(April 2, 2019 / JNS)
Despite the efforts to secure understandings with Hamas for a ceasefire, Israel is struggling to restore peace and quiet along the Gaza border. The rocket fire at Gaza-adjacent communities continues unabated, together with violent disturbances on the border fence, incendiary balloons and even infiltration attempts.
In light of the difficulties involved in establishing a modicum of calm along the border, some Israelis are calling on the Israel Defense Forces to enter and reconquer the Gaza Strip.
The IDF is undoubtedly capable of doing so. The question is not how many days it would take for the army to defeat Hamas, but rather, what would happen the day after? More specifically, how much time would Israel have to before it is forced to remove its forces under an onslaught of international pressure? And even if U.S. President Donald Trump fully backs the Israeli government, we must still consider the Israeli public’s patience before it starts calling on the government to return the boys home and leave Gaza to the Gazans—in other words, abandon them to Hamas yet again.
We can, of course, hope against hope that the Egyptians or even Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas will agree to govern Gaza on their own. However, we can’t realistically expect the Egyptians to voluntarily spill their own blood in a fight to topple Hamas, and Abbas is likely incapable of imposing his rule in Gaza, which he lost to Hamas a decade ago.
In Israel, there are those who seemingly want to turn Hamas into Hezbollah. After all, this is the implication of their calls to establish a “Lebanese quiet” along the Gaza border: Completely disengage from Gaza under an umbrella of agreements and understandings with Hamas, similar to those with Hezbollah. To secure complete quiet along the Gaza border, however, Hamas must not only be as strong as Hezbollah, but free of the restrictions and blockades currently squeezing it.
Hamas has never been more isolated in the Arab world and international arena.
To be sure, even those who hail the quiet on the northern border cannot ignore the price: Hezbollah has armed itself with more than 100,000 missiles, which could blanket the majority of Israeli territory. It’s not certain that fleeting peace and quiet on the Gaza border is worth such a price.
It’s important to note that the current calm along the northern border could also come with an expiration date, after which we will learn yet again that the missiles in Hezbollah’s warehouses haven’t rusted quite as fast as hoped, and that the gun from the first act will reappear in the last act shooting.
The prevailing situation on the border with Gaza is uncomfortable for Israel, but it mustn’t be turned into a defeat and certainly not into a victory for Hamas. The only place Hamas is winning is in the Israeli press, which either for political reasons or a thirst for “ratings” is painting a battered terrorist organization as the victor.
Hamas is in a Catch-22. It is flailing and kicking against the rising tides, mired in a war for survival it can’t truly win. Its fight is to keep its head above water, nothing more. During its rule, Hamas has turned the Strip into a disaster zone. The people there are suffering unprecedented economic despair. They and their children have no hope for a better future. Now Hamas is sending Gaza’s youth to die at the border fence in a futile protest campaign.
Hamas has never been more isolated in the Arab world and international arena. It is wedged between the Egyptian hammer and Israeli anvil, and looks to be losing the support of the people in Gaza, who hold it responsible for their calamitous situation.
When Hamas is battered and weak, it has nothing to lose, which explains Israel’s struggle to deter it sufficiently. In its weakness, however, Hamas is also willing to accept the crumbs Israel is offering: salary payments for civil servants and insignificant funds for economic initiatives to help it survive the month, not longer.
Similar to its fights with other enemies in the region, Israel’s battle with Hamas won’t end in some form of a magic knock-out punch. It is an ongoing struggle where the side that is most steadfast and capable of self-restraint will emerge victoriously.
Hamas is driving quickly towards a dead end, devoid of hope for a future. Neither a military clash with Israel nor an arrangement with it will alter this reality.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.