Looking Back to the Future in Gaza

Israel’s campaign will not destroy Hamas, argues Paul Scham. It will only reinstate the status quo.

By: /
30 July, 2014
By: Paul Scham
Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland

For the majority of people who are watching the current war in Gaza with sympathy for all of those being killed and dispossessed, and even for those whose empathy is confined to just one side, the current situation is bewildering and frustrating. Ceasefires are repeatedly postponed and rejected by one side or another; demands that appear reasonable but contradictory are leveled, and both sides accuse each other of horrendous war crimes. Why is this macabre dance continuing? Everyone knows there will be a ceasefire fairly soon and that it will largely be a return to the status quo ante? Why the delay?

The answer is not simple, nor is it invidious. Both sides are playing a long-term strategic game with one another, and both assume—correctly—that this will not be the last of these mini-wars. Neither side wants to grant “legitimacy” (an elusive concept at best) to the other, and needs to guard its own. And both sides have frustrated and angry constituencies to satisfy, or at least pacify (even authoritarian governments worry about public opinion, and we should not forget that Hamas was elected in one of the freest and fairest elections in the Middle East).

Every government tries to intertwine its own political survival with the fundamental interests of the country and population it governs. That provides it with the legitimacy it needs to function. Indeed, most do that in good faith whether they are democratic, authoritarian, or despotic. To understand the current conflict in Gaza, it is essential to realize that Hamas is now in the most desperate straits it has been in since its founding. This desperation has taken hold for a variety of reasons: a loss of diplomatic support from Egypt, Syria, and Iran; a loss of revenue from the tunnels to Egypt that enabled it to evade the Israeli blockade; and a consequent desperate economic situation now exacerbated by the huge amount of destruction in the current war. See Nathan Thrall’s piece in the New York Times, demonstrating how both “the West” and Israel have weakened Hamas over the past year.

While one would think that would redound to the benefit of Hamas’s existential enemy, Israel, this is not necessarily the case. Recently, Hamas accepted the PLO’s primacy in a reconciliation agreement it had long resisted after Kerry’s peace process failed and also tried hard to stop its more radical factions from firing rockets at Israel. Indeed, a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation seems very much in Israel’s interest and Hamas appears willing to subsume its pernicious ideology to the demands of survival. Hamas showed its willingness to negotiate in the coalition agreement, but Tel Aviv wrongly interpreted it as Hamas’ triumph rather than its near surrender. The very fragility of its existence explains why Hamas refuses ceasefire terms. Indeed, no sane person corners a wounded bear, but that is exactly what Tel Aviv has done to Hamas, and it reacted predictably.

This explanation accounts for Hamas’ reactions, something that few seem interested in doing. Its leadership is not crazy, nor is it fanatic. While its rhetoric and ideology are often problematic, its political decisions are generally carefully thought out and rational. Put simply, it is not launching rockets because it thinks that will destroy Israel; rather, that is the only thing it can do to ensure its survival. Its preconditions for a ceasefire are not apocalyptic in the slightest; rather, they are what would enable it—and Gaza’s population as well—to survive.

Israel has known for years that it cannot “destroy” Hamas, both because of the extreme destruction and death such an operation would entail and, at least as important, because Israel would then have to govern the territory. Tel Aviv has been there and done that and never wants to again. It also cannot hand it over to someone else; no one would want it except the Palestinian Authority—and even the PA would be ill equipped to take on the challenges of governing the territory.

Israel has long insisted that Hamas exists solely to destroy Israel and that it will never accept Israel’s existence. Therefore, it reasons that only the periodic destruction of Hamas’ military capacity will (temporarily) stop Hamas attacks. Thus it “mows the lawn” (yes, that is the real euphemism) every two or three years. A ceasefire is unlikely so long as Netanyahu believes that Hamas hasn’t been adequately set back in its operations.

What Tel Aviv ignores are the political and internal dynamics Hamas is subject to, and the fact that Hamas is neither monolithic nor monomaniacal. As Gershom Gorenberg’s article “This Is Your Brain on War” makes clear, wars distort judgment. Israelis want to behave towards Hamas as if it is Nazi Germany, which it is clearly not—whether it would like to be or not. Moreover, Israel’s inability or unwillingness to compromise with Abbas in the West Bank means that it has to coexist with Hamas. And coexistence requires allowing the other side to live and breathe.

The circle will eventually be squared when the toll of death and destruction eventually reach some invisible limit for both sides. The United States is already insisting on a ceasefire and, despite unprecedented Israeli resistance, one will eventually be accepted. Its terms will probably leave some of these questions open, but if they are not solved, the grass will be mowed again in another two or three years, and the cycle will continue.

Given the huge and asymmetric power differential, this situation is not existential for Israel, though many Israelis see it as such. In fact, it is more existential for the people of Gaza—and certainly for Hamas.

In spite of commentary arguing the opposite, Israel can indeed coexist with Hamas for quite a while and it may have to.

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