EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The recent round of fighting between Israel and Hamas was seemingly sparked by the exposure of an Israeli special forces team during a covert operation in Khan Yunis. The Hamas leadership, which apparently is not interested in war, nevertheless chose to respond by escalating to the very brink. Why has the Israeli government refrained (yet again) from instructing the IDF to settle the Hamas threat?
The discourse that tends to swirl in the wake of events like this week’s sharp Gaza escalation generally revolves around a clichéd discussion about “the loss of deterrence.” But the gauge of deterrence, like a thermometer in a patient’s mouth, only measures a symptom; it does not explain the situation. Something deeper than “loss of deterrence” drove the event.
The Hamas leadership certainly knows the strength of the IDF relative to the strength of its own forces. But it bases its decisions not on that calculation but on its assessment of the constraints that prevent the Israeli government from making the decision to go to war. During the regular riots Hamas has led along the border since the spring, the group has learned its way through the Israeli strategic labyrinth. It understands how it can exploit the possibility of Israeli distress to advance its own interests.