During the past decade, the eyes of the world have often been directed toward Gaza. This tiny coastal enclave has received a huge amount of diplomatic attention and international media coverage. The plight of its nearly two million inhabitants has stirred an outpouring of humanitarian concern, generating worldwide protests against the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
Gaza has undoubtedly taken on much greater prominence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent years, surpassing the larger, more populous, and wealthier West Bank, historically the more important of the two territories. Under British rule (1917–1948), Gaza was a relatively quiet backwater, less embroiled in the growing Arab-Jewish conflict than other parts of Palestine. Then, under Egyptian rule (1949–1967), Gaza became a hotbed of Palestinian nationalism and a staging ground for guerrilla raids into Israel. But Gaza was not the locus of Palestinian national aspirations. Under Israeli rule (1967–2005), Gaza’s overcrowded, poverty-stricken refugee camps became places of stiff, sometimes violent, resistance to the Israeli occupation but the West Bank was of much greater interest to Israel because of its strategic value and historic and religious significance to Jews. Gaza, by contrast, had little, if any, strategic or ideological value for Israel. Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin famously remarked in 1992 that he wished Gaza “would just sink into the sea,” and many, if not most, Israelis probably felt the same way.
However, under Hamas rule since 2007, Gaza no longer has a peripheral status in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Instead, it has become the most frequent flashpoint in the conflict and the epicenter of its deadliest violence, with regular tit-for-tat skirmishes between Hamas and Israel periodically. The West Bank, most of it still under Israeli military rule, has been comparatively calm in recent years. Attacks against Israel from Gaza, on the other hand, have spiked since Hamas took power. These attacks come in many different forms, including firing rockets and mortars into Israel; shooting at nearby Israeli soldiers and agricultural workers; and detonating improvised explosive devices along the fence separating Gaza from Israel.
To understand why Gaza has become a staging ground for so many Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks over the past dozen years, one must look at Hamas’s motives for firing them. This is seldom explained in Western or Israeli media coverage, which tends to portray Hamas’s violence against Israel as solely driven by a burning hatred of the Jewish state (and Jews as well, it is often claimed) and an insatiable desire to destroy it. But there is more to Hamas’s violence than homicidal hatred. Since forming its military wing in 1991, Hamas has strategically employed violence as a means to achieve both short-term and long-term objectives. According to Hamas’s 1988 founding charter, its ultimate goal is the complete “liberation” of Palestine (whether Hamas still remains committed to this in practice is now subject to some debate). Ideologically, Hamas believes that it is fighting a defensive jihad (holy war) or, in more secular terms, a war of national liberation against “Zionist aggression” and colonialism. As part of its “armed resistance,” Hamas uses terrorism against Israeli civilians to demoralize Israeli society and undermine its staying power over the long run. In this respect, Hamas’s use of rockets is just another tactic in the long war of attrition that it has been waging against Israel.
Hamas’s rocket attacks may be indiscriminate, but they are also calculated. As the primary goal of Hamas’s leadership has been to stay in power in Gaza, whatever the cost, they have used rocket attacks for a few different purposes. First and foremost, the attacks are used to pressure Israel to lift or at least ease its blockade of Gaza. Hamas itself claims that its rocket attacks are aimed at forcing Israel to end its blockade of Gaza, but the strategy is not quite as simple as that. Its rocket attacks have actually been intended to provoke Israeli military retaliation against Gaza, which Hamas has hoped will then draw more international attention to Gaza and lead to diplomatic pressure on Israel to make concessions or change its policies. Second, Hamas has used rocket attacks to retaliate against Israel when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) assassinates Hamas leaders as it has done on a number of occasions, kills Hamas members, or takes other aggressive actions against the group. Third, along with trying to pressure and punish Israel, Hamas has used rocket attacks to prove that it is still committed to “armed resistance” against Israel.
Israel’s frequent and occasionally devastating use of force in Gaza has also been purposeful. Israel’s consistent, overriding objective has been to stop the rocket fire, and maintain or restore calm, without making any major concessions to Hamas. Since Israel cannot prevent militants from launching rockets from Gaza, nor intercept and shoot down every rocket, it has tried to reduce the number of rocket attacks from Gaza through a strategy of military deterrence. Whenever rockets or mortars are fired at Israel, the IDF immediately retaliates to inflict a punishment that will deter their future use. Most of the time, it carries out what it calls “precision” airstrikes that target sites where rockets were launched from and the militants who fired them (although civilians nearby are sometimes also killed or wounded). But since this is not always possible or effective, Israel also holds Hamas responsible for all rockets fired from Gaza, regardless of who launches them, and it retaliates against Hamas targets in Gaza.
When small-scale, tactical airstrikes prove to be insufficient in deterring rocket attacks, or when their deterrent effect wears off and rocket attacks resume or escalate, then the IDF responds by launching a large-scale offensive against Hamas aimed at degrading the group’s military capabilities. The purpose of these major IDF operations is not simply to destroy Hamas’s weapons and kill its fighters, but to inflict such severe damage that Hamas will be not only militarily weakened but also effectively deterred from launching rockets into Israel or allowing others to do so. However, since Israel fully expects Hamas to gradually rebuild its military capabilities and become more emboldened and less deterred over time, its military offensives only achieve a temporary lull in violence and buy time. When the quiet eventually ends and rocket attacks escalate again, the IDF engages in another major offensive against Hamas, and the cycle repeats itself. Two such offensives “Operation Cast Lead” (December 27, 2008 to January 18, 2009), and “Operation Protective Edge” (July 8 to August 26, 2014) went on for weeks and involved an aerial assault and a ground invasion, resulting in unprecedented destruction and loss of life, primarily on the Palestinian side. In fact, the high numbers of casualties incurred during these two “rounds” of fighting between Israel and Hamas means that they can be accurately described as wars.
In these two Gaza wars, Israel largely achieved its military objectives as it degraded Hamas’s military capabilities and deterred it from launching rockets for substantial periods of time. But during these periods of relative calm, Hamas has rearmed and grown stronger militarily. It has increased and upgraded its stockpile of rockets, built armed drones, recruited more fighters, dug more tunnels, and turned its militia into a well-organized, well-armed, and battle-hardened professional army. Despite the losses it incurred during Israel’s recurrent offensives against it, therefore, Hamas has become a more powerful adversary. And it remains firmly in control of Gaza, despite the deprivation and suffering of its population. The fact that Hamas still controls Gaza is actually an outcome that suits Israel. Israel wanted to deter Hamas and weaken it, but not weaken it so much that Hamas would be unable to maintain control over Gaza. Israel does not want to reoccupy and rule Gaza since this would be costly, dangerous, and domestically unpopular. So instead, ironically, Israel has reluctantly come to rely on Hamas to govern Gaza, provide some stability, and police the more radical militant groups operating there.
While the two wars in Gaza may well have served Israel’s short-term strategic interests, and arguably Hamas’s interests as well, Gaza’s civilian population paid a terrible price. In total, more than two thousand Palestinian civilians were killed in these wars (just nine Israeli civilians were killed), thousands more were wounded, and hundreds of thousands were psychologically traumatized (studies have shown that children in Gaza, who make up almost half its population, suffer from particularly high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder because of the wars they have lived through). Regardless of whose fault this is—human rights groups and the UN’s Human Rights Council have accused the IDF of committing war crimes in Gaza, while Israeli officials blame Hamas for launching rockets from densely populated urban areas, storing weapons in schools, and using civilians as human shields—in the eyes of many people around the world, Israel appears to be most culpable, if for no other reason than the hugely lopsided casualty ratios in these wars. International criticism, therefore, has focused more on Israel’s allegedly disproportionate use of force in its military offensives in Gaza than on Hamas’s indiscriminate rocket attacks against Israel. Consequently, Israel’s reputation around the world, especially in Europe, has been tarnished, rather than Hamas’s.
This blog post is an excerpt from The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know®.