Hamas cannot beat Israel in an open military confrontation. That’s no secret. Hamas knows it as well as anyone.
Why, then, did the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza strip insist on taking on Israel — with the certainty that it would bring a calamity for the people of Gaza? Why did it goad Israel into a confrontation, even after Israeli leaders repeatedly warned Hamas to stop launching rockets or risk an all-out clash?
The situation is a horrifying tragedy for the people of Gaza. But from the perspective of Hamas it looked like a course of action with a chance of improving its disastrous and fast-deteriorating situation.
Hamas is in dire straits. It was facing disaster even before it provoked the latest round of fighting. It is gambling (with civilian lives) that a high-profile clash against Israelis will revive its standing and avert its collapse while putting Israel in the morally wrenching position in which destroying rocket launchers targeting its own civilians means inflicting civilian casualties.
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In this perverse equation, the deaths of Palestinians help Hamas and hurt Israel. But it’s easy to see why some Hamas leaders thought it was time for a new approach. Consider what has been happening to the once-mighty rulers of Gaza.
Three years ago, in the exuberant early months of the so-called Arab Spring, Islamists had the wind at their backs. Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, could barely believe its good fortune. Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president who had worked closely with the United States and Israel keeping Gaza’s borders sealed, was swept out in pro-democracy protests. Muslim Brotherhood parties, Hamas’ ideological and political brethren, started winning every election across the Arab world.
The future looked promising, except that the Palestinian cause, the only political topic that Arab dictators allowed for discussion in their repressive dictatorships, seemed to be sliding down the regional priorities list.
No matter, Hamas expected to gain strength and support as the Brotherhood won victory after victory. That’s why it decided to turn its back on one of its most reliable supporters, Syrian President Bashar Assad, when he faced an uprising.
Then, just as quickly as they rose to power, Islamists came crashing down. Egyptians became fed up with Mohammed Morsi, the Brotherhood leader who became their president. The military under Abdel-Fatah al-Sissi took power with popular support in Egypt, and started crushing the Brotherhood. It named Hamas, as a Muslim Brotherhood member, an enemy of Egypt.
The Brotherhood was on the run in Egypt, in Persian Gulf emirates and elsewhere. Al-Sissi became worse for Hamas than Mubarak ever was. The Egyptian army didn’t just close the border with Gaza, it destroyed Hamas’ smuggling tunnels. It didn’t just destroy them, it first flooded them with sewage.
Hamas had lost the support of Syria. Assad viewed Hamas as ungrateful traitors. His main ally, Iran, was also disillusioned with Hamas, though it still views it as a useful tool in its fight with Israel. Much reduced support in cash and weapons from Iran and Hezbollah continued.
Hamas like other Brotherhood groups still had the backing of the wealthy Emirate of Qatar — and of Turkey.
Opinion polls, including one from Pew in 14 Muslim-majority countries, showed Hamas had become deeply unpopular, even in the Palestinian territories.
In desperation, Hamas signed on to a Palestinian unity government. But the Palestinian Authority said it had no money to pay 40,000 Gazans on Hamas's payroll. Hamas risked full collapse.
The kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens by Hamas operatives near Hebron unleashed an Israeli dragnet in the West Bank. Hamas’ rockets started flying, and refused to stop.
Nothing builds up more support for Hamas than confronting Israel.
It appears brave, even if the ones dying are mostly Palestinian civilians. Hamas hopes its standing will rise. It hopes it is gaining domestic and international support and more financial support from anti-Israel forces — and that Israel will be forced by international opinion to let it survive, looking heroic after taking on the Zionists; a player again.
Hamas knows it will lose the military contest, but it hopes these clashes make it relevant, and will help Hamas stay alive.