The escalation in the fighting last week between Israel and Hamas caught many observers by surprise. Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 2008 campaign against Hamas, had led to an uneasy calm between the warring sides. And last year’s release of Gilad Shalit (the Israeli soldier who had been kidnapped by militants in 2006) in exchange for a thousand Palestinian prisoners had even given observers hope that Israel and Hamas had found a way to manage their conflict. But then, Hamas attacked an Israeli mobile patrol inside Israeli territory on November 10 and Israel retaliated by assassinating Ahmed Jabari, Hamas’s military chief. This time, the violence that has followed has not faded quickly; indeed, the fight is still intensifying.
Given the destruction wrought by Israel and Hamas’ last major conflict, Hamas’ calculations in the lead-up to this round of fighting are especially puzzling. The typical explanation is that Hamas ramped up its rocket campaign earlier this year in an effort to break Israel’s siege on the Gaza Strip. Under fire, Israel had to retaliate.
That answer, though, is unsatisfying. In many ways, the siege had already been broken. True, the Gaza Strip is tiny, densely populated, squeezed between Israel and Egypt, and dependent on both countries for the passage of people and goods. And all of that makes it a rather claustrophobic place. Yet Israel’s efforts to tightly control the area’s borders, which started after Hamas won elections there in 2006, had gradually wound down. After the public relations disaster that followed Israel’s 2010 mishandling of the Gaza-bound Turkish aid flotilla, the flow of goods over the Israeli border into Gaza increased substantially. Moreover, the tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border, through which most of the goods coming into Gaza are smuggled, became so elaborate that they resembled official border crossings. In fact, the volume of trade that travels through the tunnels could be up to $700 million dollars a year.
To some extent, Hamas had a political interest in perpetuating the siege idea, which could be used to foment anger against Israel and drum up popular support. Further, it made sense for the movement to preserve some limitations on the movement of goods into Gaza, since the smuggling industry lined its coffers. Thus, although life in Gaza might not have been all that pleasant for Gazans, Hamas wanting to break the siege is not a compelling explanation for its renewed violence against Israel.