Hamas became the Palestinians' ruling party after winning the last parliamentary elections. It never dropped its call for the destruction of Israel, but it did announce a truce - for a while. Then it declared that truce void, and backed up its declaration with deeds.
Not only has Hamas done nothing to stop the steady barrage of Qassam rockets being fired across the border at the Israeli town of Sderot, but beginning last month it openly joined the attacks, boasting of its participation.
The last straw for the Israelis came when Hamas was involved in an attack on an Israeli outpost - in Israel itself - that killed two soldiers. A third, a 19-year-old corporal, was wounded and taken hostage. The raid was no spur-of-the-moment impulse; it involved digging a tunnel under the Israeli border, which must have taken weeks, if not months. In short, it was a premeditated act of war.
Just the other day an 18-year-old Israeli settler was kidnapped on the West Bank by a group loosely identified with Hamas and other Palestinian factions/gangs. His body now has turned up, but forensic experts say he was killed shortly after his abduction. Which didn't stop his killers from making much the same demand for his release - a prisoner exchange - now being made by those who claim to be holding the wounded 19-year-old corporal. Nice people, these terrorists.
Having withdrawn unilaterally from Gaza last year, leaving behind prosperous settlements -- most of which have been stripped bare by now -- Israel is fast discovering that no good deed goes unpunished.
Demanding the return of its captured soldier, the Israelis have unleashed artillery barrages and air strikes. They've proceeded to track down and arrest scores of Hamas officials, including eight members of the Palestinian Cabinet, whom they propose to put on trial for their involvement in terrorist activities. Just as they did Fatah's Marwan Barghouti, a popular Palestinian leader convicted of planning murderous attacks within Israel. Perhaps he hoped his standing in the Palestinian camp would make him immune from Israeli justice. It didn't. Now the leaders of Hamas have opened themselves to similar charges.
To quote Israel's formerly dovish defense minister, Amir Peretz, who happens to live in Sderot: "The masquerade ball is over. The suits and ties will not serve as cover to the involvement and support of kidnappings and terror."
What was largely Hamas' unilateral war now has become a larger-scale, bilateral one. And the world has started to pay attention, which it scarcely did when only Israelis were being attacked. Suddenly the United Nations is concerned.
Naturally, the spokesmen for Hamas are shocked - shocked. How dare the Israelis act as if they were in a war merely because they were attacked? To quote a headline in The New York Times: "On Arab Streets and Airwaves, Shock Over Seizures by Israel."
By now Israeli missiles have struck the office of the Palestinian prime minister, Hamas' Ismail Haniya, although in the middle of the night. It's clear such attacks, while dramatic, are meant to send a message rather than cause casualties, since they're aimed at unoccupied targets.
Israeli aircraft also have flown over the Syrian president's house, Syria long having provided Hamas with protection and support. Indeed, its leader gives orders and issues press releases from Damascus.
For now the Israelis have seized Gaza's abandoned airport, disrupted the city's electric power and pulverized some empty fields. The aim seems to be to inflict discomfort rather than casualties. Israeli armor is poised to roll into northern as well as southern Gaza, but a full-scale invasion is being held in abeyance, clearly in hopes of rescuing the Israeli captive without further attacks. Those who are urging Israel to act with restraint in retaliating against Hamas may not have noticed that so far it is doing just that.
But the message doesn't seem to be getting through to Hamas, which may still be convinced it can play a double game, disavowing any responsibility for the Israeli soldier's kidnapping while offering to release him in exchange for Hamas prisoners.
Hamas may still hope to carry out a war against Israel without the Israelis responding in kind. For even though Hamas has declared its truce with Israel over, its leaders sound surprised and outraged when the Israelis strike back. Nothing seems to shock terrorist leaders so much as being taken seriously.