By Andrew Wilson
Israel has every justification for responding to Hamas’ provocative rocket attacks by neutralizing its ability to fire missiles. However, without a long-term strategy, Operation Pillar of Defense is liable to repeat the mistakes of 2008-2009’s Operation Cast Lead. That three-week ground offensive ostensibly aimed to degrade Hamas’ military capability and damage its leadership, but clearly did not succeed in its objectives. Today, Hamas is stronger than ever, and together with other radical Gazan splinter groups, its threat to Israel is undiminished. Hamas undoubtedly believes that just as they bloodied Israel’s nose then, they can do so again this time around.
In a short ground war, Hamas stands to benefit. Even if many of its leaders are killed, those who survive will be seen as the “tip of the spear” to fight Israel. It will further their objective of gaining supremacy in the long-running power struggle between Hamas’ Gaza and Cairo branches. In a longer war, Hamas’ fighters will be motivated, especially if defending their homes. If the battle is taken to Gaza City and includes house-to-house fighting, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) will suffer significant casualties. Furthermore, Hamas now has the support of Egypt which, ruled by the like-minded Muslim Brotherhood, has already recalled its ambassador to Israel. A long-term conflict with Gaza could make Egypt terminate its peace treaty with Israel. The consequences for Israel’s security would be incalculable.
In the short run it may seem justifiable to attack Gaza, but in the absence of a clear strategy and end-game, the results could end up being worse for Israel than when it attacked Gaza four years ago. Let’s consider the options.
The first is a short offensive, either an air war alone or one coupled with a short ground offensive into Gaza, followed by withdrawal after a few weeks. This could be a politically popular option if it causes few Israeli casualties and brings Hamas to heel. The diplomatic fallout would be limited, and it would preserve the military’s flexibility to deal with Iran. However, as with Operation Cast Lead, it would most likely not break Hamas. The best Israel can hope for would be a temporary lull while Hamas recoups and re-arms.
The second option is a long-term occupation of Gaza. This would no doubt be costly, brutal, and require the Israeli public to accept a weekly death count as its soldiers face the sort of ambushes and IEDs that are now the bane of American forces in Afghanistan. The IDF would risk overextending its forces, which already must devote significant resources to defending settlements in the West Bank, not to mention to preparing to contend with Iran. This scenario could play out much like Afghanistan, as the Gazans’ persistent resistance over years, wears down Israel’s resolve.
A third option is an occupation whose objective would be regime change. It would require measures to “pacify” the population of Gaza through charitable “nation-building” activities to win hearts and minds, as the Americans did in their postwar occupation of Japan and as they tried to do in Iraq. Pacification strategies are less costly, because they enlist the help of sympathetic locals who oppose the existing regime to form new governing elites. Thus, with this option, Israel would be able to work toward the clear goal of replacing Hamas with a Palestinian regime amenable to peaceful co-existence with Israel. Certainly this could be a path to a permanent solution to the problem of terrorism emanating from Gaza.
We do not hear Israeli officials discussing this approach in public. They may believe that Gaza is a tiger that cannot be tamed. But a more significant problem is Israel’s poor working relationship with the obvious choice to replace Hamas in Gaza–the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas. In recent years the Palestinian Authority has cooperated with Israeli security forces to arrest and eliminate Hamas operatives in the West Bank. It would like nothing better than to supplant Hamas in Gaza and once again be the only legitimate governing authority in Palestine. If only Israel were to support Abbas in his aim to have a Palestinian state, he would in all likelihood regard cooperation with Israel to regain control of Gaza as a win-win proposition.
Instead, by treating Abbas as an opponent instead of a partner for peace, Israel has squandered its main asset that could help it achieve regime change in Gaza. Instead of appreciating the history of cooperation with Abbas in security matters, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman calls for his ouster. And instead of giving Abbas legitimacy as the governing authority of Palestine, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pursues a policy of aggressive settlement expansion in the West Bank that has scuppered any chance of negotiating a two-state solution. Abbas, despairing of an agreement with Israel, has gone to the United Nations.
There is no getting around the linkage between Gaza and the larger problem of negotiating a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If managed properly, a two-state solution can also solve the Gaza problem. But the current hostilities between Israel and Gaza could very easily become a stumbling block to achieving such a solution.
Consider the diplomatic consequences of these hostilities, given the imminent passage of a UN General Assembly resolution granting Palestine observer state status. This writer has argued before that on November 29, when the international community affirms that Palestine is a state, a door will open to negotiations without conditions between the parties that can lead to a final settlement. Upon achievement of observer state status, Abbas has said he will drop as a precondition the demand that Israel cease settlement construction—a demand Israel has refused to honor. He indicated that he will negotiate with Israel even though they continue to build new settlements. With that stumbling block removed, Israel and Palestine would have no reason not to sit down and negotiate.
Successful negotiations after November 29 will require a period of calm, in which both sides refrain from the usual retaliatory actions and instead take advantage of the diplomatic opening. Yet many in Netanyahu’s government are so fixated on the tit-for-tat, business-as-usual paradigm of relations that they believe Abbas’s primary reason for seeking observer state status at the UN is to gain the right to begin prosecuting Israel in the International Criminal Court. This is a misreading of Abbas’s intentions. It is more than likely that Abbas wants to hold off on taking such a step in order to pursue a negotiated settlement.
But what if on November 29 an Israeli invasion force is sitting on Gazan soil, which is part of Palestine? In those circumstances, the indignation of his people could leave Abbas no choice but to go to the ICC in protest. Israel’s actions in Gaza will have made for a self-fulfilling prophecy, and another opportunity for negotiating a final two-state solution will have been wasted.
From a strategic perspective, Israel needs to make peace with the Palestinian Authority if it is to have the leverage it needs to defeat Hamas. Yes, Hamas is an immediate threat, while the West Bank has lived in relative peace with Israel. But for Israel to indulge in such short-term thinking, to simply put out fires without addressing their cause, is misguided. Blaming the conflict on Hamas instead of solving the problem of the West Bank makes the solution more intractable. An honorable and just peace with the Palestinian Authority, achieved through negotiations to establish a Palestinian state with borders at roughly 1967 lines adjusted for settlement blocs, is the only way to build up the strategic assets required to dislodge Hamas from Gaza once and for all.
In short, Israel should not even pursue the first option to its full extent. It should restrict its current campaign against Hamas to just one week and avoid a ground war. It should cease hostilities well before November 29, to give negotiations a chance. There is a way to solve the problem of terrorism in Gaza, but that path runs through Ramallah.
Andrew Wilson is co-author of the Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine (www.israel-palestine-border.org), an independent initiative to draw a map based on the principles of fairness, contiguity, access, minimizing dislocation of the population, and enhancing conditions for economic development.
[Photo courtesy of Israel Defense Forces' Photostream]