The Unlikeliest Peace: Why Israel and Hamas Have (Mostly) Stopped Fighting

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The Egyptian revolution, infighting within Gaza, Syria's civil war, and Israeli concerns about Iran have led two of the world's fiercest enemies to hold, with only one major transgression, to a 15-month truce.

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Members of Hamas patrol the Gaza seaport. (Reuters)

Late last month, Hamas fired 20 rockets into Israel, part of a 150-rocket volley launched by it and other Gaza-based groups. The attack violated an unofficial truce that had stood since April 2011, prompted an Israeli counter-attack that killed up to 15 Palestinians, and that's where it stopped. That might not sound like a great week of Middle East peace, but in many ways it was a reminder of how calm the Israel-Hamas conflict has grown over the last 15 months. These sorts of incidents have often escalated, after all, sometimes disastrously. But this one didn't. Despite the fire, the same forces that led Israel and Hamas into this truce still hold, and though they obviously didn't prevent this attack, they may have played a role in preventing its escalation. Jihadist groups in Gaza, the near-anarchy in the Sinai Peninsula, relations with Egypt, and Iran all preoccupy Israel and Hamas more than their conflict with each other. Consequently, both seem to have decided that, at least for now, that escalating will not serve their interests.

In some ways, Israel might prefer for Hamas to control Gaza (for the moment, anyway) simply because, from the Israeli perspective, the likely alternatives are far worse. These includes the "opposition organizations," a number of radical groups such as the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad, other smaller Jihadist groups, and the Popular Resistance Committees, an umbrella of several Palestinian militant factions. Hamas's biggest goal within Gaza right now is to consolidate its rule through improved economic growth, rule of law, and hegemony over the conflict with Israel. But the opposition organizations have no clear political or social platforms. Militants often challenge Hamas' authority by attacking Israel from Gaza or from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, where lawlessness has drastically increased since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak last February.

In the past three months, these opposition organizations launched nearly 400 rockets into Israel. Despite being the most violent exchanges of fire since 2008, Israel responded moderately. No Hamas men were killed -- only militants from the opposition organizations. Israel's restraint reflects its changing strategy on Hamas. In this thinking, targeting Hamas would potentially increase the leverage of the more violent, less predictable opposition organizations, raising the prospects for chaos and for attacks against Israeli towns and civilians.

Hamas seems to have little interest in escalating with Israel, either. Previous escalations have cost the movement men and vital infrastructure, including weapons caches and smuggling tunnels. Over the past year, excepting of course this recent attack, Hamas did not actively participate in fighting, and negotiated with the opposition organizations to stop violence that could have dragged Gaza into self-perpetuating conflict. Hamas' conduct seems to reflect a new strategy of its own: no to initiating attacks against Israel; yes to checked retaliation and only if Israel attacks first. (Again, this recent attack was an exception.) Hamas even established a special unit to prevent members of the opposition organizations from shooting rockets into Israel. The Qūwat Dabt Al-Maydaan (Field Control Force) mandates the arrest or shooting of any militant who violates this order. Considering Hamas' own reputation of launching thousands of such rockets in the past decade, its new official measures to not just stop its own shelling of Israel but to aggressively deter others suggests that its leaders' understand that maintaining a calm border advances Hamas' goal of consolidating rule in Gaza.

Gaza opposition organizations have, unsurprisingly, criticized Hamas' abstention from fighting. This may explain Hamas' recent rocket attack: delivering a message to these organizations that Hamas remains committed to the armed struggle against Israel. Of course, the fact that this message involved shooting explosives into Israel says something about the nature of Hamas. Yet despite its active role in the recent fire, the movement worked to negotiate a ceasefire and has shown no interest in escalation. What's most worrying about Hamas' fire is that it indicates the growing influence of the opposition organizations over the movement's strategic decisions and their ability to drag it to use force against its strategy.

Egypt, for its part, shares the desire to prevent escalation. Violence between Israel and Hamas could well spark Palestinian solidarity protests on Egyptian streets and increase public pressure to cancel the peace treaty with Israel -- something the nascent post-Mubarak would probably prefer not to deal with right now.

Egypt is an important player here, and not just because they helped to negotiate the ceasefire. Hamas made its new home in Egypt, after its political leaders left Syria to protest the regime's violence there. To help Gaza's economy, Egypt reopened the Rafah Crossing, which Mubarak had closed in 2007. Because Hamas is dependent on Cairo's hospitality and support, it tries to refrain from potentially destabilizing actions, including a clash with Israel, that might displease Cairo. Egypt has come to play a greater role in maintaining tranquility over the past year. Its security services have helped moderate unofficial, indirect talks between Israeli and Hamas delegates. Egyptian mediation helped secure the exchange of Gilad Shalit, a Israeli soldier long held in Gaza, for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in late 2011.

Finally, there is Iran. Israel's top security priority is preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. A large-scale operation in Gaza along the lines of late 2008's Cast Lead would risk distracting the West's attention from Iran and tying up Israeli military resources. Also, the Iran-Hamas axis has recently weakened, over Hamas' criticism of Syria, a close Iranian ally. Iran punished Hamas by cutting funds to the movement and increasing its support for the opposition organizations. This likely reduces the odds of Hamas retaliating against Israel, should it strike against Iran. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh recently declared that Hamas will not go to war with Israel for Iran. And both Hamas and Israel share an interest in not seeing Hamas' more-violent rival and Iranian proxy, Islamic Jihad, gain more power in Gaza.

Israel and Hamas still don't like one another and, as late June's Hamas-initiated violence shows, their relationship is still tense, dangerous, and occasionally deadly. Still, some things are bigger than the Israel-Hamas conflict. The revolution in Egypt, civil war in Syria, Israeli tension with Iran, and competition within Gaza have conspired to give these two enemies some mutual concerns, which, for the moment, preoccupy them more than their own conflict. This situation, however, is fragile. There is still no official mechanism for cooperation, Israel continues to classify Hamas as a terror organization, Hamas remains committed to the illegitimacy of the Israeli state, and interests can swiftly change in this volatile region. Still, this is the Middle East. You take what peace you can get.

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Moran Stern is a lecturer at Georgetown University's program for Jewish civilization in the School of Foreign Service.

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