The Israeli military sees an Iranian hand behind the violence. Palestinian Islamic Jihad “takes its marching orders from Tehran,” said Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence. Iran enlisted the group to strike Israel in retribution for Israeli strikes against Iranian soldiers and facilities in Syria in recent months, he said, and once the clashes had begun Hamas had no choice but to join in. “It could not allow itself to be perceived as marginalized in the context of the Palestinian struggle against Israel.”
It is indeed true that Hamas has repaired its alliance with Iran over the past year. When I last met with Hamas officials, several weeks ago, they told me that their ties with Tehran were stronger than what they had been before the Syrian war—a conflict in which Hamas found itself on opposite sides from its powerful patron, and which resulted in a severe deterioration of the relationship. Given this regional dynamic, it is possible that Hamas did not believe it was in a position to restrain Islamic Jihad, Tehran’s ally, once it decided to retaliate.
But Hamas’s relationship with its southern neighbor, Egypt, might pave the way for a de-escalation of the conflict. Egyptian officials see Hamas as an organization with ties to both the Muslim Brotherhood, the military-backed government in Cairo’s mortal enemy, and to Tehran, the preeminent foe of its primary regional ally, Saudi Arabia. Hamas supported former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but officially severed its links to the Brotherhood last year in a bid to improve ties with Egypt and Gulf states.
Despite their differences, Hamas officials are well aware that they cannot afford to ignore Egyptian wishes. Geography, in this case, is destiny: Egypt controls the southern crossing with Gaza, and also has the power to destroy tunnels used to smuggle goods that run under the border. For this reason, Hamas’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, visited Cairo shortly before this month’s “March of Return” protests in a bid to assuage Egyptian concerns about the demonstrations. And it may account for Egypt’s success so far in reestablishing the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel.
“Neither of the two sides wants a war now because Hamas knows it will pay a very heavy price, and Israel is focused on its northern front [with Lebanon and Syria],” said Yadlin. “Israel is also cognizant of the fact that it is difficult to produce any strategic achievements through another round of fighting in Gaza.”
That might be the logical response, but wars have a logic all of their own. If that mortar shell landed in that kibbutz’s kindergarten while it was full of children, the furious Israeli response would have no doubt provoked a furious Hamas retaliation—and the two sides would have come to believe that there was no alternative to war. “Neither Israel nor Hamas want a war right now,” Thrall said. “But both are dangerously close to participating in one.”