September 16, 2019

Another war coming? Four questions on Gaza

After another night of rocket fire from Gaza, including a near miss of a residential home and the inevitable Israeli response of striking Hamas targets, here are four questions that could determine the way forward in Gaza.

The ‘long memory’ question:

Hamas “remembers” what happened three years ago in Gaza. That’s the view of one of the IDF’s top commanders. Three years ago, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge — a long and bloody affair, at the end of which a relatively stable ceasefire was established.

Israel believes that Hamas remembers the heavy price paid by the organization, and by the residents of Gaza, when Israel was forced to act against a growing barrage of rocket missiles fired on Israeli towns. Or maybe it doesn’t believe that Hamas remembers as much as it hopes that Hamas remembers.

If their memory is long enough — so we assume — they will hesitate to prompt another round of fighting. So the first question about Gaza ought to be “is it long enough?”

The ‘what do they want?’ question:

Hamas, the IDF believes, in not interested in another round of fighting in Gaza. Why not? Well, because they have a long memory, because there is little they can gain from another round and because, so we assume, the IDF has intelligence from which it learns that there is no sign of such a desire.

Maybe that’s true. Maybe it was also true before the beginning of Protective Edge. Whether Hamas has interest in another war is an important question, but hardly the determinative factor in an unstable situation. Hamas might not want another war, but it might also not want to restrain the people who fire rockets into Israel. So the question now changes: Which one of the two does it want less?

For the time being, what we see is a Hamas willing to risk war for the benefit of not having to restrain the fire squads. It doesn’t want war, it wants Israel to suffer without having to go to war. And, for now, this is exactly what it is getting.

The ‘when does Israel lose patience?’ question:

Ideally, Israel would lose patience with the firing of rockets right after the first rocket is fired. A sovereign country ought not to tolerate any such acts.

In real life, wars in Gaza start gradually. Responses to rocket fire become more severe, and if Hamas doesn’t get the hint, they become even more severe.

Israel is nearing this losing-of-patience moment. It is nearing the moment of having to intensify its response, lest its own citizens start showing their frustration with the government. If someone is killed as a result of rocket fire, if the drizzle of rockets feels like rain is coming, Israel will have no choice but to respond with harshness.

The ‘is it about Jerusalem?’ question:

All this is happening following the official U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. And, of course, this is not a coincidence. The result of the recognition is that there are now more people in Gaza motivated to demonstrate their anger. The result of the recognition is that there is no government in Gaza with motivation to rein in this anger.

So Jerusalem provided a pretext for these recent events. But it is not the reason for them. The reason for them is Hamas betting on its ability to up the ante without paying an unbearable price for it. Is this a miscalculation? Will it be wise enough to stop before it becomes a miscalculation? Will it (and Israel) be lucky enough not to see one of these rockets hit a significant target in a way that would make it impossible for Israel not to go to war?

Some questions can only be answered in retrospect.