From NOW Lebanon, 22 Nov 2012, by Tony Badran*:
Hamas’ decision to escalate rocket attacks on Israel leading up to the latest conflagration was deliberate. ...What was Hamas’ calculation behind this escalation? In short, the Palestinian Islamist movement set out to impose new rules of engagement, not only on Israel, but, more importantly, on Egypt. Hamas’ war with Israel was, in fact, a failed attempt to reconfigure the power relationship with Cairo.
The advent of dramatic political changes in Egypt and Tunisia led many to believe that Hamas’ role in the new regional order would also be transformed. As the thinking went, Hamas would be integrated into the Sunni regional fold. In particular, the Islamist movement’s falling out with Syria’s Assad regime last year was seen as the turning point in Hamas’ strategic realignment away from the Iran-led axis toward the camp of Sunni states. The path ahead, it was assumed, would be a political rehabilitation of Hamas by the Sunni powers.
Hamas’ break with the Assad regime was the result of a cost-benefit analysis. The group understood that although the move would anger its Iranian patron, this was still manageable. Furthermore, what was forfeited in Damascus, Hamas figured, would be more than compensated for in relationships with Ankara, Cairo and Doha, whom it wagered would seek patronage over its Gaza fiefdom. The Qatari emir, for instance, recently went on a high-profile visit to Gaza to announce $400 million for construction projects there.
Qatari largesse is fine and well. But the central problem for Hamas is that Gaza’s gateway to the world is Egypt. This is so not only in geographic terms, but also politically and diplomatically, and, most importantly, militarily, as Gaza’s logistical route for Iranian arms supplies runs from Sudan through Egypt. Hamas welcomes cash, but its primary concern is to increase its military capabilities.
Here, Hamas saw the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and the ascent to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, as its opportunity to lift the stifling constraints that existed under the Mubarak regime.
Hamas believed the new Egyptian president, whom it saw as an ideological comrade, would pursue a policy in line with Muslim Brotherhood principles and facilitate the group’s procurement of long-range rockets from Iran. From Hamas’ perspective, the dawn of unlimited populist support for the “resistance” by Muslim Brotherhood governments was here, and Hamas was to be the vanguard of this new regional order.
However, none of that materialized. In fact, the new Egyptian government was even stricter than its predecessor in enforcing control over the smuggling tunnels in the Sinai. In September, there were even demonstrations in Gaza, led by Hamas, protesting Egypt’s border policy.
The rulers of Gaza needed to up-end this status quo and set new terms for the relationship with Cairo. Hamas wanted Egypt to be the strategic depth of the resistance—exactly like Syria was to Hezbollah during the 2006 war.
To achieve this, Hamas moved to rewrite the rules and impose them not only on Israel, but also on Egypt. The steady escalation of rocket attacks on southern Israel was the new normal that Hamas sought to establish.
This is why, despite the divergence over the Assad regime, Hamas maintained its military relationship with Iran, which had intensified since 2008—in close cooperation with Sudan. Whereas some saw the group’s opening to the Sunni states as signifying a cooling of relations with Iran—jumping from one strategic camp to another—Hamas’ calculation was different. What was mistaken for a strategic migration was in fact a classic balancing act.
Hamas understood that the Iranians still needed it because of its control over Gaza. As such, Tehran could swallow Hamas’ walking away from the Assad regime as long as their military relationship continued unabated. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah attested to this basic understanding in a recent speech. He emphasized that, “despite differences here and there,” the military alliance between Iran and Gaza remained solid.
Hamas’ ambitious bid failed, however, as it misread both the Israelis and the Egyptians. It regarded Egypt’s warnings last month against Israeli military action in Gaza as a de facto political cover. It believed that Israel would not risk endangering the peace treaty with Cairo by launching a large-scale operation. At the end of the day, Hamas thought, it would have created a new reality on the ground and reestablished itself as the spearhead of resistance against Israel. Moreover, Hamas figured it could drive a wedge between the US and Israel, believing that the Obama administration would restrain the Israelis—particularly if it feared a possible collapse of the peace treaty with Egypt.
In other words, Hamas overreached. The result is looking rather ugly for the Palestinian group. It thought it could gain greater leverage over the Egyptians, and beyond them the international system. What’s more, it calculated that when the dust settled it would have enhanced its position and secured tangible gains.
Yet at the end of the day, Hamas ended up with the status quo ante, with net losses. Its prominent military commander and liaison with Iran has been killed. Its stockpile of Iranian long-range rockets has been severely degraded, with the US and its allies, including Egypt, all watching closely to intercept future transfers. In addition, not only were the rules of engagement with Israel not altered, but also Hamas’ value to Iran as a deterrent against an Israeli strike on its nuclear sites has been diminished.
Most importantly, instead of pulling Egypt to its side, Hamas merely angered the new Egyptian president. Its mistake was in thinking that, since President Morsi was a Muslim Brother, it could shoehorn him into a course of action of its design. In so doing, it overstepped its bounds in the power hierarchy: Gaza does not set the terms for Egypt. Ultimately, Morsi is, and acted like, the president of the state of Egypt, not the leader of an ideological movement.
With that critical mistake, Hamas’ gambit resulted in the realization of its worst nightmare: Instead of leveraging Iranian aid to create a margin for maneuver, it now finds itself further under Egypt’s thumb.
*Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.