The escalating battle between Israel and Hamas has raised questions as well as tensions. With the Middle East in a state of flux, why did Israel strike at Hamas’ military leader? More importantly, why did Hamas respond in a way sure to invite an Israeli attack that it could not possibly fend off?
While Hamas’ military commander, Ahmed al-Jabari, had long been on Israel’s hit list and had, consequently, kept out of sight, his killing may be a calculated attempt to derail the Oslo peace accords, linked with trying to stymie the Palestinian Authority’s bid for UN recognition, due on November 29.
Israel’s leaders would have been all too aware that al-Jabari’s death would escalate regional tensions. But it is likely that Israel calculated the risks and decided, on balance, that Egypt would stay effectively neutral, that Iran would remain unwilling to strike and that Syria would be too bogged down by its own internal troubles to engage.
Proxies for Iran and allied to Syria’s struggling regime, Hezbollah, in southern Lebanon, is also expected to remain on the sidelines, at least for now.
Israel’s mobilisation of 75,000 reservists suggests that it has put together a force that could tackle Hamas, in what could be a campaign of attrition. But such a force would also retain sufficient capacity to invade southern Lebanon should Hezbollah try to take advantage of Israel’s primary military focus.
Israel will have known, through its intelligence networks, that Hamas had been building up a stockpile of Iranian-supplied Fajr 5 rockets, and lesser weaponry, that have the capacity to hit Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. To that end, Israel may have wanted to confirm its intelligence and also use the opportunity to destroy or remove Hamas’ rocket capability.
From Hamas’ perspective, it is less clear why it would fire off rockets that are strategically irrelevant but which are sure to invite a major Israeli military response. Hamas’ rockets have killed a few Israelis and do create nervousness. But the rockets don’t begin to come close to swinging the balance towards Hamas winning a military confrontation with Israel.
While Hamas and Egypt’s new government are close through their mutual membership of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s government remains relatively weak and is unlikely to take any action not fully endorsed by its military. To that end, Egypt’s main response is likely to be to encourage Hamas to back down.
Hezbollah would be itching to get involved and to score some status points by attacking Israel. But with Syria now so precariously perched on the edge of political change, it may lose its major sponsor in Syrian leader Bashar al-Asad.
Also, as political tensions rise in Lebanon, the Syrian conflict could easily spill over. If that happened, Hezbollah will want to have kept itself in reserve for that conflict, rather than expend its not unlimited resources on anti-Israel point scoring.
Iran is the unknown is this environment, with its own internal political tensions likely to keep it out of direct engagement in support of Hamas. However, if Iran’s pragmatic and reformist factions splinter under the pressure of an Israeli assault on Hamas, the Ahmadinejad hardliners could get the upper hand.
Of the possible scenarios it is, on balance, unlikely that Israel’s attack on Hamas in Gaza will lead to a wider regional war. But Hamas may be hoping that such an outcome is their best chance of striking a real blow against Israel. This could explain its provocative but seemingly strategically irrelevant rocket campaign.
For Israel, an attack on an aggressive Hamas could sufficiently muddy the diplomatic waters to derail the UN’s recognition of the Palestinian Authority. In a high stakes game, that might be enough to weather the lesser risk of wider retaliation.