The unprecedented thrust by Hamas into Israel a week ago has added a new dimension to the asymmetrical warfare that Hamas has been fighting. The rhythmical provocation/response cycle of violence with Israel and its enemies exchanging body blows is no longer operative. By inflicting mass casualties on Israel — in ways designed specifically to elicit an emotional, rage-filled response (beheading babies) — Hamas has changed the rules.
And it has set a trap for Israel — a trap that the Jewish state is preparing to fall into when it begins its ground assault in Gaza.
It’s not really a trap since Israel is very aware of the risks. Right now, Jerusalem has the sympathy and support of most of the world. But that support is likely to vanish when the number of civilians killed in Gaza begins to rise. The Hamas provocation will largely be forgotten and calls for a “proportional response” will drown out any reminders of Hamas butchery.
For this, Israel is already steeling itself. The Gaza ground campaign is not only going to be bloody but also ruinously destructive. And you can bet that Hamas is going to resist the IDF advance to the fullest extent, trying to elicit the maximum amount of international outrage as Israel conducts its operation to cleanse Hamas from Gaza.
There’s also a political dimension to provoking Israel’s maximum response to the atrocities.
Hamas evidently decided to destroy that status quo, which was no longer serving its interests. The Islamist group also hopes to seize control of the Palestinian national movement from its secular Fatah rivals, who dominate the Palestinian Authority and, more important, the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is the internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people. Hamas has never been a part of the PLO, in large measure because it is unwilling to accept the PLO’s treaty agreements with Israel. The most notable among these is the Oslo Accords, which included recognition of Israel by Palestinians but no Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state or a Palestinian right to statehood.
Let’s not forget the risks that Hamas is taking in this strategy. Osama bin Laden wanted to provoke the United States into invading the Middle East, thinking the Arabs would defeat the U.S. Not only was al-Qaeda virtually destroyed, but bin Laden also paid for his stupidity with his life.
The cost to America was high, and the returns on that investment were negligible now that Afghanistan is back in the hands of the Taliban, and Iraq is a failed state. But al-Qaeda has disappeared from the headlines and from the broader foreign policy conversation — a “remarkable” turn of events according to Foreign Policy Magazine.
Now Hamas is trying to poke the bear hoping it overreacts. No doubt, Israel will make Hamas wish it hadn’t tried this particular provocation. But at the same time, Iran and Hamas’s primary strategic goal of derailing the Arab-Israel normalization talks may succeed if the Israelis turn their retaliation into a calamitous “Trail of Tears” for the Palestinians.
Moreover, Hamas and its Iranian patrons want to block the diplomatic-normalization agreement that the United States has been brokering between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Such a deal poses a danger to Hamas because the benefits of its “significant Palestinian component” would have accrued to Fatah in the West Bank, at Hamas’s expense. For Iran, the agreement would be a major strategic setback. Should Israel, the most potent U.S. military partner in the region, and Saudi Arabia, Washington’s most financially powerful and religiously influential one, normalize and build cooperation, Tehran would face an integrated pro-American camp. American partners, including the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordan, would effectively ring the Arabian Peninsula, securing control of the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Persian Gulf through their three crucial maritime choke points: the Suez Canal, the Bab el-Mandab Strait, and the Straits of Hormuz. Saudi-Israeli normalization would largely block Iran’s regional aspirations in the short run and Chinese ambitions in the more distant future.
Those talks are bound to suffer a setback once Israel’s ground assault begins rolling. Depending on how brutal the ground attack becomes, it may be years before Arabs and Israelis sit down to talk peace again.