Did Israel walk into a Hamas trap in Gaza?

Hezbollah and Iran were empowered and Hamas was suddenly more popular than ever – and it wasn’t even being condemned for firing 4,000 rockets at Israeli civilians.

Streaks of light are seen as Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system intercept rockets launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel, May 12. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Streaks of light are seen as Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system intercept rockets launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel, May 12.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A month before the Gaza war, things were going well for Israel. The Abraham Accords were going strong and a vaccination campaign had made Israel an envy during the pandemic. The peace agreements appeared to herald a new era in the Middle East and all that was required was to keep Iran and its proxies from trying to destabilize the region. A new US administration was keen to increase the US role around the world and support human rights. That might mean no more chaotic policies, like the flip-flops of the Syria withdrawal in 2018-2019.  
On May 22, after the recent Gaza war, the Palestinian Authority mufti was expelled from al-Aqsa for not supporting Hamas. Hamas was riding a wave of popular support, claiming it had defeated Israel. Protests in many countries had targeted Jews and articles slamming Israel were being printed in newspapers worldwide. China had led efforts at the UN critiquing Israel and in the US, several far-left members of the Democratic Party were calling Israel “apartheid” and pushing to stop arms sales.
Israel support was declining among key supporters, such as American Evangelicals. Hamas was more popular than ever suddenly and it wasn’t even being condemned for firing 4,000 rockets at Israeli civilians, of which some 60 fell in Israeli cities and towns. There’s talk now of a shift in how countries will approach Hamas and it has received more legitimacy in the weeks since the war than in the decades prior.
Hezbollah and Iran were empowered and not deterred. Pakistan’s top diplomat was spouting antisemitism on CNN, and Turkey, along with Iran, was leading the charge to sanction and isolate Israel. In the West Bank, Palestinians were celebrating the Hamas victory. Groups like Human Rights Watch and other anti-Israel groups were talking Israel “apartheid” and arguing for a one-state solution. Anti-Israel activists sensed the tide had turned: Israel could be eliminated as a “settler-colonial state.” Iran agreed. 
How did it come to this?

ISRAEL HAD largely kept Hamas isolated and ossified in Gaza since the 2014 war. Cut off from many supplies by Egypt, it had few friends. It had tried to expand that dwindling support abroad in 2019 and 2020 through visits to Turkey, Malaysia, Qatar and Iran. However, Israel’s new relationships in the Gulf appeared to show that Israel was now accepted in the region and a new alliance with Greece and Cyprus could promise new energy deals. Turkey, concerned about the incoming presidency of Joe Biden, was talking reconciliation across the region after being empowered by the Trump administration. The US was “back,” Biden said.  
When the Biden administration came into office it was after an unprecedented era of uncertainty in the US, with COVID and the former US President refusing to concede. The Middle East was not a priority. Israel had close cooperation with US Central Command and good relations with the US regarding its desire to protect its interests. It was able to act against Iranian entrenchment in Syria. There was no big push for peace. There wasn’t even a new US ambassador in Jerusalem. But a slow drumbeat was beginning.
In preparation for the incoming Biden administration, the human rights group B’Tselem released a report on Israel apartheid. By April 27, Human Rights Watch would follow suit. On April 29, the Palestinian Authority postponed its elections, fearing a Hamas victory. Israel had held elections on March 31 and continued to be divided. It was the fourth elections in two years. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did little to form a coalition.
A ray of hope was the rise of Ra’am and its head Mansour Abbas. He looked willing to join an opposition coalition after breaking from the Joint List. By May 5, President Reuven Rivlin had tasked Yair Lapid with forming a government after Netanyahu failed once again to create a coalition.

MEANWHILE, tensions were growing in Jerusalem. Ramadan had begun and with, it there were clashes with Israeli police at Damascus Gate. After attacks on Orthodox Jews there was a right-wing rally on April 22 and several were wounded. A dispute in east Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood began to get some international and Palestinian attention. Hamas vowed to defend Al-Aqsa.
On Quds (Jerusalem) Day, May 7, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said Israel was a terrorist state. Iran’s IRGC head Hossein Salami also slammed the Jewish state and predicted that it could suffer a tactical defeat or be blockaded at sea. Hamas and Hezbollah made similar statements. Hamas warned Israel that it would respond to Jerusalem clashes and on May 10, to coincide with Israel’s Jerusalem Day marches, fired rockets at Jerusalem.
Israel, with Lapid and Naftali Bennett seeking to form a coalition to replace Netanyahu, began airstrikes on Gaza. By May 12, Bennett had ended discussions on a new government. Riots across Israel in Arab and mixed towns created a crisis. Border Police were rushed to Lod. Attacks and lynchings began on both sides from Bat Yam to Umm al-Fahm, Rahat, Jaffa and other places. There had been clashes in Jaffa since April 20.
Now things took a turn for the worse. Israel called up almost 10,000 reservists, and sent Golani and 7th Armored soldiers to the border of Gaza. It rushed support to the West Bank where shooting attacks and clashes grew. The attacks had begun with Palestinian terror cells targeting the Tapuah junction in early May. Another shooting attack took place on May 7, near a post at Salem in the West Bank. Israel said the shooters were planning a worse attack. 

WHEN ISRAEL retaliated on May 10, Hamas put into action a plan to use thousands of rockets to pound Ashkelon, Ashdod and Tel Aviv, as well as Israeli airports and population centers. It used drones and planned to use unmanned submarines. It sent anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) teams to the border to strike at Israeli vehicles. This was a sophisticated, planned operation, in which up to 140 Hamas rockets would be fired at once in massive barrages.
Hamas had perfected this over the years with various rocket attacks at sea, practicing for this scenario. It also showed off new long-range rockets with a range of up to 250 km., targeting Eilat and perhaps Dimona as well. It knew that a Syrian S-200 had been fired that triggered alerts near Dimona on April 22. 
With Iranian support, there were attacks in the North as well. On May 13, rockets were fired into the sea from Lebanon and protesters laid siege to Israel's border with its northern neighbor on May 18. It may have come from Iraq. Rockets fired on May 19 even flew near Kiryat Yam, near Haifa. This was a serious incident. It followed the April 27 downing of a Hezbollah drone.  
Now Hamas and Fatah activists are battling over Al-Aqsa, as clashes showed on May 23, and Hamas is saying that its war has harmed the Abraham Accords.  
It’s not clear whether Hamas knew its plans would work or the degree to which Iran advised Hamas on this strategy. It is also not clear if the benefit to Hamas and Iran was merely a lucky turn of events for them and that timing dictated the need to go to war but the results were far from certain. Clearly, Hamas didn’t have much to lose.
Israel, on the other hand, has much to lose and it had diminishing returns from its years of sunk costs in Gaza. Iran and Hezbollah wanted to test Israel’s defenses. It increasingly appears Israel walked into a trap in Gaza. It was a trap partially of Israel’s own making due to not having a new government and having strategic planning concentrated in Netanyahu’s office without checks and balances and broader security cabinet discussion.