Since Israel ended Operation Cast Lead―a massive incursion into the Gaza strip intended to suppress rocket fire into Israel―in January 2009, Hamas has largely held to a ceasefire on rocket and mortar attacks on Israel. The obvious explanation for this change in behavior is that Israel’s incursion into Gaza and Hamas’ corresponding heavy losses have re-established Israeli deterrence. Another explanation is that this unprecedented period of quiet is proof that Hamas has changed politically, and that Western nations and ultimately Israel should negotiate with it directly. There is also substantial countervailing evidence that HAMAS remains committed to its campaign against Israel and that the cease-fire is strictly tactical.
Models of organizational behavior built at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics suggest all of these explanations may be wrong. Indeed, intra-Palestinian politics may be playing an important yet overlooked role in Hamas’ calculations.
Hamas retains a significant capacity to strike Israel. Increased international efforts to close Hamas’ supply line―the tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border―have had limited success. The primary Hamas rocket, the Qassam, is easily produced. It is manufactured in the Gaza Strip using common materials such as metal pipes for the rocket body and fertilizer and sugar for fuel. Reports suggest that Hamas has acquired more sophisticated systems, such as longer-range rockets and anti-tank missiles, since the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead. Thus, despite maintaining the capability to continue launching rockets against Israel, Hamas has chosen not to do so.
However, Hamas’ claims of victory in the wake of Operation Cast Lead rang hollow. Hamas inflicted minimal casualties on Israel and had difficulty sustaining rocket fire, while hundreds of Hamas fighters were killed or captured and substantial stores of equipment were destroyed. Though Hamas attempted to spin its survival as a victory, the reality was that Hamas’ survival was due to Israel’s decision to not re-occupy Gaza.
Moreover, Hamas chose to violate the 2008 cease-fire in an attempt to force Israel to end its blockade on shipping non-humanitarian goods into Gaza. Hamas failed to achieve this goal. The rocket provocations only led to a massive Israeli retaliation. Indeed, Hamas learned that large-scale rocket fire would only result in an overwhelming Israeli response.
In view of this analysis, it can be argued that Israel achieved deterrence. Yet, this is not a sufficient explanation for Hamas’ behavior. Israel has struck Hamas hard in the past, killing its top leaders and destroying its infrastructure, yet Hamas continued to attack Israel.
Moderation vs. Pragmatism
Since agreeing to a new cease-fire, Hamas has launched an international public relations effort, including granting interviews with its leaders to Western journalists in which they discuss the conditions for a long-term ceasefire with Israel, and offering to engage with United States on the subject of Middle East peace. This has led some to argue that Hamas has changed some of its fundamental position.
Many analyses (including a monograph from the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute) argue that viewing Hamas as a terrorist organization is too narrow a prism. HAMAS, they argue, is a complex political organization that provides social services, acts pragmatically and responsibly, and cannot be ignored because of its popular support among the Palestinians. Hamas leaders’ recent statements are taken as evidence of the organization’s pragmatism and an argument for the United States and Israel to directly engage Hamas.
However, as a study by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center shows, these statements are far from promises. The Hamas leadership delivers one message to the West, while making vitriolic statements to Arab audiences about Israel.
Hamas’ raw anti-Semitic vitriol is impossible to ignore. For example, in April, during a festival in memory of Hamas’ founder Ahmad Yassin, Hamas’ television station aired a drama depicting Jews drinking the blood of Muslims. The website of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades continued to vilify Israel and lionize its “martyrs.” Thus, even if Hamas leaders are prepared for a new understanding with Israel, they have done nothing to prepare the rank and file of their organization or the Palestinian people for real peace.
Internal Palestinian politics may be a critical factor in Hamas’ strategic calculations. The Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics (LCCD) at the University of Maryland has developed Stochastic Opponent Modeling Agents (SOMA), which can automatically generate rules about the probability of an organization’s behavior in a given situation. Hamas was among the profiled groups.
The model uses the Minorities at Risk Organization Behavior data set created at the University of Maryland’s Center for International Development and Conflict Management. The data collected covers Hamas from its 1987 founding through 2004.
The model indicates that the primary driver for Palestinian attacks on Israel does not relate to specific events (reactions to provocations, as Hamas often claims), but Hamas’ strength and military capacity.
For example, Hamas’ probability of committing suicide bombings rose as the organization established external bases where it could learn from Iran and Hezbollah. Prior to the creation of these facilities, suicide bombings were not a Hamas tactic. Indeed, once Hamas had these bombers at their disposal, they dispatched them regularly, regardless of other factors.
When Hamas was engaged in the Palestinian political process (either running in elections or allowing its representatives to participate in the Palestinian Parliament) there remained a very high likelihood of Hamas suicide bombings as well as other acts of violence. This undermines the argument that participating in the democratic process has moderated Hamas.
Not surprisingly, there is also a high correlation between Hamas violence (particularly assassinations, kidnappings, and arson attacks) during periods of conflicts with other Palestinian factions such as Fatah, its chief political rival.
In the past Hamas was at a decided disadvantage in its rivalry with Fatah. When it could not attack Fatah directly, Hamas could bolster its popularity by attacking Israel. Now that Hamas has complete control over the Gaza Strip and has emerged as both a military and political challenger to Fatah, it has to change its strategy and tactics. Indeed, Hamas now has more complex political factors to consider.
Rocket fire against Israel would only increase Hamas’ international isolation, enforce the notion that sanctions against Gaza are necessary, and lend further impetus to American and Israeli support for Fatah against Hamas in the West Bank. This would weaken the organization amidst its current drive to supplant Fatah as the representative of the Palestinians and consolidate power after a 2006 electoral victory and its 2007 military coup in Gaza.
In other words, the decision to halt the firing of rockets from Gaza is not an abandonment of its long-term strategy of war against Israel. It is merely an element within its short-term strategy to consolidate power among the Palestinians. As Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin recently noted, the recent trail off in rocket fire, “doesn’t mean they [Hamas] have abandoned ideological principles. Hamas is turning to the diplomatic sphere to challenge exclusive control by [Fatah leader] Abu Mazen.”
History As A Guide
It would be overly optimistic to interpret Hamas’ cease-fire since Operation Cast Lead as an indication of a philosophical change. The ineffectiveness of Hamas’ rocket attacks relative to the damage it suffered from the IDF offensive must be one factor in Hamas’ decision-making. Intra-Palestinian politics is another. Ultimately, short-term choices that impact Palestinian political dynamics will not likely prompt Hamas to renounce its goal of destroying Israel, or its long-term use of violence to achieve that end.