The Long War Against Hamas
Israel’s Gaza dilemma ELLIOTT ABRAMS 8-4-14
The Gaza war of 2014 will end in a cease-fire, just as the previous rounds between Israel and Hamas and the 2006 battle with Hezbollah ended. But the war will be won or lost less in the streets and tunnels of Gaza this summer than when the fighting is over. Israel must not only damage Hamas on those battlegrounds, but seal its own gains in the terms of the cease-fire, and ensure that the aftermath of the war weakens Hamas’s hold on Gaza and its role in Palestinian politics.
This summer, Israel had no choice but to attack Hamas once the terrorist group decided to unleash rocket and missile fire at Israel’s cities, a point that not only the United States but even our fickle European allies understood. The discovery—new to us in the West even if partially understood by Israeli intelligence agencies—of a vast attack tunnel system designed to enable Hamas to kidnap Israelis and to wreak havoc in Israeli communities near the Gaza border also justified the Israeli assault and meant that a ground attack was necessary.
When the combat ends, it will not immediately be clear who gained what. In 2006 most Israelis saw the Lebanon war as a failure. Hezbollah lost men and assets but remained (and remains now) in charge in much of Lebanon and possessing both a powerful terrorist force and serious conventional capabilities. But now, after eight years of calm along that border and after Hezbollah’s Sheikh Nasrallah admitted that he would never have started the 2006 war had he known how fierce would be the Israeli response, what Israel achieved seems more like a victory.
One reason Israelis did not feel that they had won a victory in 2006 was the announcement of excessive war aims by Israel’s then prime minister, Ehud Olmert. Olmert said repeatedly that Israel would not stop fighting until the underlying situation in Lebanon changed: What he called a “very effective and robust military international force” had to be introduced and Lebanon’s army had to deploy throughout southern Lebanon. The United States also said there could be no return to the status quo ante, but we soon gave up on any goal larger than stopping the fighting. The gap between Israel’s stated objectives and its actual achievements was clear, doomed Olmert politically, and converted what might have been seen as a considerable achievement into what for a long time was viewed as a defeat.
Israel’s government has so far avoided those mistakes in this Gaza war. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that his goals are to gain “an extended period of calm and security” for the citizens of Israel and “to inflict serious damage” on Hamas. Severely damaging Hamas’s missile stocks, killing Hamas fighters, and destroying its system of attack tunnels will clearly achieve the latter goal, and the former—extended calm—cannot be judged except with the passage of time. Netanyahu and his top advisers, including defense minister (and former IDF chief of staff) Moshe Yaalon and current IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, have avoided saying they will destroy Hamas and eliminate the terrorist threat permanently. Those limited aims have been challenged by those who urge rooting out Hamas entirely through a longer ground war and then reoccupying and ruling Gaza, and Israel’s unexpected combat death toll will inevitably persuade some that the whole war isn’t worth the sacrifice unless a permanent change in the situation in Gaza is achieved. But Israel’s government has not adopted these broader goals.
Hamas has stated its own war aims (perhaps a strategic error, but unavoidable when starting a war), and they are far more extensive than Israel’s. Hamas rejected Egypt’s early proposal for a “mere” cease-fire because it did not include the gains Hamas seeks in exchange for all the suffering it has caused the people of Gaza. Hamas has a long list, including freeing all the Hamas terrorists released from prison in exchange for Gilad Shalit but arrested again recently; opening the border crossings to Egypt and Israel; allowing a seaport and airport; expanding the offshore fishing zone; and easing conditions for permits to pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
At bottom what Hamas wants is an end to the squeeze that was making it increasingly unpopular in Gaza and even threatening its rule there. While Israel has not over the last few years changed its conduct toward Gaza and Hamas, Egypt has. Cairo’s military rulers see the Muslim Brotherhood at home and Hamas (a part of the Brotherhood) in Gaza as its enemies, and they have closed off the Gaza-Sinai border and shut the smuggling tunnels that provided Hamas with much of its revenue and Gazans with much of their economy. Hamas could not meet its own huge payroll in Gaza—43,000 people—nor could it give any hope that economic conditions would improve. Meanwhile, Hamas’s oppressive rule alienated more and more Gazans. That’s why Hamas took the risk in June of agreeing to join a technocratic or nonparty government under the Palestinian Authority, had the “ministers” in its government in Gaza resign their posts, and appeared ready for some role in Gaza for the PA (something it had prevented since its coup in Gaza in 2007). That ploy failed when the PA refused to take on the huge burden of all those additional salaries, and there was no change in the economic situation in Gaza. Hamas then turned to war as a way to shake things up.
How has the war gone for Hamas? There’s an unavoidable urge to make judgments now, but the real answer depends on what happens after the cease-fire. In choosing war Hamas imposed enormous hardship on a Gazan population that never voted for the 2007 coup, was already tired of Hamas rule, and may emerge with deeper resentment against the group. It’s clear that Hamas lost many of its top fighters; physical assets such as arsenals, headquarters buildings, and training areas; most of the rockets it took years to accumulate; and most or all of the tunnels it took years to dig. If Israel can apply the technological genius that produced “Iron Dome” to the tunnels, perhaps Hamas’s tunnels will prove to be a trick that can only be used once. Are there seismic sensors, or electromagnetic or thermal technology, that can be developed or applied to find new attack tunnels fast? Israel’s various missile defense systems have largely defeated the threat from the air; if cutting-edge technology can blunt the threat from under the ground, Hamas will have sacrificed its tunnel system without ever getting the major attacks inside Israel for which it was planned.
On the other hand, Hamas proved that its rockets can reach half of Israel and managed (with the help of the American FAA) to block air traffic at Ben Gurion Airport as well as to kill several dozen Israeli soldiers. The balance between costs and benefits cannot be drawn today because it depends on where Hamas stands one or two years from now. Is its hold on Gaza stronger or weaker? Is it able to rebuild the attack tunnels and accumulate another 10,000 rockets? Can it plausibly tell Gazans that the hard sacrifices Hamas imposed in wartime led to a profound improvement in their economic situation? Put another way, before the war Hamas was growing stronger militarily but increasingly weak politically. When the war ends it will have been weakened militarily—but only time will tell whether the outcome strengthens or weakens the organization politically and whether it can rebuild its military capacities.
Several Arab governments as well as many Israelis are now asking whether some change in the situation in Gaza could improve the humanitarian situation while weakening Hamas, making another round of conflict less likely or at least more distant.
Yuval Diskin, a former head of Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, has outlined the kind of deal he and many Israelis would like to see. In exchange for removal of all longer-range rockets, the end of manufacturing weapons in Gaza, and the closing of all the tunnels (all of this under international supervision), the blockade of Gaza would be lifted. The border crossings would be open 24/7, Gaza could have a seaport and an expanded fishing zone in the Mediterranean, and there would be a big foreign aid program to rebuild the place. The Palestinian Authority would rule Gaza, with a coalition government in place and pledged to the old “Quartet Principles”: recognition of Israel, respect for all previous agreements with Israel, and the abandonment of violence. A less extensive proposal along the same lines came from Israel’s former national security adviser Gen. Giora Eiland, who also called for opening the passages and a seaport in exchange for disarmament: Hamas turns over its missiles, the tunnels are all destroyed, and there are zero attacks on Israel. Former IDF chief of staff and defense minister Shaul Mofaz has proposed demilitarizing Gaza, using what he calls a Syria-style process to remove all rockets, in return for a $50 billion rehabilitation and aid project. The basic idea has been endorsed by Netanyahu, Shimon Peres, and Labor party leader Isaac Herzog.
It is smart for Israel to make or support such offers, as it is for the United States: We should be sensitive to the suffering in Gaza and seek ways to help. Immiserating the people of Gaza is not an Israeli or American objective, and we should be open to all sensible ways of ameliorating the awful situation in which they live. We should draw up or applaud generous plans and leave it to Hamas to reject them or make them impossible by refusing to disarm. But those Israeli proposals will not, of course, work, nor will any proposals that require disarming Hamas as a precondition for aid to Gaza. Consider them instead a “teachable moment”: These proposals are useful to demonstrate that Hamas is blocking progress.
In 2005, when Israel pulled out of Gaza, the United States negotiated an “Agreement on Movement and Access” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Its purpose was “to promote peaceful economic development and improve the humanitarian situation on the ground.” “The passages [in and out of Gaza] will operate continuously,” it said, “construction of a seaport can commence,” and there would be scheduled bus and truck convoys between Gaza and the West Bank so people and goods could move back and forth easily. There were elaborate details about inspections, customs duties, equipment, and the like. But the agreement was never implemented—and that was at a point when the Palestinian Authority ruled Gaza and PA-Israel relations and contacts were in reasonable shape, right after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. How likely is it that a similar, or even more generous, plan can really be implemented now?
The problem with all these wonderful proposals is that Hamas is not an NGO; it is a terrorist group. It exists to fight Israel and destroy it—unless one wishes to say that it exists to fight and kill the Jews more generally, which is the basic message of the Hamas charter. So it will not agree to disarm, and it will not stop trying to import and build weapons. How can this war end in a way that ameliorates conditions in Gaza, but without giving Hamas a political victory? Is it possible to imagine a plan that brings economic recovery for Gaza without political recovery for Hamas?
There are two elements here, the narrower one of the Gaza passages and the broader one of Palestinian politics and Israeli-Palestinian relations. On Gaza, there is no downside to negotiating, agreeing on, and then attempting to implement the various plans. Implementing them sensibly means tight Israeli and Egyptian border mechanisms to prevent Hamas from taking advantage of more open borders. It means that individuals seeking to move in and out of Gaza must identify themselves, so that terrorists can be stopped and arrested. It means careful inspection of cargo so that weapons can be stopped. Israel and Egypt should continue to insist that Hamas is to blame for problems and delays because it refuses to abandon the armed struggle—which it will. This is a point Israel, Egypt, and the United States should be making repeatedly. We now know for sure, to take a good example, that Israel was right to restrict the amount of cement going into Gaza, because Hamas used the cement to build attack tunnels. Any Gaza border system has not only to ensure that what is called cement is actually cement, but must also identify the end user inside Gaza and ensure that 100 percent of the cement is used for a proper purpose. Detailed arrangements cannot be negotiated as part of a cease-fire but only after it, and then they will have to be implemented. This means that Hamas may claim victory because its war will have “broken the siege on Gaza,” but Gazans will quickly find out that those claims are greatly exaggerated.
Meanwhile the only Palestinian entity that can have a role in all these activities aimed at “opening Gaza” is the PA. As in the 2005 access plan, PA officials will have to monitor the passages along with Israelis and Egyptians. The current crisis presents an opportunity to reinsert the PA into Gaza, which necessarily undermines Hamas rule and ought to be an American and Israeli goal. Here we get to the broader issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations, so badly mishandled by the United States under the Obama administration. If John Kerry will abandon his grandiose plans for a comprehensive peace, he can actually do something useful over the next two years: make it his goal to weaken Hamas in Gaza and return the PA to a governing role there. Kerry can tell himself that this actually fits within his overall objective of a peace agreement, because Hamas rule in Gaza is seen as one of the major stumbling blocks. No peace agreement is possible in the foreseeable future, but Kerry can be told that he is clearing away obstacles. In truth, one effect of this war is to persuade Israelis that giving up military control of the West Bank is unthinkable, because it would lead to barrages of missiles that would make Ben Gurion Airport unusable and make Jerusalem uninhabitable. So Kerry may as well switch his sights to a different and more realistic objective than an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
Since the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations this year, Kerry and the United States have actually had no discernible policy at all. The Gaza war should be a reminder that there is a critical struggle under way among Palestinians, between Hamas and other Islamist terrorist groups on one side, and the largely secular PA and the Fatah party on the other. (And in the background, our friends in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are backing the PA, while Qatar and Turkey are backing Hamas.) In the 2006 elections, Hamas beat Fatah 44 to 41 percent. No elections are in sight today, but that contest continues. Depriving Hamas of its base in Gaza or at least weakening its hold there is an important goal, especially with PA president and Fatah/PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas now 79 years old and a succession fight looming. Fatah remains the heart of the PLO and the PA—and remains a thoroughly corrupt and divided organization. There are no Mandelas or Havels waiting in the wings. But Fatah, and the PA and PLO, are not part of the Muslim Brotherhood, not committed to terrorism, not Islamist in orientation, and have engaged in negotiations and agreements with Israel for 20 years. They are not able to turn Palestine into Singapore or Switzerland, but they will not turn it into Somalia or Syria either.
One possible future for Palestinians is the Gaza model—to come increasingly under the domination of Hamas and other Islamist terrorist groups, which would then move into roles in the PA and PLO, making negotiations with Israel impossible not only on a peace agreement but even on day to day accommodations. That is a future of increasing conflict and of terrorism as official Palestinian policy. The end of the Gaza war presents an opportunity to weaken those forces, and that should be the American and Israeli goal now. We should put aside comprehensive peace plans and other dreams for a perfect future.
Right now the government of Egypt and that of Israel are aligned against Hamas and the Brotherhood, and tacitly most Arab governments are as well. We should be flexible about economic plans for Gaza and for the West Bank, and even flexible about Palestinian political coalitions, so long as they work toward weakening and defeating Islamist forces in Palestinian life. Cornered and desperate, Hamas took a chance in starting the war this summer. It has been eight years since Hamas won that election and seven since it seized Gaza. Our goal now should be to make 2014 the turning point, and make this war one from which Hamas never recovers. Hamas will claim victory this summer, but whether it actually gains from its murderous decisions or is permanently damaged by them will not be settled the day combat ends. That’s when the IDF’s current battle stops, but it’s when the longer struggle against Hamas—Israel’s and hopefully ours as well—begins again.
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.