(May 7, 2019 / JNS) We have to put the truth on the table: There is no alternative to Israel’s current strategy in Gaza.
Anyone who envisions a scenario involving toppling Hamas and installing the Palestinian Authority in Gaza needs to take into account that such an endeavor would entail full Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and assuming responsibility for the territory’s 2 million people. It’s doubtful that the P.A. will be able to take that responsibility on itself if it returns to Gaza under the wings of the Israeli army, and as our history in Lebanon proves, we don’t have a record of success when it comes to imposing new political orders in the region.
Hamas, therefore, is the default option. To be sure, it is a murderous terrorist organization dedicated to the elimination of Israel, but as crazy as it sounds, the current situation also has its advantages. The Hamas regime absolves Israel of responsibility for the fate of Gaza’s downtrodden populace, and also stymies the spread of forces more radical than even itself, which are operating in the Sinai Peninsula and are affiliated with the Islamic State group.
For nearly 15 years Israel has sought to strike a balance between keeping Hamas in power and limiting its strength to mitigate the security threat it poses. The escalation that has characterized the past year—mass border riots, incendiary kites and explosive balloons, rocket fire at Gaza-area communities and more recently at central Israel—indicates that Hamas has assumed a far more aggressive posture.
But this doesn’t mean that Israel needs to abandon its strategy, which is predicated on valid axioms. Israel need only modify its strategy to a certain extent, based on a willingness to ease the “blockade” on Gaza, which indeed exacerbates the economic situation and spurs Hamas to be increasingly aggressive. Israel has already decided in principle to move towards an arrangement and has been engaging in Egyptian-mediated talks. With that, it has also become increasingly apparent that an arrangement can never materialize if Israel doesn’t exude a willingness to launch a comprehensive military operation in Gaza.
The catch is that Israel doesn’t want such an operation, and Israeli society struggles to accept military casualties. The Israel Defense Forces, as the people’s army, has internalized this. In recent years its commanders have preferred to fight wars via remote control, mainly from the air, but this lacks the effect necessary to deter our enemies. On one hand, the Iron Dome missile defense system minimizes the cost of this chronic conflict in Gaza, and on the other, it contributes to Israeli acceptance of this prevailing reality, characterized by endless rounds of fighting.
This is exactly where lies the paradox Israel’s leadership needs to understand: Ensuring stability and bolstering the chances for an arrangement actually depends on undermining the existing dynamic by striking a major blow. Remembrance Day events, Independence Day celebrations and the Eurovision song contest this week all render this option moot for now; and at any rate the element of surprise doesn’t currently exist.
Israel, however, can certainly make preparations to strike a lethal blow against Hamas in Gaza the moment these festivities end. A painful blow of this sort wouldn’t reflect any Israeli belief in the illusion of reshaping the political order or regime in Gaza. However, it will push Hamas, which fears for its survival and rule, towards a significant diplomatic arrangement that could possibly coincide with U.S. President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” and the economic initiatives it might possibly introduce to the region.
Doron Matza is a Research Fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
This column first appeared on the Israel Hayom website.