to handle.Hamas could be attempting to use this escalation to drive toward a broader understanding with Israel, one that would compel Israel to accept the political authority of Hamas in Gaza and its Muslim Brotherhood affiliates in the region. If this is the case, Israel will target Hamas' long-range Fajr rockets anyway, so Hamas may as well deploy them to raise the political stakes on both sides for an eventual negotiation. However, this would assume that Hamas and its allies are prepared to deny Israel success in its military campaign. Unlike the 2006 confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah, in which Hamas opened up an additional front against Israel, Hezbollah is now greatly preoccupied with trying to defend its position in Lebanon with the Syrian regime in flux. The group's participation in a broader military campaign cannot be guaranteed. Instead, perhaps the most Hamas can realistically seek is to have an Israeli incursion in Gaza more seriously strain the Israeli-Egyptian relationship.
Iran's intentions must also be examined. For Iran and the regime of Bashar al Assad in Syria, the Israeli military campaign in Gaza is a welcome distraction from the conflict in Syria. Iran also benefits from having Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and smaller groups acting against Israel. Hamas' relationship with Iran has become strained this past year, and their goals may not be fully in sync, but Tehran can still derive significant use from having Hamas apply military pressure on Israel while the Iranians attempt to maintain their position in the Levant.
Hamas' decision to target Tel Aviv with rockets was not made lightly. There are a number of risks entailed with provoking Israel into another ground incursion in Gaza. The questions moving forward are what else Hamas has done to prepare for this eventuality and whether the group has what it takes to both maintain its position in Gaza and drive Israel toward a truce. The current situation in Gaza suggests that Hamas' goals are quite ambitious. Israel must now decide how far it will need to go in eliminating the militants' capabilities to launch Fajr rockets from Gaza.