International Background to Hamas’ Escalation Against Israel

, November 18, 2012

Vol. 12, No. 26    18 November 2012  

There has been a discernible escalation in rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip against Israel in recent years, especially in 2012. In 2008, when Israel was left with little choice but to launch “Operation Cast Lead,” rocket fire had reached an all-time high of 1,159 attacks from Hamas and all the other terrorist organizations in Gaza. But in the aftermath of Israel’s operation in late 2008 and early 2009, rocket attacks plummeted in 2010 to 103 in all. Since that time there has been a steady rise: 375 attacks in 2011 and 797 attacks in 2012 (up to November 13). According to the IDF, during Nov. 10-14 there were 217 rocket attacks.1

There are a number of factors that have contributed to the current crisis. First, Hamas, with massive aid from Iran, doubled its rocket arsenal since “Operation Cast Lead” and acquired the Iranian Fajr-5 rocket with a range of 46.6 miles, putting Tel Aviv, Rishon LeZion, and Rehovot in striking distance.2 The Iranian weapons flowed through the tunnels into Gaza beneath the Egyptian border. Some of this weaponry originated in Sudan, where Iran has had a naval presence for many years.

Back in 2008, the Iranians designated Gaza as one of the regions in the Middle East where Iran was exercising its influence. In a message to General David Petraeus when he served in Iraq, the commander of the Iranian Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, stated that he controlled Iranian policy in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Gaza.3 Indeed, it was the Quds Force that was involved in the training of Hamas operatives who arrived in Iran for that purpose.

In general, Hamas like the other Palestinian groups, sought to rehabilitate its military capabilities that were badly degraded during Operation Cast Lead, and even upgrade them to new levels. Ahmed Jabari, the Hamas commander whom Israel eliminated at the start of its campaign, was the mastermind of this buildup. He developed Hamas’s rocket capabilities, organized its ground units into battalion and brigade formations and coordinated the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit with the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jaish al Islam. Among the new weapons that went into Hamas’s growing inventory was the Russian-made Kornet, a laser-guided anti-tank missile, which is used by Hizbullah. Its range can reach up to 3.4 miles. On Nov. 10, a Kornet anti-tank missile was launched at an Israeli jeep near the security fence. Four IDF soldiers were wounded. On April 7, 2011, Hamas used a Kornet anti-tank missile against an Israeli school bus filled with children.4

A second factor behind the Hamas buildup was the Arab Spring, which led to the collapse of multiple Arab regimes and greater availability of their weapons stocks in the international arms market. This was pronounced in the case of Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. Libyan weapons were smuggled into Egypt and across Sinai into Gaza. What was particularly alarming was the introduction of Russian SA-7 (Strella) shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles into the Hamas arsenal. In early October 2012, an SA-7 was fired from Gaza for the first time at an Israeli helicopter.

Undoubtedly, the fall of the President Hosni Mubarak’s regime and its replacement by the government of President Muhammad Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, completely changed the international environment for Hamas. After all, Hamas, according to its charter, is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. There were two possible ways the rise of a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo could have affected Hamas. First, it might have been expected that the Morsi regime would have signaled to Hamas to stay quiet for now, while Muslim Brotherhood regimes were trying to take power and build up their base of support across the Arab countries whose military regimes had fallen.

But there was a second consideration that apparently was more decisive for Hamas: with the rise of Muslim Brotherhood regimes, Hamas’ freedom of action was greater than ever before. In recent weeks, Hamas’ sense of international isolation changed as well. There were international visitors who came to Gaza, like the Emir of Qatar who came to visit on Oct. 23. The leader of the Tunisian Salafist party arrived on Nov. 6 and praised the Hamas strategy of “jihad and resistance.” These visits have given Hamas’ leadership a sense of greater support from the region.

The U.S. may be looking to Egypt to de-escalate the Gaza crisis.  Unfortunately, as Cairo increased its involvement, the level of Hamas missile fire did not diminish.  Indeed, during the visit of Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, Hamas fired some 35 rockets into Israel, despite assurances of both sides that they would halt their fire.  Hamas ignored the Egyptian request.  The visit of Egypt’s prime minister seemed to have empowered Hamas and toughened its positions rather than getting it to move towards a cease-fire.

 

Notes

1. “News of Terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” (November 7-13, 2012), Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/article/20423
2. “Terrorism from the Gaza Strip since Operation Cast Lead – Data, Type and Trends,” Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, March 17, 2011, http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/article/17947
3. Martin Chulov, “Qassem Suleimani: The Iranian General ‘Secretly Running’ Iraq,” Guardian, July 28, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/28/qassem-suleimani-iran-iraq-influence
4. Joel Greenberg, “Gaza Missile Hits Israeli School Bus,” Washington Post, April 7, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/rocket-from-gaza-strip-hits-israeli-school-bus-wounding-teen/2011/04/07/AFPmqSvC_story.html