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Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Israel appears to be walking right into a trap. In the wake of the bloodthirsty killing spree in southern Israel by Hamas, Israel says it is determined to wipe out the group. The Israeli military appears to be preparing a massive ground assault in Gaza. But, perhaps counterintuitively to many, this is precisely what Hamas was hoping to provoke through its recent terrorist rampage.

Spectacular violence is almost invariably designed to provoke an emotional response from the dominant power. Rage tinged with panic and confusion can goad the stronger party into strategic blunders that inflict much more damage upon itself then the guerrillas themselves ever could.

One of the most spectacular examples of this dynamic in recent history is the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Al-Qaeda calculated the response would be, at least in part, highly detrimental to U.S. interests. By invading Iraq in 2003, Washington empowered Iran, damaged its own credibility and global leadership, and instilled a lasting aversion among many Americans to military actions, especially in the Islamic world.

Hamas’s fortunes had been declining, with a subtle erosion of support from Turkey and Qatar, and a shift in momentum to the West Bank, particularly by unaffiliated armed youth groups like the Lions’ Den militia. Hamas leaders clearly decided to act dramatically to ensure that Israel would destroy the status quo ante.

Israel began occupying Gaza in 1967. In 2007, Hamas violently expelled their secular Fatah rivals and took control of Gaza. Having already withdrawn Jewish settlements and pulled back its troops in 2005, Israel imposed a de facto siege on Gaza in 2007. Hamas dominated the interior, but Israel retained a tight grip on the coastline, the airspace, the electromagnetic spectrum and all places of ingress and egress, except a small crossing controlled by Egypt.

Hamas wants to break out of this “open-air prison.” They hope Israeli troops return to the Gaza interior for close-quarter urban combat, fighting better suited to guerrillas than regular militaries. They even hope Israel reinstitutes a prolonged reoccupation of Gaza which, they believe over time, will result in weekly, if not daily, Israeli military casualties.

Hamas is counting on a disproportionate Israeli response, already under way, that targets the 2 million Gaza civilians, to prompt the violence to spread to the West Bank and, especially, occupied East Jerusalem. Fighting around or even in the Al-Aqsa mosque will tug at global Muslim heartstrings. It could also prompt others to get involved.

Hamas is certainly hoping Hezbollah from Lebanon, with its vast precision missile arsenal, joins the fray. There are possible additional fronts in southern Syria near the Golan Heights, from pro-Iranian Iraqi militias and the Houthi rebels in Yemen who are within rocket striking distance of the Israeli port city of Eilat. For now, Iran appears to want to reserve its most potent threat, Hezbollah, as a deterrent against Israeli attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities. But those calculations could change if the fighting spreads.

Israel needs to calculate its enemies’ goals and deny them. Hamas is relying on an Israeli overreaction that creates an enormous spectacle of civilian devastation in Gaza and provides targets for a prolonged insurgency.

The ultimate goal is to use the new conflict with Israel to utterly eclipse its Fatah secular rivals in the West Bank, to at last secure dominance within the Palestinian national movement and, eventually, seize control of the Palestine Liberation Organization, with its invaluable global diplomatic presence that includes observer states status at the UN General Assembly and over 100 embassies and missions around the world.

They are counting on Israel to make all this possible by charging into Gaza for a prolonged battle on the ground. Months of ingenious and meticulous planning clearly went into the murderous rampage in southern Israel. It is inconceivable that Hamas did not put at least as much effort and planning into preparing for the very Israeli offensive they were seeking to provoke. The Israeli national security establishment has acknowledged and apologized for being unprepared for the Hamas attack. There may be many additional unpleasant surprises awaiting them if they decide to take and hold the urban streets in Gaza.

Intelligent Israelis must know they are being lured into a trap. Yet many apparently feel that both politically and strategically, they have no choice but to fall into it. That’s precisely the kind of irrationality Hamas was hoping to inflame. Restraint, cunning and potent but limited military responses are the only ways to deny Hamas the emotional and irrational response they seek to provoke and, crucially, to keep the door open to a potential normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia. Yet Israel may be preparing to deliver itself a blow far more devastating than Gaza militants could ever inflict.

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