What Was Hamas Thinking? Understanding the Events in Gaza

Beyond the headlines, and regardless of who's to blame for what, there's the question of why Hamas chose to continue and intensify its rocket attacks against Israel in recent weeks. It would seem that Hamas's actions were both stupid and irrational from a strategic standpoint. "What the hell were they thinking?" Hamas is well aware of what happened the summer of 2006. Hezbollah provoked Israel across the border and Israel responded with the full might of its military. The same question was asked then. In answering it, it's important to remember that Hezbollah came out the "winner" that summer and is, partly as a result, stronger today than it was before the 2006 war.

So what are Hamas's strategic imperatives? There are a few things going on here. Hamas is effectively the government of Gaza, but this does not mean it acts like a state might in similar circumstances. Hamas still behaves like a traditional guerrilla or terrorist group. Such groups are interested in relative, not absolute, victory. As long as they survive, this can be spinned as victory, which makes them impossible to defeat in any conclusive sense.

Their goals include the following: to compel the target country, in this case Israel, to do something it otherwise wouldn't. This was one of al-Qaeda's primary objectives in 2001, to drag the U.S. into a war it was not prepared to fight, and, more specifically, to invite excessive military responses which it could then use to build sympathy and legitimacy for its cause, in spite of its the methods (Michael Doran, now the Bush administration's NSC director for the Middle East, wrote about this in what remains one of the definitive post-9/11 essays).

Hezbollah is nothing like al-Qaeda. The group is seen as a legitimate political actor in Lebanon and was and is part of the government, but some of the same strategic thinking applies. Even though Hezbollah's operational infrastructure was destroyed, it was still able to secure relatively favorable cease-fire terms. Building off summer 2006, it was able claim "victory" once again with the 2008 Doha agreement.

So, back to Gaza: Hamas continued its rocket attacks into Israel knowing full well that a crushing Israeli response was likely, or at least a distinct possibility. Hamas is, as we speak, being destroyed, but it would be a mistake to judge unfolding events solely on those terms. Strategically, Hamas did what it did for several reasons:

1. Hamas has been an increasingly untenable position for more than a year, as the situation in Gaza has deteriorated. They are roped in and isolated, and groups which feel under siege are more likely to take potentially self-defeating risks. To shake the status quo, Hamas may have wanted to provoke Israel in order to build pressure internally and externally for a unified Palestinian response to Israel. In other words, Palestinians, including those belonging to nemesis Fatah, are almost certain to rally to Hamas's side. They already are. This will strengthen prospects for a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation in the future. Not all elements of Hamas necessarily want this, but some do.

2. Hamas does not operate in a political vacuum. It aims to influence regional and international audiences. Particularly in the Arab and Muslim world, Hamas's perceived legitimacy and popularity will increase. Arab governments will be under pressure to rally behind the Palestinians. Jordan, one of our closest allies, reopened formal relations with Hamas recently (I wrote about this here). The regional context today is different than it was in the summer of 2006.

3. Some, including Bradley Burston of Haaretz, have argued that a main aim of Hamas is to come out of this with better cease-fire terms. This may be the case, but, if so, it strikes me as a miscalculation on Hamas's part. Then again, that's what I thought about Hezbollah's actions in 2006, and I turned out to be wrong. But political actors learn. Just as Hamas takes certain cues from the past, so does Israel. Israel is not likely to repeat the same mistakes it made in 2006.

4. I've heard the argument that Hamas may be trying to influence the upcoming Israeli elections. I am not going to read too much into this possibility, because, on a gut level, I have trouble believing that Hamas would be devious enough to, in effect, strengthen Labor-Kadima against Likud, which will, in my view, be the ultimate result of the Gaza operation. Defense Minister Ehud Barak of Labor, who previously didn't seem to have a prayer, might very well rise to electoral victory in February. However, Hamas may have calculated that a Gaza incursion would aid Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu, which is likely the outcome the dominant faction in Hamas would prefer (I will discuss internal Hamas divisions in a minute).

5. Hamas is also fully aware that there will be a new U.S. administration come January 20th. How this reality affected their calculations is not entirely clear to me, but they obviously had to have taken it into account. Either way, I don't see this as a decisive factor in what unfolded over the last few weeks, but rather as something that will affect the overall context in the coming weeks.

This takes me back to one of my initial points: Hamas is not a unitary actor. It is riddled by internal divisions between the political wing ("politicians") and military wing ("militants") or, put another way, between "pragmatists" and "hardliners." This is not to say that the "pragmatists" are not influenced by ideological imperatives or that the "hardliners" are not pragmatic. It is to say that both groups have different objectives. Understanding internal organizational dynamics are critical to a fuller understanding of Hamas's strategic behavior.

Hamas's decision to continue rocket attacks, and provoke Israel, means the "militants" within the organization, led by Khaled Meshal, continue their dominance (compared to 2006 and early 2007 when their grasp appeared to be weakening). This group sees Hamas as a primarily military organization rather than a political one. Ismail Haniyeh, former Palestinian prime minister, is the most prominent member of the competing trend that had wanted Hamas to make the transition from a terrorist group into a more "normalized" political actor. Needless to say, it failed. Haniyeh and his associates are aware that if Hamas reverts back to suicide bombings, which appears likely, then his stand will become even weaker and less relevant than it was three weeks ago. That's in the short-term. But the irony is that if Hamas achieves some of the objectives listed above, then it could have the eventual effect of strengthening the Haniyeh "political" wing.

It's difficult to isolate the variables, since much of how things will unfold depends on actors that Hamas has little control over: Israel, the United States, Fatah, the U.N., Iran, and increasingly, yes, even Russia. I guess one could say that political actors always act rationally, but often in ways that are irrational.