Last December, Hamas unilaterally ended its ceasefire with Israel and escalated the kind of cross-border attacks continually attempted even during the ceasefire. With massive public support, Israel struck back against a neighboring regime which daily attacked its citizens and called for its extermination.
For decades, Israel’s history shows a general pattern: its neighbors attack, Israel responds, Israel wins the war, and the world rushes to ensure that its victory is limited or nullified. If, as sometimes happens, the diplomatic process really improves the situation and provides progress for peace that, of course, is beneficial.
Yet Israel’s experience has shown that international promises made in return for its material concessions are often broken. Most recently, in 2006 the international community pledged to keep Hizballah out of south Lebanon and curb its arms’ supply, failed totally, yet took no action in response to this defeat. Israel is understandably skeptical.
In addition, Israelis know that Hamas is totally dedicated to their personal and collective destruction. The group will not moderate, cannot be bought off, and will not respect any agreement it makes. As a result, the usual kinds of diplomatic tools—concessions, confidence-building, agreements, moderation resulting from having governmental responsibilities, will not work. Any solution short of Hamas’s fall from power will bring more fighting in future.
What should happen is that the international community cooperates in the removal of the Hamas regime. It is an illegal government, brought to power by an unprovoked war against the Palestinian Authority (PA) which was the internationally recognized regime in the Gaza Strip. Hamas may have won the elections but it then seized total power, suspended representative government, and destroyed the opposition.
Moreover, Hamas is a radical terrorist group which openly uses antisemitic rhetoric and actively seeks to wipe Israel off the map. It oppresses the Palestinian population and leads them into endless war. It teaches young Palestinians that their career goal should not be as a teacher, engineer, or doctor but as a suicide bomber.
From a strategic standpoint, Hamas is a member of the Iran-Syria alliance which seeks to overthrow every Arab regime in the Middle East and replace it with an anti-Western, war-oriented, radical Islamist dictatorship. Hamas’s survival is a big threat to both Western interests and to those of Arab nationalist regimes. Keeping Hamas in power is equivalent to an energetic Western diplomatic effort to have kept the Taliban regime in power in Afghanistan, despite its role in the September 11 attacks.
If, however, the world is not going to support Hamas’s fall from office, Israel cannot bring about this result by itself. At the same time, the world will be making a big mistake if it pushes for a ceasefire at any price, thus encouraging future violence and terrorism, not only regarding Gaza but also in the region generally.
What then are Israel’s options?
Two possible outcomes are rejected: Israel will not take control of the Gaza Strip again, and Israel will not accept a return to the previous situation in which Hamas repeatedly attacked Israel under cover of a ceasefire.
There are at least six major things Israel can obtain realistically:
- The practical weakening of Hamas. Granted it will continue to be aggressive in future, its losses will reduce Hamas’s ability to hurt Israeli citizens.
- Deterrence, while retaining its longer-term goals, Hamas will be more reluctant to attack Israel lest it produce another such Israeli response.
- Border control, a change from the situation in which Hamas can import weapons fairly freely to a stricter order in which humanitarian aid but not arms can come in.
- The return of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, seized in a Hamas attack on Israeli soil and held hostage, lacking any contact with international humanitarian groups.
- A reduction of Hamas’s standing among Palestinians. Despite macho and religious rhetoric about Hamas’s strength, Gaza Palestinians are more eager for a return of the PA; West Bank citizens, living under more moderate PA rule, realize that extremism is disastrous.
- Regional perception of Hamas’s defeat, lowering support for the Iran-Syria alliance and encouraging more moderate Arab forces to resist radical Islamism and Tehran’s power.
Despite this being the best realistic program, Israel also knows significant factors that might mean it won’t work entirely:
- Hamas will break any agreement and not change.
- The international community is weak and contains tendencies toward appeasing extremists to avoid trouble.
- Egypt even when well-intended is not so efficient at controlling the border.
Thus, even this best-case scenario has problems. First, Hamas will return to building up its forces for future confrontations, teaching a whole generation that it should prepare to sacrifice itself to achieve a “final solution” of the Israel problem. In short, any outcome that leaves Hamas in place is at best a lull until the next round.
Second, it is quite possible that within days or weeks of any agreement, Hamas—partly to prove to itself and others how it remains unbowed—will return to firing rockets and mortar rounds into Israel as well as trying to carry out terrorist attacks across the border. In that case, Israel will have to respond much more seriously than it has in the past to such behavior. A world which guarantees the ceasefire better be prepared to remember Israel’s legitimate interests in enforcing it.
Finally, as long as Hamas survives as rulers of the Gaza Strip, it will be impossible to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The PA will be too intimidated to make compromises and cannot even deliver its own people. There can be no Palestinian state with half the territory being controlled by an organization which will never accept an agreement and will do everything possible to wreck it.
“Saving” Hamas and making the main or sole priority pushing for a ceasefire at any price is a very short-sighted policy for the international community which will be paid for in future. If the Gaza war is going to be ended, it should be in the framework of solving the problems that let Hamas create the war in the first place.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA and other GLORIA Center publications or to order books, visit http://www.gloriacenter.org.