(June 5, 2019 / JCPA) Since Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” ended in 2014, there have been eight waves of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel, all resulting in fierce Israeli retaliation. All eight rounds of escalation occurred following the beginning of the “March of Return” in March 2018, also known as the Gaza border protests, and the decision of the Palestinian Authority to stop delivering funds to Gaza that it used to transfer as part of the long-standing arrangement between the P.A. and the de facto Hamas government in Gaza.
Most of the incidents were brief, usually ending with renewed commitments to implement a ceasefire agreement and a show of commitment to reach a lasting agreement. These ceasefires are usually attained following an increase in the severity of the Israel Defense Forces response that causes significant damage to Hamas personnel and infrastructure. However, the specifics of these ceasefires are not always agreed upon, or are either not fully implemented or not implemented at all.
Indeed, the Palestinian leadership in Gaza did not pledge to stop the protests along the Gaza fence altogether, but rather to keep Gazans from nearing the fence. In reality, this commitment is simply another facet of Hamas’s strategy of maintaining “controlled violence” along the border, where it tries to dictate the beginning and end of each violent encounter.
Observing the eight rounds of fighting in their entirety, it becomes apparent that Israel is actually engaged in one prolonged, episodic war, which has its own goals and modus operandi. Each round of fighting is simply a part of a larger protracted “confrontation” in which there is a repetitive pattern. First, an event triggers the escalation. Israel then reacts to the trigger in a restricted manner, striking Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) positions. Then, the various factions in Gaza begin intensifying rocket fire at Israel’s entire southern civilian region, which results in forceful Israeli retaliatory strikes.
The Palestinians then attempt to negotiate ceasefires under their own conditions (brokered primarily by Egypt) while simultaneously escalating rocket fire, reaching deeper into Israeli territory. Israel does not agree to the initial Palestinian ceasefire conditions, and ups its response by an additional level, targeting major Hamas and PIJ infrastructure. Hamas has no choice at that point but to agree to the Israeli ceasefire conditions and everyone returns to “life as normal” … until the start of the next round.
The logic on each side
Unfortunately, it seems that despite the heavy cost of this ongoing confrontation to both sides, not much has changed on the ground since it began in May 2018, roughly two months after the March of Return commenced.
Israel still has no intention of lifting the Gaza blockade (thereby lifting restrictions for the entry into Gaza of dual-use goods that may help terrorist groups operating there improve their military capabilities). However, it is willing to soften some limitations on economic activity in Gaza and ease the process of investment in Gaza infrastructure. Egypt still closely monitors Gaza, allowing limited movement of Palestinians from Gaza into Egyptian territory and vice versa. Hamas, on the other hand, remains wholly determined to continue the riots along the Gaza fence. Qatar, for its part, shows a reluctant readiness to foot some of the bills necessary to aid the Gazans. Last but not least, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas remains steadfast in his refusal to supply P.A. funds to Hamas.
The only things which have truly changed due to this “war of many rounds” are the damage to infrastructure in Gaza and Israel (which can be repaired to an extent), and more importantly the lives of the families of the five dead and 282 wounded Israelis, and the 42 dead and approximately 280 wounded Palestinians.
Given all this, it is imperative to assess why the Palestinians continue to perpetrate these atrocities.
First, they appear to genuinely fear Israel’s military might and the possibility that it will renege on its promises outlined in any agreement. Second, Hamas and the PIJ seemingly feel the need to prove to themselves, their constituency and their Iranian patrons that they are not becoming complacent. They must show that they are not solely focused on running the daily lives of the Gazan residents, and have not lost their revolutionary and jihadi identity. Third, it is possible that they feel obligated from time to time to serve the interest of Iran, their chief patron, and provoke an escalation to convey a message to Israel and the United States that they can cause substantial harm to the main U.S. ally in the Middle East. This service to Iran comes in the context of the growing tension between Washington and Tehran. Fourth, the escalations aim to distract the population of the Gaza Strip from the economic and humanitarian crisis unfolding there and mobilize them for the “higher” purpose of fighting the evil Zionists.
Finally, it appears that Hamas believes that through these rounds they can ease the closure of Gaza somewhat, and gain economic assistance from Qatar while blaming Abbas for the difficulties in Gaza, and try to pressure Abbas, Egypt, Qatar and Israel to improve living conditions in Gaza.
In other words, this many-round war is not being waged to change the situation on the ground. Rather, the purpose of these escalations is the escalations themselves. The rounds of fighting are used in a manner akin to how the March of Return is used: to strengthen the spirit of struggle against Israel among the Palestinians in Gaza and beyond.
This war, from Israel’s point of view, raises major questions regarding its long-term policy towards Gaza. Currently, its strategy is predicated on the notion of “quiet in return for quiet,” reflecting Israel’s interest in avoiding escalation and readiness to live with the status quo.
Israel’s willingness to live with a terrorist organization running the lives of two million people adjacent to its territory stems from the lack of any feasible alternative to Hamas. Israel is capable of constraining and containing this threat, so it has limited incentive for the time being to pay the price of removing Hamas from power.
Israel uses a combination of tools (military operations, security blockade, economic pressure and incentives, cooperation with Arab states) to keep Hamas powerful enough so that it can control the more extreme elements in Gaza. Israel allows Hamas a monopoly on the use of force in Gaza, which makes Hamas an accountable address for Israel, while at the same time keeping Hamas weak enough that it is deterred from launching attacks against Israel.
Israel is interested in improving the lives of the Gazan population. It strives to facilitate this by encouraging foreign Arab investment in the Gazan economy, and the delivery of humanitarian aid. Israel has repeatedly shown its willingness to entertain procedures that would help Gazans improve their quality of life, despite the complicated relationship between Israel and Gaza. This is why Israel supports the efforts to develop a “regularization” of civilian life in Gaza.
Israel’s strategy is contingent on coordination with Egypt since it shares a border with Gaza and has a considerable impact on Israel’s ability to achieve the above goals. Egypt is happy to coordinate with Israel on this matter due to their overlapping interests, specifically the quelling of radical Islamic elements in Gaza to prevent them from strengthening similar radical elements in Egypt, especially in the Sinai.
It is advantageous for Israel to have the P.A. and Hamas separated. That being said, Israel would not place obstacles in front of potential Palestinian reconciliation, though this event seems unlikely at the moment.
Israel is resolute regarding the need to minimize collateral damage to the residents of Gaza, as to do otherwise contradicts Israel’s moral values, interests, and commitment to international law, in addition to damaging Israel’s international legitimacy.
Israel wishes to ensure that second-tier conflicts like the ones with Gaza do not hinder its ability to focus on first-tier threats such as Iran, which has enlarged its presence on Israel’s northern front.
Israel is well aware that as long as Hamas’s patrons like Turkey, Qatar and Iran are preoccupied with more urgent problems, Hamas is unable to drastically alter its current situation without conceding to some of Israel’s demands.
Re-assessing Israel’s policy
The problem with Israel’s Gaza strategy is that it is no longer clear to what extent Hamas is capable of preserving a monopoly over the use of force in Gaza, controlling PIJ (Iran’s main proxy in the Strip) and controlling elements within its own military wing. Hamas is more powerful than PIJ by several orders of magnitude and enjoys relatively good coordination with it. However, some of the more recent rounds of escalation have indicated that PIJ maintains a level of independence in its firing policy. If Hamas is ill-equipped to control PIJ, as well as its own military wing—as was previous few rounds of fighting indicate—then is it still in Israel’s interest to keep Hamas in power, when it causes the residents of southern Israel to suffer?
Israel’s objective in each round is to hit Hamas with such force that it is incentivized to check the growing boldness of the other factions and keep its own military wing in check. As each round came to a close, Israel believed it had accomplished this task. Yet it soon realized that it had erred in its judgment. Hamas cannot or does not wish to curtail the other factions’ “errant” barrages.
As a result of this recurrent mistake, Israel must conduct a deep reassessment of its strategy concerning Gaza. If Hamas cannot deliver long-lasting calm and stability, regardless of whether it wants to or not, then it is illogical to continue with the present strategy.
Israel has two options in the face of this dilemma. One is to toughen its response to rocket fire from Gaza and be more forthcoming regarding Hamas’s economic demands, and to convince Hamas to maintain calm similar to that experienced between 2015-2018 when a relatively few (68) rockets were fired. Alternatively, it must take the undesirable step of removing Hamas from power once and for all.
The price of removing Hamas from power would be severe. In the short term, and probably in the long term as well, the price would be greater than that of almost any other alternative. However, while grave, the price would be of a different kind than the one Israel currently pays, namely allowing vast swaths of the Israeli public to live under the enduring physical and psychological threat of rocket fire.
None of the possible strategies can solve the fundamental issue, which is that the population of Gaza is comprised primarily of descendants of Palestinian refugees who have been indoctrinated by their leadership to believe that they are duty-bound to fight against Zionism until they can return to their ancestral homes in Israel. This narrative perpetuates the conflict and makes a political solution nigh impossible. The slogans that call for Israel to reach a political solution to the conflict are, unfortunately, detached from reality. Hamas and PIJ control of the Strip exacerbates this problem, but it was and probably will remain true under Fatah rule as well.
The Palestinians in Gaza truly desire to live better lives. Regrettably, they do not see this goal as more vital than the struggle against the State of Israel.
The Trump administration’s upcoming “deal of the century” is ostensibly focused on improving economic conditions in Gaza, which everyone would welcome with open arms. However, if it is conditioned on a Palestinian promise to compromise their vow to eternally struggle against Israel and Zionism, the deal will be dead on arrival from a Palestinian point of view.
Until Israel conducts such a strategy reassessment, the “war of many rounds” will probably continue.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center. He formerly served as director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the research division of IDF Military Intelligence.