JERUSALEM — The current conflict between Hamas and Israel is the result of the Palestinian Islamist movement overplaying its hand in an attempt to rewrite the rules of engagement between itself and Israel.
Hamas's miscalculation of the balance of forces between itself and Israel has now brought the Israel Defense Forces to the brink of a renewed ground operation in the Gaza Strip. If this is to be avoided, much depends on Western pressure on Hamas's allies, above all Egypt, so that they in turn may press the movement to accept a renewed ceasefire.
Hamas overreached in this conflict because it believed that its strategic position had been dramatically bolstered by recent events. Tactically, Israel's apparent willingness to tolerate a gradually increasing volume of rocket fire on communities in the western Negev and then beyond it -- in Beersheva, Ashkelon and Ashdod -- caused Hamas to assume that Israel could be further pressured into ceasing or significantly reducing its activities along the "security perimeter" west of the border fence, where the IDF operates to prevent tunnel digging and roadside bombings.
In the early period following Operation Cast Lead, Israel's last offensive in Gaza, Hamas at times acted to prevent rocket fire on Israeli communities by the rival Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement, or one of the smaller Salafi groups operating in the region. The movement did this for pragmatic reasons -- it needed time to recover and rebuild from the effects of Cast Lead.
For obvious reasons, however, this situation was deeply uncomfortable for Hamas, which regards itself as being engaged in a long fight to the death with the Jewish state. In the course of 2012, it gradually divested itself of this approach. Fewer restrictions were placed on other organizations. Hamas itself began once more to openly join the fight against Israel. The number of rockets launched correspondingly increased.
In the course of 2012, prior to the outbreak of the current round of fighting, over 700 rockets were launched at Israel, the highest number since 2009. The final straw came with the Kornet missile attack on an IDF jeep patrol on Nov. 10, wounding four Israeli soldiers.
Hamas overestimated Israel's desire to avoid conflict. The assassination of Hamas military commander Ahmad al-Jaabari and the round of fighting now under way followed.
Strategically, Hamas has been deeply encouraged by the astonishing advances made by Sunni Islamism across the region. In Egypt and Tunisia, Hamas's fellow Muslim Brothers are now in power. In Syria, Sunni Islamists are at the forefront of the insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad's regime. And the Emir of Muslim Brotherhood-supporting Qatar recently visited Gaza, pledging a gift of $400 million.
The movement is right to be encouraged. Indeed, it may in retrospect be seen as the initiator of this process. The practical result of the 2011 "Arab Spring" has been the replacement of decrepit Arab nationalist regimes by Islamist ones. This began not in Tunisia in 2011, but in Gaza in 2007 -- when Hamas defeated and drove out the forces of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority.
So with the wind of history at its back, and with its ideological confreres now in power to its south in Cairo, Hamas felt able to push forward with the next chapter of its long, existential war against Israel.