The Rationale of Hamas Rocket Attacks

There is much argument about who started the latest Gaza conflict. Many believe that the Hamas rocket attacks on Israel were the precipitating event, and that Israel has the right to respond. Perhaps that is true. Many question why, during a supposed truce, Hamas would have continued to stage rocket attacks on Israeli territory. The reason, in my view, was both tactical and strategic.

Hamas demands the illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land be withdrawn before any durable peace can be achieved. It believes that it has the right to armed resistance against illegal occupation of its land. Israel demands that the rocket attacks stop before talks on a land-for-peace swap can begin. Hamas militants believe that to cease their attacks will be a tacit surrender to Israeli demands. They also believe that stopping the attacks are a sign of acquiescence on the terms of  any deal. Thus the rocket attacks are designed to frame any discussions in a way that is favourable to Palestinian interests. They are, in a word, part of a “moderate-militant” negotiating strategy by which the attacks are designed to give Hamas’s political wing more room to maneuver when negotiating the terms of any land-for peace agreement. Anyone familiar with negotiations understands the principle: you drive a hard bargain and settle for something less. In this instance the bargain being driven has an armed edge.

There is more to the picture. The reason that rocket attacks are used is that since 2006 no successful suicide bombing attacks have been carried out in Israel (although many have been thwarted). Given the heavily fortified nature of the border, rocket attacks are the only way to make the militant point. Moreover, the point is not only being made to the Israeli authorities. It is also, and perhaps more importantly, being made to the Hamas moderates who make up the bulk of its political wing, and who are the potential negotiators on the Gazian side (since Fattah represents the Palestinian community in the occupied West Bank). Thus the rocket attacks served episodic notice of militant conviction on two fronts, internal and external, with the internal message to the political wing being “sell us out at your peril.”

Regardless of whether this explanation of the rationale behind the rocket attacks is correct or not, one thing is now clear: the rocketeers seriously underestimated Israel’s determination to eradicate Hamas’s militant wing while allowing its political moderates to live to negotiate anther day ( I elaborate on this and some other aspects of  the conflict over at in an essay titled “Who Benefits from the Gaza conflict?”). That process is now taking place.

21 thoughts on “The Rationale of Hamas Rocket Attacks

  1. Thus the rocket attacks are designed to frame any discussions in a way that is favourable to Palestinian interests

    Use of weapons is a terror tactic, or a military tactic. It is NEVER a negotiating tactic. You cannot “frame” a discussion with violence, you can only terminate it.

    Rocket fire tells the Israeli people that there are a bunch of people in Gaza who don’t want to negotiate. they want to fight. Hence the current war. The only “framing” taking place here is the attempt to eliminate the major obstacle to negotiations – Hamas militants.

  2. Many question why, during a supposed truce, Hamas would have continued to stage rocket attacks on Israeli territory.

    I think you’ll find that Israel broke the previous truce or cease-fire numerous times and refused to continue with it despite Hamas wanting it to continue.

  3. MacDoctor: It is NEVER a negotiating tactic.

    Bullshit. It’s the big stick which one carries while speaking softly.

    Though it must be said Hamas are neither wielding a big stick nor speaking softly.


  4. Pablo – Israel did in fact break the ceasefire first. That’s not to say that rockets weren’t fired into Israel from Gaza before 4th November when Isreal broke the ceasefire, but that they were from one of the other multiple militant groups in Gaza. In September the month before Israel broke the ceasefire 1 rocket was fired into Israel in Novemeber after Israel broke the ceasefire 127 rockets were fired – Hamas started firing rockets again. Even right wing CNN has looked into it.

  5. The rockets are also Hamas’ way of easing some of the political pressure from the more militant groups that are waiting in the wings, and consider Hamas to have gone soft/committed treason ( by entering the political process). Marc Lynch mentions some of those groups here;

  6. MacDoctor’s reaction confirms the old adage about misperception being a leading contributor in the build up to war. What a group intends may not be what its target audience perceives, and the reaction it gets may not be the one it expected. In any case, I should have mentioned the non-Hamas militants mentioned by Pascal and Raven. The issue of who broke the truce first is one that is immaterial to the point that I was trying to make, which was not, as Inventory wonders, whether the tactic is “legitimate,” but instead was that the rockets are a tactical component of a larger strategy of resistance and negotiation with a far stronger military power.

  7. MacDoctor’s reaction confirms the old adage about misperception being a leading contributor in the build up to war.

    There is no misperception here. Violence is NOT a negotiating tactic. Violence is a strategy of coercion. In Hamas’ case, the rockets were designed to goad Israel into attacking Hamas. The strategy has worked (ably assisted by Israeli politics, admittedly).

    Last month, few people in the West cared about Gaza. Now Hamas have the media coverage they desire. This may strengthen their bargaining position in the eventual negotiations, but it is a very dangerous ploy. It is perfectly possible that the combination of Hamas and Israeli intransigence is such that Israel may be prepared to continue ignoring world opinion and seriously harm Hamas capability, ultimately weakening Hamas’ bargaining power and possibly leaving them open to eventual destruction by Fatah.

  8. MacDr.: Are you being dense or deliberately obtuse? Your second paragraph confirms the utility of the moderate-militant strategy as applied here. Ever hear of carrots and sticks? Strategic interaction involves coercive disincentives as well as positive incentives, The range of coercive disincentives is broad. For example, Russia cutting off the natural gas supply to the Ukraine is one such coercive disincentive used on the Ukrainian regime challenging Russian influence in its political process, which is an incentive for others in Europe not to follow Ukraine’s challenge to Russia. Israel’s use of blockades is another example of a coercive disincentive used to “incentivize” moderate Palestinian approaches to the disputed lands. If you believe that violence is never used a tactical tool in strategic interaction, then you better stick to the stethoscope and stay out of political and strategic analysis.

    My point being simply that this was a Hamas/Palestinian variant on the theme that looks to not be working out to well (I was giving you credit in my comment about misperception being a major cause of war, since Hamas and other militants misperceived how the Israelis would react).

  9. Pablo – I thought that was an excellent and highly perceptive analysis of the Hamas actions. Projecting our morality onto Hamas and saying what is acceptable or not is pointless.

    The Israelis appear to have recognised that strategy consciously or accidentally and are taking the only appropriate rational response. They are hitting back even harder to restore negotiating equilibrium. Hamas was in effect bluffing and has been called by the Israelis. Their chips were provided by Iran and the Palestinians remain pawns. There is a decent argument that Iran needs to feel some negative disincentives, like American bombs, to bring it to the negotiating table.

    What is needed is a circuit breaker and powerful enough leaders on either side to lead the necessary negotiations. It will be interesting to see whether Obama can convince Iran and the Israelis to compromise sufficiently. That is the only path to peace.

  10. Pablo,

    Good analysis.

    Hamas would have been better served by holding back firepower and not firing rockets until they had made a specific set of demands. The incessent nature of the attacks makes Hamas look weak and disorganised.

  11. Paul, I think in you’re Scoop article you have Obama’s postion on Hamas wrong.

    At no point has he said he would enter into direct negotiations with Hamas. During the election campaign Obama publically rebuked Jimmay Carter when he said Obama should talk diretly with them.

    From what I have seen of Obama he will continue the stance of not negotiating with them until they accept the existance of Israel and renounce violence.

    He will of course – like Israel – talk indirectly with Hamas via Egypt.

    For what it’s worth in The Guardian Jonathan Freedland reports that the Obama team is quite happy to see Hamas get a poudning.

  12. Pablo: I did not say that violence could not be used as a tactical tool to improve your strategic position, I said that violence is not a negotiating tool – it is a tool of coercion.

    That violence may put you into a better negotiating position is not the issue. It is that negotiation does not begin until violence ends.

    I know I am being pedantic here, but it is germane to your post. By their rocket fire, Hamas were signalling to Israel that they were not ready to negotiate but were still attempting coercive means. As their stated objective is the eradication of Israel, it is highly unlikely that Hamas will ever be ready to negotiate as this cannot be achieved by negotiation. Thus their rocket fire is not even a tactic of strategic coercion, but an attempt to create a war in the Middle East (this is hardly a negotiating strategy is it?)

    Israel understands this, which is why it’s current strategy is clearly an attempt to wipe Hamas off the face of the earth. I assume they are hoping to do enough damage to Hamas to allow Fatah to finish them off.

    And this is precisely why calls for a ceasefire and negotiation are being ignored by both sides.

  13. MacDoctor

    “By their rocket fire, Hamas were signalling to Israel that they were not ready to negotiate but were still attempting coercive means.”

    Too simplistic:

    Firstly, the militant wing of Hamas is not representiive of “Hammas:.

    Secondly, there’s no credible reason to think that violence can’t be used in conjuncture with negotiations – in fact, as Pablo points out this is standard practice.

    Your approach to debate seems to be “i state it therefore it must be true”. But to convince anyone, you’re actually going to have to provide a logically sequential argument. What you type is a pointless, waist of everyone’s time. Maybe Pablo’s right, and you should content yourself with scratching out prescriptions?

  14. MacDoctor: The point is that cessation of hostilities is a matter to be negotiated. If negotiation and coercion were mutually exclusive, how would it ever be possible to negotiate an end to conflict?


  15. OK MacDR. I see you point, but we will have to respectfully disagree. I think that there are too many vested interests at play for a larger war to break out, which is something I alluded to in the Scoop article.

    Neil: I may be confused on the campaign rhetoric but I believe that just a few days ago members of Obama’s transition team floated the idea of direct talks with the Hamas political wing if its agreed to a durable ceasefire. You are correct about the use of Egypt as a go-between in any case.

  16. My, my, what an arrogant **** you are Nome, and ignorant to boot. By what interesting contortion do you imagine that Hamas is not in control of who can and does fire rockets from Gaza. It may suit your position to wish that there was some “plausible deniability” in the firing of rockets, but that does not make it so. Firing randomly into civilian areas is a war crime, supporting war crimes as a “negotiating” or as Macdoctor puts it better, a coercive tactic, is dangerous ground for supposed liberals.

  17. Ed: Not sure what your problem with Roger is, but if you cannot disagree politely than do not do so at all. The is your first and only warning–one more abusive term like “****” and you will be deleted ( I will only edit out your insult this one time).

    You also seem to have missed the point of the discussion, which is simply to understand (and debate) the rationale behind Hamas rocket attacks rather than to justify it (which no one is doing, including Roger).

    On your specific point that Hamas is unified enough to be in control of what its militants do (to say nothing of other Palestinian militant groups (like Islamic Jihad): You are either ignorant of the facts or ideologically blind to the point of stupidity.

  18. Firstly, the militant wing of Hamas is not representiive of “Hammas:.

    They are funded by the same sources, are loyal to the same leaders and are the subject of military parades through Hamas controlled areas. Any faillings in control are faillings made by Hamas making decisions of how to exercise their control.

    Hamas is directly representative of Hamas.

  19. The rocket, as opposed to the guided missile, is a very in effective weapon and its primary use is to keep the opposing force’s heads down for fear of loosing them. In the Hamas use it also serves to keep the world’s attention on the Israeli/Palestinian problem … else the world would simply forget about it for other problems around the world. While the hard fist response no doubt makes sense to the Israeli and some others all it did was bring the worlds attention to the problem and create an anger at those ‘bloody Israelis’ The 1300 who lost their life served their country well in keeping the problem to the forefront of world attention.

    The solution is basically quite simple, but imposssible for the Israeli to implement I fear. By all means keep their borders tightly shut but open the Gaza to Egypt and the sea. Offer re-building aid tied to no more rocket attackes. Then just as New Zealand is making reparations to Maori for past wrongs so some process of settlement needs to be started for the thousands of dis-possessed in the camps. It is pretty simple, when somebody has position in society they are less likely to strap explosives around their body et al … the exception was of course the recent Indian bombing …. but we can live in hope for settlement.

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