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How Misreading Hamas’s Motive Undermines Prospects for Peace

Israel has suffered almost daily rocket and mortar fire from Hamas-run Gaza this week after 19 months of quiet. Yesterday, for the first time, Gazans launched phosphorus shells at the Negev. And Hamas has twice attacked Israelis in the West Bank this month, again following a long hiatus.

The response from American, European, and Israeli officials has been predictable: Hamas is escalating the terror to foil Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But this conventional wisdom is false. And this falsehood has been undermining prospects for peace for the last 17 years.

Hamas does oppose a peace deal. But because almost nobody in either Israel or the Palestinian Authority thinks the current talks will produce one, the idea that Hamas leaders are driven by fear of the talks’ success is risible. Hamas knows quite well that the talks will fail even without its help.

Moreover, Hamas has often escalated attacks even when no negotiations were in sight. Between Israel’s August 2005 pullout from Gaza and the Annapolis summit in November 2007, for instance, Hamas fired thousands of rockets and mortars at Israel, a volume that dwarfs the current level. Yet during most of that time, not only were there no peace talks, there wasn’t even any effort to launch them.

So what really motivates Hamas? It’s no secret; Hamas officials proclaim it repeatedly: their goal is Israel’s eradication, and their method is armed struggle. Therefore, they will attack whenever and wherever it’s feasible.

Viewed through this prism, the pattern of Hamas’s terror activity is easily explained: terror escalates whenever Hamas officials think they can get away with it and de-escalates when the danger of a devastating Israeli response becomes too great.

Thus, for instance, terror soared following the 1993 Oslo Accord because Hamas realized it was safe. The Rabin-Peres government, having promised that Oslo would bring peace, couldn’t politically admit it had brought war instead, so it had to downplay the attacks rather than responding. But when Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 1996 on a platform of fighting terror, Hamas feared he might be less restrained and de-escalated. Thus the number of Israelis killed by Palestinian terror plummeted 70 percent from 1993-96 to 1996-99.

Similarly, after the 2005 disengagement, Hamas knew the Kadima-led government couldn’t politically admit its flagship initiative had brought war rather than peace. Thus Hamas could safely triple the volume of rocket fire, knowing Israel’s government would downplay it rather than responding.

Today, thanks to the peace talks, escalation is once again safe — because Hamas knows that if Israel responds forcefully, the PA will quit the talks, and the world will blame Israel. Thus, Israel is compelled to avoid responding.

In short, it’s not the peace talks that cause terror to escalate but the world’s insistence that Israel refrain from responding so as not to “disrupt” them. And by taking this attitude, the world has effectively made “peace” synonymous with stepped-up terror.

So if Time magazine really wants to know “Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace,” it’s quite simple: as long as “peace” means absorbing ever-increasing casualties without responding, most Israelis would rather do without it.


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