After two weeks of fighting along the border with Gaza, there is a growing sense that the Israeli government is starting to realize that its assumptions about how to obtain Prime Minister Netanyahu’s goal of “sustainable quiet” may have been all wrong. But if the Israelis are being forced reluctantly to reassess their beliefs about how Hamas could be forced to stop shooting, the question remains whether the Obama administration is up to speed about the changing rules in the conflict.
Up until now both Israel and the U.S. have thought Hamas would eventually stop firing rockets at cities or sending terrorists across the borders if Israel struck back hard enough. That is not to say that the two allies saw eye-to-eye about every aspect of the conflict, since the Obama administration clearly believed that Israel should respond to rocket attacks or other forms of terrorism with limited counter-attacks that would do nothing to significantly impair Hamas’s arsenal or its ability to re-ignite the border if it wished. But both governments were prepared to leave Hamas in place in Gaza since the cost of removing it was considered prohibitively high and there didn’t appear to be a viable alternative. Israel’s standing offer of “quiet for quiet” was usually enough for the Islamists once they had fired enough rockets to show Palestinians that they were still the address for “resistance” to the Israelis.
But now it appears that Hamas is prepared to bank on the assumption that nothing they do–no matter how bloody or unreasonable, such as a continuous shooting of rockets at Israeli cities and cross-border infiltration attempts–would be enough to convince the Israelis that they were not better off allowing the Islamist terror group to remain in power. Though Hamas’s long-range goals remain the overthrow of their erstwhile Fatah partners in the Palestinian Authority and to gain control of the West Bank and to destroy Israel, their immediate objectives in the current outbreak are different. They want to force Egypt to open its borders and the smuggling tunnels to Gaza as well as to get the Israelis to release more terrorist prisoners.
As Avi Isacharoff writes in the Times of Israel, though the Israelis are winning in a tactical sense because its Iron Dome missile defense has frustrated the rocket attacks and their army is making progress in eliminating some of Hamas terrorist infrastructure, Hamas thinks it is winning the war. Their confidence rests in a belief that sooner or later the Israelis will be forced to stop by international pressure that will build as a result of the deaths of Palestinian civilians that are being deliberately jeopardized by Hamas tactics. At the same time, they think the pressure from the Arab world will also eventually force Egypt to give them what they want. As Isacharoff notes, the real battle lines are not so much between the Israel Defense Forces and the terrorists but between Hamas and its foreign allies Qatar and Turkey and the loose coalition of Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. Hamas thinks Egypt will fold and end their isolation if the pile of the compatriots is piled high enough:
In a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo on Wednesday, Moussa Abu Marzouk, the deputy head of Hamas’s political bureau, dismissed Abbas’s pleas regarding a ceasefire, explaining that “what are 200 martyrs compared with lifting the siege [on the Gaza Strip?]” Abu Marzouk later tweeted that there will be no truce that does not acknowledge the demands of the “resistance,” and that it is “better that Israel occupy the Gaza Strip than for the siege to continue.” Abu Marzouk, needless to say, resides in Cairo, far from the threat of Israeli air strikes.
Seen from that perspective, there is virtually nothing Israel can do to quiet the border. So long as Hamas thinks it can count on Israeli caution and pressure from the U.S. and the international community to ensure that it remains in control of the strip, the fighting will continue until the terrorists get what they want. After weeks of waiting patiently for the rockets to stop before ordering troops into Gaza in what is still a limited campaign, Netanyahu may be waking up to the fact that the stakes have been altered in the conflict. There are signs, albeit tentative ones, that his government is realizing that nothing short of ending the Hamas’s control of Gaza will end the current nightmare in which much of the Israeli population is being forced to take shelter from rocket fire.
Israel would be forced to pay a terrible price if it chose to re-occupy the strip, oust Hamas, capture its rocket arsenal, and destroy the vast network of tunnels and bunkers that have turned it into a terrorist Gibraltar. That price would be paid in the blood of Israeli soldiers and the Palestinians that are being used as human shields. Hamas’s assumption is that the Israeli people would not be willing to endure such casualties and the world wouldn’t tolerate such a military operation.
Writing from Jerusalem, it’s difficult to judge whether their assumptions about Israeli opinion still hold. There is no doubt that if the death toll rises, the number of left-wing demonstrators against Netanyahu will increase as will public unease about the conflict. But Hamas’s great “victory”–the fact that so many Israelis have been forced into shelters–also works against their belief that they have impunity. If air strikes and a limited ground operation don’t end the threat to their security, Netanyahu would probably not be wrong in thinking that he will have sufficient support to sustain a counter-attack that will finish Hamas once and for all.
Thus rather than continuing to carp from the sidelines at Israeli efforts or wasting more time in pointless diplomacy that does nothing to shake Hamas’s assumptions about the strength of its position, it is time for the United States to wake up and realize that its interests are also at stake in this battle. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry must understand that what is truly an “unsustainable status quo” is not the Israeli control of the West Bank but Hamas’s hold on Gaza. If there is ever to be any hope for a two-state solution–and admittedly, that hope is so faint these days as to be barely alive–it must begin with Hamas’s complete defeat and its replacement in Gaza by more moderate forces. Nothing short of that will end the bloodshed or begin the process whereby Israelis might be convinced that a withdrawal from the West Bank would not create another, even more lethal Hamasistan on their borders.
The best thing the U.S. could do to both stop the fighting and help the Palestinians trapped in Hamas’s deadly game would be to signal to the Islamists and their foreign allies that it is prepared to support an Israeli campaign that will oust them from Gaza and replace them with Fatah. Perhaps if they understood that their survival is at stake, the euphoria among the Hamas leadership about their “victories” will abate and quiet will follow. But unless that happens, it will soon be time for Israel and the U.S. to realize that they must adjust their strategies to account for their new, higher stakes in Gaza.