Israel should rethink its strategy against Hamas in Gaza

Israel has dealt with Hamas through a policy of isolation and military containment. The recent escalation of violence in Gaza calls for a reconsideration of this strategy. Israel’s military response only offers a temporary palliative against a broader, inherently political problem.

Suhaib Salem/Reuters
Palestinian firefighters confer as smoke rises out of a building that houses international media offices, after an Israeli air strike in Gaza City Nov. 19. Op-ed contributor Benedetta Berti says: ' Israel should not disregard the political and diplomatic consequences of a continued escalation' and 'should aim to negotiate a prompt end to the hostilities [with Hamas] while beginning a longer-term political process.'

Since Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006 and subsequently took control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Israel has dealt with the "Islamic Resistance" through a policy of non-recognition, political isolation, and military containment. The recent escalation of violence in Gaza should call for a reconsideration of this strategy.

The rules of the game between Hamas and Israel became especially clear after the Israeli operation "Cast Lead" in December 2008-January 2009. Israel’s military air and ground offensive against Hamas in Gaza at that time was waged with the objective of creating a “credible deterrence,” and led to a period of relative quiet for Israel.

Immediately following Cast Lead, Hamas acted in a predominantly restrained fashion. It mostly refrained from participating in rocket attacks against Israel and prevented other armed groups within Gaza from operating freely. In return, Israel's military involvement in Gaza diminished, although it did not reconsider its policy of isolation and non-recognition of Hamas.

To be sure, this unwritten agreement was far from idyllic: Attacks from the Gaza Strip never fully ceased, Israel’s military operations in Gaza did not come to a total halt, and short-lived escalations of violence occurred periodically. What's more, Hamas's “restraint” seemed to diminish with the passing of time. In the past few months, Israel came to the conclusion that Hamas was no longer playing according to “the rules,” noting its increased involvement in rocket attacks and its growing reluctance in stopping other groups from perpetrating attacks of their own.

Israel calculated that killing Hamas's military wing commander Ahmed Jabari and stepping up Israeli military operations would “restore deterrence,” going back to a post-Cast Lead situation of relative quiet. It seems Israel decided to use military force to weaken Hamas's military arsenal while also hitting its resolve to fight.

The current military operation can arguably accomplish both of these tasks (the first one much more easily than the second). However, while Israel has a clear right to protect its citizens, the question that needs to be asked is: Are the costs of a further escalation and of a possible ground operation worth it for Israel, and how much time can it buy?

The first obvious cost of the ongoing escalation rests within the civilian population in both Israel and Gaza, who are paying directly for the resumption of major hostilities.

Israel appears to be confident it can bear the military costs of the operation. But this assumption is largely shaped by the awareness that the conflict is unlikely to expand to a region-wide war. Iran is dealing with crippling sanctions, Syria is in the midst of a civil war, and Hezbollah’s power has been diminished by its siding with its Syrian patron, the Bashar al-Assad regime. So it is unlikely that any of these parties will get directly involved in the fighting in Gaza.

However, Israel should not disregard the political and diplomatic consequences of continued escalation. The already frail and shaky relationship with Egypt is a first obvious casualty of the current situation, with the future of bilateral relations and the peace treaty with Egypt looking ever colder.

Israel's overall position in the region also suffers as a result of the ongoing military operations. This is particularly the case since – as a result of the "Arab awakening" and the increased weight of the "Arab street" in the region – there is greater pressure on regional players to openly condemn Israel and to support Hamas in Gaza. And the more protracted and extensive the operations will be, the more the country's standing and legitimacy will suffer at the international level, even among Israel’s western allies.

Israel’s renewed military confrontation with Hamas may backfire, both empowering Hamas within Gaza and the West Bank, as well as further highlighting the weakness of the Palestinian Authority and its leadership. It may already be enabling the more hard-core leadership within Hamas.

But the main problem with Israel’s current military response is that it only offers a temporary palliative against a broader, inherently political problem. A post-2006 assessment clearly shows that Israel’s policy of non-recognition neither weakened Hamas nor compelled it to relinquish its armed struggle in the long term. Similarly, isolating Hamas did not topple its government, but instead punished the civilian population of Gaza.

Perhaps it is time to review both notions. Hamas, as the de facto government of Gaza, should be directly engaged through a political process leading to both a ceasefire as well a reversal of the “'isolation”' of the strip.

Talks are underway in Cairo, but the hopes for a ceasefire are still dim. Israel’s past several days of military operations weakened Hamas militarily, and sticking with this diplomatic process should not be seen as being soft on them. Rather, it shows Israel is being realistic in its assessment of the possible consequences of a protracted military conflict in Gaza.

As part of talks, Hamas should commit to a ceasefire as well as to gradually and incrementally move closer to the Quartet’s (United Nations, US, European Union, and Russia) conditions for recognizing the group. Those conditions include renouncing violence, recognizing Israel, and accepting past agreements between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel. Instead of serving as preconditions to negotiations, however, they should become objectives to achieve during these direct negotiations.

A diplomatic solution will likely include difficult compromises for both sides. But military power alone will time and again prove insufficient to create the conditions for genuine stability. Instead of pushing for an escalation and a ground military operation, Israel should make every effort to defuse the conflict. And with the help of countries like Egypt, both groups should aim to negotiate a prompt end to the hostilities while beginning a longer-term political process.

Benedetta Berti is a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist working group, and coauthor of the book, “Hamas and Hezbollah: A Comparative Study” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Follow her on Twitter at @benedettabertiw.

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