Confrontation between Israel and Hamas is an old movie. But the grim version playingout now — with Hamas rockets, particularly use of a long range Fajr 5, aimed at Tel Aviv , Israeli airstrikes and the killing of a top Hamas official — contains new and disturbing scenes. That said, there is reason to hope this won’t turn into a complete disaster film. And Egypt may well be the key.
The last time Israel and Hamas tangled, in 2008 and 2009, the result was mayhem that left as many as 1,400 Palestinians dead, saw Israelis terrified and living in shelters, and destroyed large areas of Gaza. With diametrically opposed strategies and political goals, Hamas and Israel are fights waiting to happen.
But the current conflict contains several new and dangerous aspects likely to be with us for some time to come.
Part of the reason we’ve witnessed an uptick in the number of rocket attacks — 750 this year — is that a variety of smaller groups that Hamas cannot control, or chooses not to control, have been operating with greater impunity. Some are former Hamas militants, others are newbies, and they are testing the limits of Israel’s reactions with the rocket attacks. One of those groups, Jaysh al-Islam, may have played a role in the August 8 attack that left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead in Sinai.
In the face of this new competition, Hamas just can’t fold up its tent and surrender the field. That means the Gaza-based organization needs to compete with or control these groups. And it’s tough for Hamas to function as Israel’s police officer, struggling to contain the smaller jihadi groups. After all, part of Hamas’ reason for being is its championing of the armed struggle, a cause it can’t abandon.
Now, with Hamas’ external base of operation undermined in Syria as a result of the popular uprising there, Gaza becomes the main seat and repository of its legitimacy. And it must always demonstrate that it’s the key actor there. Unlike Fatah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, it doesn’t want to launch a U.N. initiative for statehood or even toy with the notion of negotiating with Israel. Maintaining the military option remains paramount.
The Israelis are determined, particularly as they face the uncertainties of the Arab spring/winter, to demonstrate that they can protect their interests, particularly if challenged.
New actions by the jihadi groups and longtime concerns over Hamas’ high-trajectory weapons have made Israel more likely to launch preventive attacks. The killing of Hamas military wing leader Ahmed al-Ja’abari, whom the Israelis have apparently targeted at least once before, was the manifestation of this proactive posture.
When you combine that with pressure on the Israeli government from communities exposed to rocket attacks, not to mention the upcoming elections in January, you have the makings of a very determined response. Particularly against the backdrop of an Iranian nuclear threat he can’t defuse, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a stake in demonstrating that Israel can deter the Gazan threat and deal with it successfully.
But as bad as the situation appears, logic and self-interest should suggest de-escalation. Neither Israel nor Hamas has a stake in repeating the events of 2008 and 2009. War didn’t fix the problem then, and it’s unlikely to fix it now. Nor do the Israelis — when the real threat is Iran — want to get into a major military and political mess over Gaza that would make their relationship with Egypt even more complicated.
The government of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy has taken steps to support the Palestinians: tough rhetoric, recalling its ambassador from Israel, summoning the Arab League and putting the issue into play at the U.N. and sending its Prime Minister to Gaza. But it has no stake in seeing this conflict escalate or in attaching its future to Hamas or the jihadis, which it fears both in Gaza and in Sinai.
Egypt also has other priorities, such as economic aid. And at a time when the International Monetary Fund is negotiating a loan of over $4 billion and when it could use American support, Egypt doesn’t want to get too close to Hamas. The longer the conflict goes on, and the greater the civilian casualties, the harder it will be for Morsy to play a positive role.
Cooler heads ought to prevail. Egypt should press Hamas to control the jihadis and to reimpose a truce–perhaps in exchange for a more open border with Gaza and greater political support from Turkey and Qatar, and the U.S. should urge restraint on Israel to allow Hamas to stand down. But this is the Middle East, where movies don’t usually have happy endings.
Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and served as a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. He is the author of the forthcoming book Can America Have Another Great President?