What, Exactly, Is Hamas Trying to Prove?

Seeking to understand why Hamas fires rockets at the civilians of its militarily powerful neighbor
The Iron Dome intercepts a rocket from Gaza in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Mahmoud Abbas, the sometimes moderate, often ineffectual leader of the Palestinian Authority, just asked his rivals in Hamas a question that other bewildered people are also asking: “What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?”

The Gaza-based Hamas has recently fired more than 500 rockets at Israeli towns and cities. This has terrorized the citizenry, though caused few casualties, in large part because Israel is protected by the Iron Dome anti-rocket system.

In reaction to these indiscriminately fired missiles, Israel has bombarded targets across Gaza. Compared with violent death rates in other parts of the Middle East, the number of dead in Gaza is small. (More than 170,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war to date.) But it is large enough to suggest an answer to Abbas’s question: Hamas is trying to get Israel to kill as many Palestinians as possible.

Dead Palestinians represent a crucial propaganda victory for the nihilists of Hamas. It is perverse, but true. It is also the best possible explanation for Hamas’s behavior, because Hamas has no other plausible strategic goal here.

The men who run Hamas, engineers and doctors and lawyers by training, are smart enough to understand that though they wish to bring about the annihilation of the Jewish state and to replace it with a Muslim Brotherhood state (Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood), they are in no position to do so. Hamas is a militarily weak group, mostly friendless, that is firing rockets at the civilians of a powerful neighboring state.

The Israeli military has the operational capability to level the entire Gaza Strip in a day, if it so chooses. It is constrained by international pressure, by its own morality, and by the understanding that the deaths of innocent Palestinians are not in its best political interest. The men who run Hamas—the ones hiding in bunkers deep underground, the ones who send other people’s children to their deaths as suicide bombers—also understand that their current campaign will not bring the end of Israel’s legitimacy as a state.

I’ve been struck, over the last few days, by the world’s indifference to Gaza’s fate. Perhaps this conflict has been demoted to the status of a Middle East sideshow by the cataclysms in Iraq and Syria. Perhaps even the most accommodationist European governments know that Israel is within its rights to hunt down the people trying to kill its citizens. Regardless of the cause, Israel seems under less pressure than usual to curb its campaign.

There is no doubt that Hamas could protect Palestinian lives by ceasing its current campaign to end Israeli lives. The decision is Hamas’s. As the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, said earlier this week, "We face the risk of an all-out escalation in Israel and Gaza, with the threat of a ground offensive still palpable—and preventable only if Hamas stops rocket firing."

I understand that this latest round in the never-ending Israel-Gaza war was, in many ways, a mistake. Israel was uninterested in an all-out confrontation with Hamas at the moment, and Hamas, which is trying to manage a threat to its control of Gaza from—believe it or not—groups even more radical and nihilistic than it is, is particularly ill-prepared to confront Israel.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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