More than three months have passed since the end of the fifty-day conflict between Hamas in Gaza and Israel this past summer, yet all of the catalysts that helped spark that war remain in place and are pushing the sides into their next clash.
One of the reasons Hamas launched a war in July this year was to try to end its strategic isolation, which became severe after the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood in next-door Egypt. Hamas also sought to improve its crumbling economic situation as the ruler of the Gaza Strip; its dire situation was illustrated by Hamas's inability to pay 40,000 of its Gazan employees their monthly salaries.
Hamas could, with a fair amount of ease, cause Israel to end its security blockade by accepting the terms of the international Quartet. These would include recognizing the state of Israel, renouncing violence and abiding by previous diplomatic agreements. Of course, those would contravene Hamas's ideology of Islamist jihad and move it away from its current trajectory of organized violence and religious hatred, the foundations upon which it was established in the 1980s by Palestinian members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Today, however, the same problems that plagued Hamas prior to the summer war have become worse. Gaza is hemmed in to the south by a hostile Egypt under the rule of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Egypt is systematically cutting off the smuggling tunnels that linked Sinai to the Gaza Strip. This means that Hamas is no longer easily able to smuggle either weapons or goods it can tax before they enter Gaza's market.
Israel's naval security blockade, designed to prevent the smuggling of arms or materiel that can be used to build weapons, remains in place, as does Israel's tight security control of its border crossings with the Gaza Strip. Israel has in recent months begun permitting the entry of construction materials to encourage Gaza's reconstruction efforts, and assisted in the export of Gazan agricultural goods to places such as the West Bank.
Most critically, however, Hamas's hopes for $5.4 billion of international aid money, pledged by donor states for Gaza's post-war recovery, remain unrealized. The money has barely begun to trickle in, due to an ongoing crisis with the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority [PA] in Ramallah.
Under the terms set by the international community, the money must enter Gaza through a joint PA-Hamas mechanism. Due to ongoing Fatah-Hamas divisions, such a mechanism appears far from being built.
The latest illustration of these intra-Palestinian tensions can be found in the coordinated, multiple bomb attacks in November on the homes of Fatah officials in Gaza -- attacks carried out by Hamas's military wing.
Meanwhile, the approximately 100,000 Gazans whose homes were destroyed by the fighting in the summer remain without a fixed roof over their heads in the winter, creating another source of pressure on Hamas.
These factors have led Hamas's military wing to warn publicly that a new explosion of violence against Israel is imminent. "We are saying to all sides -- if the siege on Gaza and the obstacles for reconstruction remain, there will be a new explosion," stated Abu Obeida, the spokesman of Hamas's military wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades.
The warning was answered this week by Israel's Defense Minister, Moshe Ya'alon, who said, "We now base the quiet in the Gaza Strip on deterrence. At this stage they are deterred, but we must be ready at any given time for the possibility that we will have to again act with full force."
While it would not be in Hamas's interests to spark a new destructive conflict so soon after a bruising one, if faced with the possibility that its regime in Gaza might collapse, it may decide to do so.
Hamas has, since the moment that hostilities ended in August, resumed rocket production in Gazan plants, albeit at a slower rate than before the conflict. Hamas has also most likely restarted work to dig more tunnels from Gaza into Israel, which are designed to inject guerrilla squads into Israel to commit terrorist kidnappings and murders.
The Israel Defense Forces, too, has spent recent months preparing to respond if there is a fresh round of hostilities. It assesses that Israeli deterrence has been fully replenished; it is also reluctantly prepared should the volatile situation in Gaza push deterrence aside.
For now, it seems, Hamas in Gaza will try, as it has been doing in recent months, to orchestrate terrorism in the West Bank, on the opposite side of Israel, while upholding its truce in Gaza. If Hamas's standoff with Fatah continues, however, and the host of factors that pushed Hamas into the last war do not change, the countdown to the next war may be shorter than many think.