Ultimately, a full-scale IDF occupation of Gaza would leave Israel with the unwanted responsibility of overseeing a territory careening towards humanitarian crisis. Even in 2014, when the humanitarian situation was not as bad as today, the prospect of escalating the war to eliminate Hamas appeared to entail more military and political costs, including reoccupying Gaza, than Israeli leadership was willing to bear. Keeping Hamas in place as a “return address” gives Hamas something to lose if attacks from Gaza escalate significantly.
For its part, Hamas’s need to stave off Gaza’s economic implosion is more pressing than its fundamental long-term goal of destroying Israel. Certainly, the latter becomes far more difficult if the former comes to pass. Indeed, Hamas fears the further deterioration of a Gazan economy already plagued by worsening water and electricity shortages, and has responded violently against protestors demanding reforms. Recent decisions by the United States to end its assistance to the Palestinians and by the Palestinian Authority to stop paying for Gaza’s electricity sharpen the dilemma for Hamas.
Knowing that the current Israeli leadership is hesitant to go there—even while remaining ready to respond proportionately to smaller provocations—Hamas can calibrate its use of violence in pursuit of greater international attention and concessions to shore up its position in Gaza.
Yet several variables could undermine this relative stability and raise the risks of another major conflict. Foremost is the continued worsening of conditions inside Gaza, with the impending end of Qatar’s financial support for Gaza’s electricity supplies potentially serving as a trigger. Simply put, the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Gaza could worsen to the point where the risks to Hamas of a major war with Israel begin to seem tolerable by comparison to a popular revolt.
Mutual deterrence also could spiral apart through accidental escalation, as it has many times in many places before. The resumption of night raids along the border fence, where protestors set fires and launch incendiary devices into Israel, suggests Hamas is probing for the upper bound of Israel’s tolerance for violence.
Hamas is therefore able to fulfil its self-anointed mandate as a Palestinian resistance movement, without resuming rocket fire that could necessitate massive IDF retaliation—and which in turn could hurt Hamas’s popularity or ability to govern Gaza. However, Hamas might easily, if inadvertently, push this tolerance too far.
Moreover, Hamas contends with other Palestinian militant organizations inside Gaza, none of which must worry about ruling Gaza and some of which are more radical even than Hamas. For instance, Palestinian Islamic Jihad has its own rocket arsenal and on occasion has not been afraid to use it without Hamas’s blessing. If Gaza’s economy deteriorates further and Hamas’s leadership seems increasingly tenuous, these groups may feel pressured or emboldened to act against Israel without Hamas’s approval.
By no means is the current mutual deterrence an ideal long-term solution for either the Palestinians or Israelis, but it remains preferable to the preceding cycle of full-scale war. However, without a stopgap to Gaza’s looming collapse, Hamas and Israel could head towards a fourth major conflict since 2008, regardless of whether either side wants it.