At 9pm on Saturday, Palestinians in Hebron and other West Bank towns took to the roofs to watch what Hamas's military wing promised would be a missile attack on Tel Aviv using a new type of rocket, the J80. J stood for Jabari, the military's top commander, whose assassination by Israel on 14 November 2012 triggered the previous war. That was a clear sign of defiance by the movement – which maintains that, while it did not start the current cycle of conflict, it was determined to defeat the Israeli offensive.
Hamas has always insisted, contrary to claims by Binyamin Netanyahu, that it did not know who kidnapped and killed the three Israeli teenagerswhom the Israeli prime minister used as a pretext for his onslaught on the Gaza Strip. That was not the sort of operation Hamas would have carried out given that its goal was to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Many Palestinians believe Netanyahu had been planning an offensive against Hamas for months before that kidnapping. After deadlocked negotiations with Israel prompted the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to seek rapprochement with Hamas, the indirect US and EU positive response to the Palestinian reconciliation enraged the Israelis. The offensive on Gaza was Netanyahu's last trick, having tried to cripple the new unity government and to block payment of salaries to thousands of Gaza employees.
This may yet prove to be another disastrous miscalculation. As early as last winter Israelis were privately talking about messages from the new military authorities in Egypt to the effect that now was the best time to attack Gaza and unseat Hamas. The Cairo regime, which toppled the first democratically elected president in the history of Egypt, had been tightening the siege on Gaza by maintaining the closure of the Rafah crossing with Egypt and destroying the tunnels that kept the people of Gaza going while Israel imposed sanctions and a ground, sea and aerial siege.
As always, Israel tries to convince the world – which is watching with horror the savagery that Israel's weaponry is exacting on Gaza's civilians – that it is only responding to Hamas missiles firing on its towns and cities. Yet since the last truce was brokered under Egypt's then president Mohamed Morsi, Hamas not only restrained itself but also tried to restrain other smaller factions from responding to Israel's frequent assassinations or missile bombardments. Everyone's priority was to end the siege rather than be drawn into a new war.
Israeli leaders have justified the bombing of houses and killing of women and children by claiming that these civilians are used by Hamas as human shields. But the Israeli fighter planes did not even spare a centre for the disabled. Undoubtedly these attacks, which cannot be described as anything but war crimes, have been an embarrassment even to some of Israel's staunchest supporters in the west. The longer this military offensive lasts, the more damaging it will be for Israel and its western patrons such as the US and the EU. It is for this reason perhaps that President Obama quickly offered to mediate a truce. British foreign secretary William Hague has made a similar offer, though his implicit hostility toward Hamas – which he said he hopes to unseat in Gaza – undermines his credibility as a mediator. And so too does his bias toward Israel, which, in his own words, seems to have an exclusive right to self-defence. The people of Gaza would ask Hague if they too are considered human beings with the right to self-defence when they are subjected to Israeli aggression.
Yet the biggest difficulty for any mediation effort is the lack of an Egyptian leadership that could play this role. The current regime in Egypt is more hostile to Hamas than at any time during the Mubarak era. Peace envoy Tony Blair seems to be embarking on brokering something with the Egyptians, but he has a despicable record of hostility toward Islamic movements.
For now, Hamas is not saying much about any offer of mediation despite unconfirmed press reports that the Qataris or Turks might play a role. Yet it is clear that Hamas will not agree to any mediation unless its demands are taken into consideration. These include reactivating the terms of the previous truce deal, some of which Israel has constantly violated, and the lifting of the sea and aerial blockade.
This war will undoubtedly result in many fatalities and massive destruction to people's lives. The damage on the Israeli side may be more of a psychological, political or economic nature. What is certain is that, like before, the war will only boost Hamas's popularity. And it will bring a moral cohesion among all Palestinians – whether in Gaza, the West Bank or the worldwide diaspora. This will be most crucial in the emerging third uprising, the Al-Quds Intifada.