Israel has endured one of the most intense barrages of artillery and rocket shelling from the Gaza Strip that it has ever had to confront. Israel is responding and countering these attacks–which are probing further inside of Israel, along the coast and inland as well–from the air. Meanwhile, the U.S-Israel anti-missile Iron Dome system is protecting its civilian population.
The question is why is it happening now and what is underlying Hamas’ decision to resume an attack which it had begun almost two months ago just prior to Israel’s recent election? At that time Hamas had accepted a bombing cessation orchestrated by Egypt. There appear to be several rationales behind the heavy shelling at this time.
First, Hamas has clearly seen that the Palestinian Authority is weakening its resolve vis-à-vis Israel’s right-wing Government. The Gaza leadership senses that Mahmoud Abbas is no longer in an active fighting mode. Hamas must assume that Abbas knows that the Trump peace proposal–should it ever see the light of day—does not provide adequate guarantees for a future independent Palestinian state. Knowing this fact, Abbas appears fatigued and not interested in another losing confrontation with the Israelis. This strategy provides the opening for Hamas to try to assert its more confrontational leadership at the expense of the corrupt and ineffective P.A. Pushing the Israeli confrontation button provides Hamas the opportunity to show the Palestinians on the West Bank how well armed is their military operation as well as their political willingness to engage Israel.
Second, Hamas’ decision to strike Israel now has two underlying signals. First, Iranian weapons apparently have reached a sufficiently high level in Gaza that the Hamas forces can sustain a major bombardment of Israel. Their forces are probably at a point that Hamas may even entice Israel to once again re-enter Gaza in a major land offensive; something that Hamas believes the international community, sans the U.S., will condemn.
The current attack has been timed precisely before this week Israel observes a Memorial Day for those who have fallen in all of Israel’s wars, following which the country will celebrate the 71st anniversary of Israel’s independence as a sovereign state. For Israel to be required to address a confrontation with the Palestinians in the midst of this period tarnishes the deep meaning that these days play in Israeli society.
Finally, Hamas continues to operate as an Iranian client state. The Teheran Government is their weapons supplier and expects that these weapons will be used. Iran is in the midst of some very serious economic dislocation as a result of President Trump’s unilateral abrogation of the 2015 JCOPA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). Not only are petroleum sales down dramatically, but Iran is expecting the imposition of addition tariffs and trade restriction as early as this week from the Trump Administration.
In this moment of frustration, Iran is also looking to push Israel to take action against Hamas or their other clients—Hezbollah and Syria—that could endanger Israel and the region’s current stability. Iran recognizes that the Saudi and the Gulf States themselves will encourage reprisals against Iran but will not actively engage in a joint effort with Israel. (The Iraqis fought a war with Iran for more than eight years, but they were not joined by forces from an infidel power. Even the Gulf War was very narrowly defined and so conducted.) For Iran, therefore, this may be an opportune moment to push Israel and the U.S. to make a regional miscalculation which ultimately could even bring the Arab forces back into a united position against the West’s regional role.
Much of this will become clearer if the military confrontation in Gaza quiets down quickly or if it escalates. If Israeli casualties mount, there will be increased domestic pressure for Netanyahu to intercede. Iran could merely move the conflict elsewhere or actually elevate the stakes. None of these choices auger well for any forthcoming peace proposal.