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Why is Hamas Fighting?

The crisis in Gaza is related to the fundamental problem Hamas has faced since it took power in Gaza: It is very difficult to rule over a territory simultaneously as a resistance group and as a political party. Each ambition interferes with the other, and for Hamas, resistance has always been the fundamental interest. The cease-fire with Israel required Hamas to stop its offensive, which it only did partially — throughout the calm there were sporadic mortar and rocket attacks on Israel — and to cease weapons smuggling and negotiate the release of Gilad Shalit. The first requirement was workable because it took external pressure off Hamas, allowing it to focus on solidifying its control over Gaza. But the latter two were tantamount to Hamas repudiating the reason for its existence and the ideological platform on which it rose to power.

For Hamas, the absence of open conflict could not continue for long, because living conditions in Gaza have been worsening and Hamas has never been interested in or capable of governing outside the context of war. At various times over the past six months, Hamas attacked transfer points between Israel and Gaza. This was done in order to force their closure and exacerbate the food and fuel shortages that encourage the narrative, so popular in international quarters and among journalists covering the crisis, of Gaza’s victimization not at Hamas’ hands, but at Israel’s. The cultivation of this narrative is doubly useful, because victimhood also justifies resuming open war against Israel.

The paradoxical bottom line for Hamas is that crisis, both humanitarian and military, is necessary for legitimacy and survival. So far, Hamas has survived on this razor’s edge. Should an Israeli invasion or major air campaign seem likely, Hamas will probably accede quickly to another hudna. Israel should not take the bait. Instead, a sustained campaign of targeted killings of Hamas leaders and the destruction of Hamas assets, such as smuggling tunnels, should be instituted. The national elections in Israel (among other reasons) make this a bad time to commence a ground campaign. If the IDF can make Hamas fear for its ability to maintain institutional cohesion and governing power while limiting civilian casualties — dead Gazans are a major international lifeline for Hamas — Israel could push Hamas into a position in which it would either have to resume the hudna on unfavorable, even humiliating, terms, or go down in a blaze of martyrdom. This is a dilemma Hamas hopes it won’t have to face.


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