The future strategic challenge in Gaza
Hamas cannot be decimated and 1.8 million people aren’t going to disappear.
That’s the harsh reality Israel has faced since the terrorist group’s takeover of Gaza in 2006. By the time these words appear in print, a ceasefire will likely be in place in Operation Protective Edge. (I use the word “likely” advisedly and hopefully.) I hesitate, therefore, to comment on its potential terms and conditions. But one thing is clear: any ceasefire will reflect the needs and interests not just of the warring sides – Israel and Hamas – but of a variety of regional and international players. So while the terms may seem familiar, the changed regional reality will create a new context and will result, in effect, in a ceasefire among more than two parties.
To begin with, even the term “Hamas” doesn’t do justice to a complex Islamist reality. There are different interests among three Hamas leadership centres – the external, Qatar-based group; the political wing inside Gaza, which seeks legitimacy from Egypt and accepted the new Palestinian consensus government announced in June; and the more militant military wing, which has been closer to Qatar and Turkey. Moreover, in the periphery, as analyst Yossi Alpher aptly notes, today Hamas is the “moderate” end of a continuum whose other extremity is ISIS, with its horrific atrocities. Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority all have to deal with this, while in Gaza itself, there’s a continuing, competing dynamic between Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which is closer to Iran. These Islamist rivalries reflect developments since Israel’s last incursion in 2012, and while the 2012 ceasefire can provide basic terms to build on for this round, it will also reflect the new winds of Arab and Islamist politics.
For example, Egypt has always played a key role in brokering Palestinian politics and Israeli-Palestinian relations. But in 2012, it was governed by Mohammad Morsi, who favoured the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Today, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi opposes both, and Hamas’ negotiations over opening the Egyptian-Gaza Rafah crossing have more to do with Egypt than with Israel.
A second paradox lies in Israel’s official policy toward Hamas. It has carefully stated its intention to decimate the terrorist infrastructure and leadership of Hamas. It has talked about demilitarization of the strip. But it wants Hamas to remain in place to provide stable leadership – because the more extreme alternative is worse. Over the last few months, this concern became exacerbated with the Sinai-based activity of Al Qaeda-related terrorist cells. So throughout the fighting, while wielding its military prowess, Israel’s allowed food and other basic supplies into Gaza.
This leads to a third, fundamental paradox. In the long term, for eventual stability in Gaza, President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority will have to play some governance role there. But so far, Israel has insisted on separation between Gaza and the West Bank, for fear of Hamas activity in the latter. Moreover, it has continued to weaken Abbas even as he and other Arab leaders have excoriated Hamas and its deadly policies. It now seems impossible, but in the long term, weakening Hamas requires bolstering Abbas. Polls consistently show public dissatisfaction with Hamas’ rule and simultaneous respect for its role in sustaining the battle with Israel. This will somehow need to be leveraged in any agreement agreeable to both Israel and the PA.
This all goes back to the Palestinian consensus government announced last June as a first step toward elections. For Hamas, it was a sign of weakness, as it had lost Egyptian support, as it was for Abbas, as talks with Israel faltered and he needed to shore up his leadership. For Israel, the new government is anathema, even though Hamas’ political wing has virtually given up its day-to-day leadership of Gaza.
There won’t be a strategic winner in Protective Edge. But from renewed tactical strength and deterrence, Israel will have to deal with the question of its long-term policy toward Gaza.