Gaza: Déjà vu … again?

From recent reports on planned Israeli responses to events in Gaza, one might be excused for thinking that the late Shimon Peres had returned from the hereafter, reincarnated in the form of the allegedly hawkish Avigdor Lieberman.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman
Martin Sherman
Martin Sherman
Martin Sherman spent seven years in operational capacities in the Israeli defense establishment. He is the founder of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a member of the Habithonistim-Israel Defense & Security Forum (IDSF) research team, and a participant in the Israel Victory Project.

An overwhelming majority [of the Palestinian public] demands the immediate halt to all measures taken by Abbas against the Gaza Strip and opposes the crackdown on demonstrations demanding an ending to these measures. Moreover, a two-thirds majority opposes Abbas’s demand for disarming armed factional battalions in the Gaza Strip. A majority is also opposed to Abbas’s demand that Hamas hand over the entire responsibility over the Gaza Strip to the reconciliation government, including ministries, the security sector, and the “arms.” — A sobering survey of current Palestinian public opinion, Palestinian Center for Policy & Survey Research, July 4, 2018

Gaza has the potential to become the Singapore of the Middle East. This would be good for the residents of Gaza, it would be good for Israel, and it would be good for the entire region — Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Aug. 15, 2018

On reading recent press reports on the planned Israeli response to the events in Gaza, one might well be excused for thinking, for a moment, that the late Shimon Peres had returned from the hereafter, reincarnated in the form of the allegedly hawkish Avigdor Lieberman, who apparently has now embraced Peres’s widely discredited vision of a “New Middle East.”

Regurgitating deceptive, disproven clichés

Indeed, it would appear that the Israeli security establishment, headed by Lieberman, presumably backed by the Israel Defense Forces high command, has become hostage to all the deceptive and disproven clichés that have dominated the discourse on Gaza and have led to the current dismal situation. Thus, the defense minister, in justifying the easing of certain restrictions on Gaza, proclaimed: “I differentiate between the Hamas leadership and the ordinary residents of the Gaza Strip.” 

While this “enlightened” and “nuanced” approach might win Lieberman “brownie points” in bon ton politically correct elites, it is gravely detached for factually correct realities on the ground.

For, although Lieberman might “differentiate between the Hamas leadership and the ordinary residents,” it would seem that the general public in Gaza tends not to. At least, if a recent poll, by the leading Palestinian public opinion research center (significantly conducted in June/July 2018, months after the current unrest began) is anything to go by, support for Hamas is eminently robust.

Thus, in response to a question asking if Abbas were not to stand for president in new elections “who do you want to be the president after him?,” a plurality of Gazans cited Hamas’s Ismael Haniyeh (28.2 percent). The only other candidate who came close was Fatah’s Marwan Barghouti (23.25 percent), currently in an Israeli prison serving multiple life sentences for the brutal slaughter of several Israeli civilians, which in itself is significantly indicative of the tenor of public sentiment in Gaza.

Indeed, all this appears to corroborate much of what I have contented repeatedly in the past, namely that the general population in Gaza is not a hapless victim of its (freely elected) leadership. To the contrary, it comprises the very crucible in which that leadership was formed and from which it emerged.

Calling for a coup

This diagnosis weighs heavily against Lieberman’s call to overthrow the Hamas regime.

Thus, on Wednesday, Lieberman announced, probably much to Hamas’s relief: “We do not want to return to the Strip. … We do not want to conquer it.”

However, he then went on to explain: “We want to get rid of the Hamas government [but] only by means of the Gaza residents themselves.

This, of course, raises the trenchant question: Even if the Gazans could depose Hamas, with whom would they replace it?

In this regard, the findings of the previously cited poll would seem to make this highly problematic.

Indeed, not only do they show that Hamas’s position does not appear to have been significantly undermined, but also that Gazans have a discernably greater distaste for the only other currently conceivable alternative: Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.

So, even months after the violence on the border flared up, only a small percentage of Gazans (less than a quarter)—and considerably less “West Bankers”—blamed Hamas for the dire socio-economic conditions in the enclave, while almost two-thirds blamed either Abbas/the P.A. (more than 36 percent), or Israel (almost 28 percent).

A clear majority of Gazans (58 percent), actually support the dissolution of the P.A. Likewise, a majority also rejects it as “a burden” on the Palestinian people (53.6 percent)—as opposed to barely 40 percent who see it as “an accomplishment.”

Large majorities in both Gaza and the West Bank oppose Abbas’s punitive measures imposed on Hamas and support their immediate removal (almost 75 percent in Gaza and significantly 80 percent in the West Bank). Similarly, almost two-thirds (both in Gaza and the West Bank) endorse preserving Hamas’s military capabilities, even if the P.A. takes over the governance of the Gaza Strip.

Wildly inappropriate analogies

After calling on the residents of Gaza, who show little sign of compliance to help pull the IDF chestnuts out of the fire, Lieberman then invokes some wildly inappropriate historical analogies to underpin the case for military reticence: The fall of the Soviet Union and the Arab Spring!

Calling for the public to prepare for the (very) long haul, the defense minister explained: “The longest war [presumably in modern history-MS] was the Cold War which lasted 45 years. The whole idea of the Cold War showed that it was impossible to topple the Communist regime by military force–only by imposing dilemmas on the public … ”


Is Lieberman seriously drawing some kind of comparison between a global stand-off between thermonuclear superpowers, like the USSR and the USA, with the conflict between the IDF, and an (as yet) irregular militia, like Hamas, devoid (as yet) of genuinely strategic weaponry—such as an air force, navy and heavy armor?

One can only hope not!

For unlike the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) syndrome that prevailed between Washington and Moscow, no such daunting specter hovers over the prospect of military conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Moreover, given how Hamas has enhanced its offensive capabilities since 2005, if there is a serious concern as to what weaponry it might acquire/develop in the future, surely to strike now, before they have it, would be preferable to delaying such action until they do?

No guarantee of a more compliant successor

Lieberman continued with his improbable historical analogies: “Likewise, in the Arab Spring, the population, when they had no food to eat, deposed the regime.

The Arab Spring? Gee, Mr. Minister, are you sure you want to bring that up? How’s the “Spring” working out in Libya? Yemen? Syria? Even in Egypt, where the “Spring”-induced disaster has re-ensconced dictatorship?

Is this the kind of recommended outcome he envisages for Gaza?

Of course, the use of the example of the Arab Spring does at least serve one useful purpose. It demonstrates, as do the examples of Iran and Iraq, that bringing down a regime, however deplorable—does not ensure a more agreeable, compliant successor in the future.

So, even if Israel could engineer the fall of Hamas, it could not really be sure who its successors would be, or how they would behave once in power—under pressures they are likely to encounter, given the clear preferences of the population, as reflected in the cited survey—or if they could even sustain their hold on power against domestic radicals or ascendant jihadi elements, prowling the adjacent Sinai peninsula.

Clearly then, unlike the situation in Iran, where any successor regime will almost certainly be less aggressive and radical than the current one, overthrowing the Hamas regime is a move likely to have a number of unforeseen and unfortunate consequences.

The unpersuasive ‘two-front’ fable

Some have tried to explain away the IDF’s clear aversion to military action in Gaza, by invoking the two-front argument, according to which Israel should avoid a major engagement with Gaza, because it considers the northern front, with Hezbollah, Syria and Iran, the greater threat and therefore, should focus its effort there rather than in the south.

As I pointed out last week, this contention is, to be charitable, unpersuasive. After all, if the IDF is genuinely concerned over the danger in the north and wishes to avoid having to fight on two fronts—what could be more counterproductive than leaving Hamas’s military capabilities intact, to be employed at any time of its choosing? After all, what could be a more opportune time to do so than during an engagement in the north?

Indeed, if the IDF were reluctant to attack Hamas when not engaged in the north, how much more difficult would this be if it was, especially if, as has invariably happened in the past, Hamas utilized the interbellum quiet to upgrade its capabilities!

Accordingly, if anything, the specter of a two-front confrontation militates towards abandoning restraint in favor of more robust and resolute action that could obviate the prospective problem before it emerges.

Delaying conflict will exacerbate, not avert, it

Indeed, Israel’s reluctance for an assertive response to ongoing aggression is even more puzzling (and perturbing) in light of Lieberman’s own recent assessment that a future clash is inevitable. After all, barely three days ago, he declared that the next round of fighting in the Gaza Strip was a “matter of when, not if.

Fending off criticism at perceived IDF inaction, Lieberman contended that: “We are implementing a responsible and forceful security policy. A responsible security policy is not a response, not to online commenters, not to newspaper headlines and not to public opinion.”

However, while Israel has been conducting “a responsible and forceful security policy” and doggedly disregarding “online comments, newspaper headlines and public opinion,” both Hamas in the South and Hezbollah in the North have been developing capabilities never imagined barely a decade ago—evolving from a tactical nuisance to a serious strategic threat. This clearly underscores what should of course be painfully obvious: Postponing inevitable conflict does not avert it, but only exacerbates it.

Accordingly, perhaps the heads of the Israel defense establishment would do well to revisit the advice of Otto von Bismarck (1815-1890) who counseled: “No government, if it regards war as inevitable, even if it does not want it, would be so foolish as to wait for the moment which is most convenient for the enemy.”

One would indeed hope so!

It is perhaps a little early to pass final judgment on Israel’s policy towards Gaza, but the emerging indications give little cause for optimism.

For what appears in the offing seems much of the same, repeating what has been tried before—in effect rewarding Hamas for weeks of violence, instead of penalizing it—based on the recurring defective logic of “managing the conflict,” which, in fact, is little more than “maintaining the conflict.” After all, if continued violence brings continued returns, why should anyone expect it to be discontinued?

“The Gaza can be Singapore” delusion is based on the illusion that the Gazans can morph into something they have never been for the last hundred years and display little hint of doing so in the foreseeable future. To promote this fanciful chimera, its proponents have conjured up an imaginary Gazan public, docile and yearning to live in peace and prosperity beside a thriving Jewish Israel.

The results of this policy are likely to be as ill-fated as the assumptions, on which it is based, are ill-conceived.

Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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