July 17, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Gaza Crisis: Hamas Amid Regional Realignment
• With both Egypt and Saudi Arabia more strongly against Hamas than at any time in recent history, Israel might decide to push harder than normal, and attempt to seriously weaken Palestinian extremist groups in Gaza
• Long-range Palestinian rocketry, however ineffective now, has made the status quo untenable for Israel, presenting an opportunity for change however costly
• Reports of wildly disproportionate civilian causalities are having less affect than usual, a sign of a changed geopolitical dynamic in which Israel seeks the significant weakening of Hamas
• If Israel conducts large-scale ground operations in Gaza, it will be to fundamentally change the status quo for years to come, not to “mow the grass” and cut down on rocket attacks
• Lacking its usual sponsors, Hamas has to weigh the value of being the sole resistance with the cost of being the sole resistance.
Israel is considering meaningful ground operations in Gaza and this might mean more than just the normal tit-for-tat. While the increase in Palestinian rocket range is theoretically disturbing, it is the unprecedented-realignment of Arab-Israeli sentiment that is currently of significant impact. Hamas is preparing for the wrong invasion, as Egypt and Saudi Arabia are going to slow-roll the cease-fire process until Israel does more than send the usual message. And with broader implications for the region and potentially beyond, if Hamas is weaker, extremist groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda core—and affiliated and inspired elements—will prosper in Gaza as Hamas has been the main interlocutor in dealing with them. The geopolitical environment is quite different than in 2012 and 2008, and there is far more regional desire to see Hamas weakened than in the past.
Hamas has been able to present itself as a legitimate power in Gaza not such much for its governmental accomplishments but for its ability to withstand periodic Israeli air airstrikes seeking to diminish its ability to hit Israel with rockets, even if it was nothing more than low-impact projectiles hitting empty fields. With the worsening state of Gaza and the lack of progress in the West Bank, Hamas can no longer easily gain support for its stances, without accomplishments. It has done nothing, yet, Hamas needs to fight. And so it will, at least until it hurts beyond its traditional tit-for-tat actions of the last decade.
Given the once-in-a-life-time realignment of Hamas supporters, Israel will likely push further than has been the recent norm. No one is fighting expressly for Hamas and so Israel might press the fight against them, to reset what was once considered normal. Hamas has not been as vulnerable since its formation in the late 1980s, and the group’s vulnerability has nothing to with weaponry and everything to do with patronage. International support for the Palestinian cause remains strong but Hamas has been split from this support—a dramatic turn of events.
The usual actors are not playing the usual roles. Egypt barely played its perfunctory part in this week’s cease-fire proposal but then fell back once the deal fell apart. Hamas doesn’t trust Egypt to negotiate on its behalf and that leaves the group with few options and increasingly strident rhetoric, making an invasion ever more likely, since calls for reason are being shouted down by the usual extremists who increase their power during the resultant retaliatory air and ground strikes. Gaza is the perfect illustration that if one does the same thing again and again, one will simply get the same results again and again. However, the new dynamic against Hamas from the countries that once supported it means something new might happen.
There is a tremendous amount riding on the next few weeks, with the civilian population of Gaza bearing the brunt of shifting regional realities. Hamas is hoping that Gaza will become a powerful fundraising tool even if nothing changes, but the likelihood of change is quite high. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt—the three main actors—are more or less united in their desire to meaningfully change the dynamic in Gaza by significantly weakening Hamas. Whether this will allow for a more moderate political representation is unclear, though long-term conflict and air strikes tend not to enhance democratic reform in positive ways.
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