Commentary Magazine


Power Games in Gaza

I’m with you, David, in thinking that what is going on in Gaza is mysterious. Here’s another way to look at it: Israeli action is constrained by two major factors. On one side, the government must do something in response to the recently increased tempo in rocket fire. On the other, a full-scale ground invasion, at least right now—unless there is a major attack—is off the table. Israel’s maneuvering must take place inside of those parameters. And inside diplomatic parameters, as well, as the NYT’s Steven Erlanger explained in an unusually good piece yesterday:

So long as rockets are fired toward Israelis from Gaza, Israelis will be very reluctant, even unwilling, to make a political deal for a Palestinian state that cannot provide them security. And if the Israelis reinvade Gaza in a serious way, killing many Palestinians, it will put Mr. Abbas and moderate Arab countries in their own dilemma, making it very difficult for them to sanction a political deal with Israel.

So if you’re an Israeli strategist, the bottom line is that you need to keep the rocket fire, at least for now, to an acceptable level, and your only means of doing so is through air strikes. I am a little skeptical of the Israel-Hamas collusion theory, though, but for all I know it could be exactly what’s going on. Here’s what makes me leery: Islamic Jihad functions for Hamas like a proxy militia—in the Middle East, proxies have proxies, and perhaps soon we’ll be hearing that Islamic Jihad has hired out a network of scrap metal scavengers on rented mules to do its dirty work—allowing Hamas to maintain a fig leaf of deniability when it comes to rocket attacks, but also allowing it to take credit among its admirers for the obduracy of its “resistance.” (This is an important bona fide if you’re an Islamist.) Hamas’s complicity in IJ’s destruction would remove one of the primary means by which it keeps itself in the headlines, on Iran’s payroll, politically salient, and in the jihadist dreams of a large number of Palestinians.

But perhaps right now the Hamas leadership believes itself cornered, has decided to bargain away a little bit of its militancy, and is putting Islamic Jihad’s heads on the Israeli chopping block as part of the deal (this could also sow terrible internal division among Gaza’s jihadists, who like to think of themselves as unified in their struggle). But even if true it’ll be a short-lived, and aggressively repudiated, quiescence. Hamas has to keep up appearances.