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

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.

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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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