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New rules of military engagement between Hamas and Israel

Contrary to what Israel might have expected, Hamas's reaction to the latest Israeli escalation in Gaza didn't follow the normal pattern. Thus, Israeli calculations have been confused. Normally, Hamas will react to Israeli aggression, even if launched against other parties; sometimes, the movement's military wing, the Izzudin Al-Qassam Brigades, will attack the Israeli army and special units patrolling the Gaza border.

Furthermore, some of the other groups in Gaza accuse Hamas of blocking their attempts to approach Israeli targets.


Since Operation Cast Lead against Gaza in 2008-9, Israel has carried out selective assassinations of activists from various Palestinian factions and what it calls "their infrastructure". Hamas hasn't always responded to such attacks. That was interpreted by Israeli intelligence in two ways: Israel had deterrence power over Hamas following Cast Lead; and Hamas fears that any escalation might lead to a wider confrontation which would result in the downfall of its government in Gaza.

This poses a number of questions; why, for example, has Hamas changed its reaction? With Israel embroiled in an election campaign, what choices does Hamas have to face the new reality? What demands are the Palestinian resistance groups making to restrict Israel's room for manoeuvre?

New confrontation rules worked out by Hamas

It is clear that Hamas has a new strategy for confrontation with Israel; this is obvious from its response to the latest Israeli aggression. On occasion, Hamas leads the Israeli army into limited confrontations, such as ambushes and explosive devices planted to target Israeli occupation army. Tactics are designed to cause maximum embarrassment to the Israeli government.

When it ignores Israeli aggression, Hamas is criticised by Palestinians because Israel is emboldened to be even more aggressive.

Many commentators have perceived the Hamas strategy to indicate a gradual abandonment of armed resistance and its submission to the occupation. This has led to a reduction in support for the Islamic movement, especially in Gaza. Moreover, it has given the smaller groups, particularly those affiliated to the Salafis, the confidence to be more active. This is why Hamas has seen its membership leaking to other Islamic groups.

Thus, although Hamas may view its government role as a burden, the new strategy of limited responses – but definite Hamas responses – represents a renewal of its commitment to resistance so that it does not become a Fatah lookalike. Hamas must know that it will face disproportionate reactions by Israel, so it tries to make its own operations proportionate to the Israeli aggression in turn.

The Israeli deadlock

There is no doubt that the change in Hamas's policy has confounded Israeli calculations since it comes at a time of regional changes which prompt Israel to be more cautious about any massive land and air assault of the kind it launched in 2008-9.

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Israel believes that any massive military operation against Gaza would face a strong regional response, even on the political and diplomatic level, and mainly by Egypt and Turkey. Israel believes that the most dangerous outcome of the Arab Spring is that public opinion now plays a big role in decision-making in the revolutionary countries, especially in Egypt.

As such, Tel Aviv fears that public opinion would push the Egyptian government to reassess the Camp David Peace Accord if it goes ahead with a massive offensive against the Gaza Strip.

Israel also recognises that a new military offensive against Gaza could destroy any possibility of rebuilding relations with Turkey, essential to replace strategic losses post-Arab Spring. Calls have been made in Tel Aviv to bridge the gap in relations with Turkey as soon as possible.

At the same time, Israel fears that any massive operation against Gaza might divert the eyes of the world from the Iranian nuclear programme and threaten the international alliance against Tehran. It would definitely affect the willingness of Arab countries to be part of the alliance. The possible negative media coverage of a new assault on Gaza is also a concern for Israel.

Underpinning all of this is that the politicians and military strategists do not have any real solution for the home-made rockets launched from Gaza. A massive offensive against the territory will not stop the rockets, even if hundreds of fighters are killed. The evidence for this is that in the 2008/2009 assault and invasion, rockets continued to fall on Israeli settlements and cities until the Israelis withdrew. Of course, no one in Israel, not even the far-right extremists, suggests reoccupying the Gaza Strip and staying there.

Elections

All of this does not mean that Israel is not going to launch a massive military offensive against the Gaza Strip. The country's general election is looming, so Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might want to show the electorate how tough he can be. Such abandonment of rational objectivity by Israelis has been seen before. Shimon Peres did it with "Operation Grapes of Wrath" in 1996; Netanyahu did it in 1999; and Ehud Barack did it in 2001. However, none of those acts of aggression actually achieved its aims.

Palestinian resistance and the needed wisdom

Israel is in a quandary over Hamas because the Islamic movement is ready to respond to aggression from the occupying power. There is enough evidence to suggest that Israel is resigned to this situation in the belief that a massive escalation between the two will not serve its interests.

This has to be an achievement for all Palestinian resistance groups as Israel's claims about its successes in deterring Hamas are exaggerated. However, the resistance has to deal wisely with the situation and consider the regional and international changes as well as internal Israeli politics, in conjunction with consideration of the balance of military power. "It is not enough to be right, but you have to be wise as well," goes the old saying.

Moreover, the rights of those under occupation must be exercised with caution so as not to make room for Israel to change the rules of confrontation to utilise its massive military superiority.

Unfortunately, some Palestinian groups do not consider the situation objectively, and launch rockets against Israel based on ideological differences with Hamas in order to embarrass the movement and its government. They pay little heed to time and place or local, regional and international factors. This has even resulted in a "promotional" video taken by Al-Qassam Brigades being used by the Israelis to discredit the Hamas government in the eyes of the world, and to mobilise international support for attacks against Palestinian civilians.

In short, the Palestinian resistance must not give Israel any ammunition to escalate the conflict. Resistance groups need to act wisely so that Tel Aviv has no excuses or justifications to attack defenceless Palestinians at will.

The author is a Palestinian academic. This article was first published in Arabic by Al Jazeera on 9 November 2012

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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