Hamas Pursues Dangerous Strategy with Ashkelon Attacks
By Ulrike Putz in Gaza City
With its rocket attacks on Ashkelon, Hamas has chosen a very risky strategy. Israel cannot tolerate a big city coming under daily rocket fire. Jerusalem must now decide whether to negotiate or go to war.
The "Hot Winter" has started to cool down a bit. After four days of heavy ground assaults and aerial bombardments, Israel withdrew its troops from the Gaza Strip Sunday night.
Attacks in the other direction slowed as well -- on Monday just a few rockets made their way through the air from the Palestinian territory to Israel. Operation Hot Winter, as Israel dubbed this latest campaign in the Gaza Strip, is now just lukewarm. But both the Israelis and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip assume that the temperatures will climb again in the coming days and weeks.
The bloody events of the last week are a result of Hamas raising the stakes dramatically. With the targeted regular rocket attacks on the 120,000-person town of Ashkelon, they crossed a line. The Israeli government would never accept attacks on a large city from Gaza -- and Hamas knew it. Hence it was a conscious decision on the part of the radical Islamic party's leadership to take their rockets with a range of over 20 kilometers, some of which are home-made, others of which are made in Iran, out of their hiding places.
The question is why Hamas chose to escalate the situation. The most likely theory is desperation -- namely that they are trying to stave off a popular coup. The situation in the Gaza Strip has gotten decidedly worse in the last few weeks. In January, tens of thousands of Palestinians enjoyed a bout of unexpected freedom when they broke through the Egyptian border -- with Hamas' encouragement.
But the happiness over shopping trips to Egypt didn't last long: Egypt closed the border again, even tighter than before. Combined with the ongoing blockade from Israel, that means less fuel, medicine and food can reach the Gaza Strip. The populace there is now grumbling and its anger at the Hamas government is growing steadily.
The fact is that Hamas was looking for a way out when it attacked Ashkelon -- the move is a roundabout attempt to come to a ceasefire with the Israelis. "For weeks, there have been signals from Hamas that they are prepared to offer Israel a 10- or 15- year 'hudna,'" says Mkhaimar Abu Sada, one of the most respected political analysts in Gaza.
A hudna would be an elegant solution for the Islamists: it is a ceasefire under religious law, in which neither of the opponents backs down, but rather in which two enemies, despite a continuing dispute, agree to a "cold" peace. A hudna would allow Hamas to preserve its principles and therefore not lose face. On paper, the armed struggle against Israel would remain its lifeblood, while in practice it could agree on open borders with its arch-enemy. In return, Hamas would stop the shelling of Israeli towns and villages.
"In terms of politics, Hamas' ultimate goal is to build on and expand their position of power in Gaza," says Abu Sada. Hamas wants a hudna in order to be able to govern effectively. "They want to prove to the population in the Fatah-dominated West Bank that they can achieve something and that they are the better party -- when they are allowed to act."
In firing rockets at Ashkelon, Hamas has taken a considerable risk. It has put Israel into a situation from which there are only two ways out: negotiations or war. Hamas hopes that sooner or later Jerusalem will find itself compelled to enter into direct or indirect negotiations with the Islamists in order to protect its population from new, longer-range rockets. According to recent polls, 64 percent of the Israeli population is in favor of such talks. What is lacking is a heavyweight politician who would make negotiations with the enemy his concern, knowing that the smallest setback could cost him his career.
The second option which would stop the shelling in the long term would be the reoccupation of the Gaza Strip. Most of the political heavyweights in Jerusalem, especially Defense Minister Ehud Barak, support this alternative. The fact that the supposedly already prepared invasion plans are still on ice for the time being has to do with the immensely high price that an invasion of the Gaza Strip would entail. The Palestinian militias have had months to prepare for house-to-house fighting on their own territory. The Palestinians are reported to have created tunnel systems and prepared hiding places for landmines. Hamas' arsenals are probably well-stocked, and their appeal is still big enough to induce tens of thousands to take up arms on their side.
Given all this, Israeli losses in an invasion would most likely be very high -- too high, hopes Hamas. In addition, Israel cannot count on the West Bank remaining peaceful in the event of a battle for the Gaza Strip. The decision-makers have to take into account the dangers of a conflict on two fronts.
1) Hamas Pursues Dangerous Strategy with Ashkelon Attacks