By Barry Rubin
Two events show us that an emboldened Hamas in the Gaza Strip is moving toward war with Israel.
First, an Israeli schoolbus, painted bright yellow, was hit by fire from the Gaza Strip and at least one child was seriously wounded. This is not just another terrorist attack but part of a wider strategy. What is strategically significant here is how the bus was attacked. Usually, attacks from the Gaza Strip–either carried out or sanctioned by the Hamas regime there–are by homemade rockets, mortars, or attempted cross-border ground attacks. Deaths and damage are usually random.
In this case, though, the attack was carried out with an advanced anti-tank rocket. In other words, a terrorist deliberately aimed at the bus and fired, hoping to kill the maximum number of children.
But there’s more. Hamas can fire an advanced anti-tank rocket because the Egyptian revolution has ended a regime that acted in its own interest to block most arms shipments to Hamas. The Egypt-Gaza border is now open. Terrorists and superior weapons are flooding into Gaza.
Another demonstration of this fact was the second major incident in which Hamas fired an Iranian-made Grad missile, far superior to the usual homemade rockets, at Israel. In this case, it was shot down by an Israeli anti-missile, part of the new defense system deployed only a few days earlier. A total of 50 rockets and mortars were fired on that one day, equalling the number shot from the Gaza Strip at Israel during the entire month of March. There were also several attempts at cross-border ground attacks, more in one day than at any time in the past.
It was clear to the Hamas leadership that this escalation–and probably more to follow–brings the situation closer to another war like the one fought in December 2008-January 2009 after Hamas ended the ceasefire and launched a massive rocket and mortar barrage against Israel.
While saved politically by Western intervention–which does not favor the overthrow of the Hamas regime and largely accepted Hamas propaganda portraying Israel as a villain–that war was a bad defeat for Hamas. Its forces fought quite poorly, especially when compared to Hizballah’s units in 2006 in Lebanon.
Why, then, is Hamas provoking a new war? Part of the answer, of course, is ideology. Hamas believes that the deity is on its side, that victory is inevitable, and that martyrdom is a substitute for good military strategy and strength. Hamas is also indifferent to casualties, material damage, and the suffering of its own people. Its goal is total victory, Israel’s destruction, and the mass murder of Israeli Jews.
But none of that is new. What is new is a shift in the strategic situation. The recent upheavals in the Arab world have emboldened revolutionary Islamists and Hamas most of all. Its close ally, the Muslim Brotherhood, can operate freely in Egypt. There is much support for Islamism in the Egyptian army. And even the “moderate” presidential candidate Muhammad ElBaradei said that Egypt would go to war if Israel attacked the Gaza Strip.
Does Egypt want war with Israel? Of course not. But Hamas calculates–and, of course, it often miscalculates–that crisis with Israel will increase its support from Egypt and perhaps even create a situation where Cairo intervenes on its side on some level.
At a minimum, thousands of Egyptian volunteers, mobilized by the Brotherhood, might fight on its side, money would be raised in Egypt on its behalf, and large amounts of arms would flow across the border. Then, too, international public opinion could be mobilized against Israel with tales–often phony–of atrocities as happened last time. And the Palestinian Authority (PA), ruling the West Bank, could be shamed and subverted. While the PA can claim to be delivering some prosperity–which the West thinks is all people care about–Hamas can deliver heroism and jihad.
Thus, a dangerous crisis is being developed that could bring renewed war within two years and possibly far less time. It’s a crisis for which U.S. and European policy is totally unprepared. And their most likely response–demands for a ceasefire and criticism of Israel–would benefit Hamas.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org