Israel's assassination of Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jaabari in a missile attack has shattered the short-lived and fragile calm in the Gaza Strip, and could be another step in the transformation of the basic balance of power within Hamas -- and even the broader Palestinian national movement. The attack is the most significant escalation since Operation Cast Lead, the offensive Israel launched in Gaza in December 2008, and which cost an estimated 1,400 Palestinian and 13 Israeli lives.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced that Jaabari's killing was the first strike in "a widespread campaign" to "protect Israeli civilians and to cripple the terrorist infrastructure" -- and indeed, the IDF hit a number of targets across Gaza in the hours that followed, killing at least eight Palestinians. It's possible that these developments are laying prelude to another Israeli ground intervention in Gaza. On Nov. 11, Israel's Home Front Defense Minister Avi Dichter declared, "Israel must perform a reformatting of Gaza, and rearrange it" -- but gave no indication of what that dire-sounding phrase might mean in practice.
It is impossible to know how the conflict will unfold in the days ahead, but what is clear is that the outbreak of violence is the result of a swirl of events that are reshaping power structures within Hamas and its relationships with regional forces, including with Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
During most of the period since Cast Lead, the Hamas rulers in Gaza have refrained from attacks against Israel and tried to prevent other militant groups from launching attacks as well. But as 2012 has progressed, that policy has changed -- largely due to internal transformations within the group itself.
The internal dynamic of Hamas has traditionally been that leaders in its Politburo, which is based almost entirely in neighboring Arab countries, were more militant than their compatriots inside Gaza. It was the leaders in exile who maintained close relations with the radical regimes in Iran and Syria, while the Hamas government in Gaza was more restrained because it had more to lose from violence with Israel.
That calculation has been inverted in recent months as Hamas's foreign alliances have undergone a dramatic transformation and its domestic wing has made a bold attempt to assert its primacy. Hamas's relationship with Damascus completely collapsed when the group came out in opposition to President Bashar al-Assad's regime. The Politburo had to abandon its Damascus headquarters, and is now scattered in capitals throughout the Arab world. This has also created enormous strains with Iran, which is apparently supplying much less funding and material to Hamas than before.
Hamas leaders in Gaza, meanwhile, have increasingly been making the case that the Politburo does not represent the organization's paramount leadership -- but rather its diplomatic wing, whose main role is to secure aid and support from foreign governments. It is the Hamas government and paramilitary force in Gaza, they argue, that are in the driver's seat, because they are actually involved in fighting Israel.
The desire to be the tip of the spear against Israel explains why Hamas involved itself in rocket attacks against Israel earlier this year, and has done much less to prevent other groups from launching attacks in recent weeks. The attacks are part of the case for the transfer of paramount leadership away from the exiles and to the Hamas political and military leadership in Gaza, which portrays itself as doing the ruling and the fighting.