After an intensification of Israeli attacks on Palestinians, especially in Gaza, Hamas, for the first time since its victory in parliamentary elections and after over 15 months, declared that it has ended the ceasefire and will respond violently to these ever more frequent Israeli attacks.
There may be different causes for this dramatic announcement. It was followed by a claim of responsibility for a subsequent series of rocket attacks on Israeli towns and villages.
One possible explanation is the emotional effect of the TV footage of a young girl who lost all her family on Gaza beach this last Friday after an Israeli artillery bombardment, and which has created a lot of sympathy and anger among the public in the Palestinian territories and worldwide.
The continuing Israeli attacks are also embarrassing Hamas. Hamas used to either respond directly or promise to respond to such attacks. This was part of the reason for its growing popularity among Palestinians and partly responsible for its victory in parliamentary elections. It has been difficult for Hamas, which has used the rhetoric of armed resistance to the aggression of the occupation to great effect, to be able to neither do nor say anything to the public after such attacks.
This may have led Hamas to the conclusion that continuing its ceasefire in spite of continued Israeli attacks would negatively affect its popularity.
The other possible cause may be internal Palestinian developments. Hamas has been put on the defensive vis-a-vis the PLO factions, because of the Prisoners’ Document that President Mahmoud Abbas intends to take to a popular referendum.
That decision has caused Hamas some embarrassment. It cannot accept the document because it contradicts its political principles. But nor can it reject the document because it was drafted by prisoners who maintain a high level of credibility with the public.
The immediate reaction from Hamas after the killings on the beach seemed to try to link the Israeli escalation with the dispute between Abu Mazen and Hamas over the document.
The spokesperson of Hamas, in his first official reaction, said it didn’t make sense to put Hamas under internal pressure to give political concessions through a referendum while the Palestinian people at the same time are subject to such escalation.
The leaflet of the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, was more direct. It accused any Palestinian group that put political pressure on Hamas to give up part of its political program of being collaborators with the Israeli occupation.
It is possible that Hamas, which is facing serious difficulties in running the Palestinian Authority, might see the escalation as a way to escape internal and external political embarrassment. In this case, this would be an area of common interest between the Israeli and Palestinian governments.
Any de-escalation accompanied by a revival of the political process on the basis of the roadmap, which includes the relevant resolutions of the Security Council, could be equally embarrassing for the two sides.
Israel seems to be under pressure to give a chance to political negotiations. Hamas is under similar pressure through the referendum initiative, which, if successful, will force Hamas also to give a chance to a political process. This makes the two governments similarly interested in escalation as a way out of this potential political embarrassment.
In this case, it is very important that a third party such as the Quartet or some of its members, especially the US, interferes to prevent the possible deterioration that will likely characterize the next phase in relations between the two sides.
Such intervention should include efforts to convince the sides to accept a resumption of political negotiations as well as efforts to extend the ceasefire by convincing Hamas to give it another chance and convincing Israel to stop its crazy and disproportionate campaign of assassinations and indiscriminate killings of Palestinians.
Israel also has to be pressured to stop the expansion of settlements, which has been one of the most important factors in increasing tension and removing hope.