Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
A Palestinian inspects the damage at the Ameen mosque in Gaza City, northern Gaza Strip, destroyed by an Israeli strike, Tuesday, July 29, 2014.

For Israel in Gaza, a war of choice and an uncertain outcome

Viewing the enemy as a monster only motivated by hate – and only capable of responding to maximum force – can lead to error.

On the evening of June 3, 1982, a Palestinian gunman tried to assassinate Israeli Ambassador to Britain Shlomo Argov as he left London's Dorchester Hotel. The attack failed, but Israel's response led it to a war of choice in Lebanon. 

Today Israel is fighting another war of choice in Gaza. And, just as in 1982, it insists that its enemies are indistinguishable from each other and must be vanquished. But conflating and demonizing the other doesn't make for smart policy and can instead lead to strategic missteps. 

Israeli intelligence quickly worked out who was behind the attempted 1982 assassination: The Abu Nidal group, a radical outfit that had splintered from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1970s. Abu Nidal and his followers saw the mainstream PLO as sellouts to Israel and longed for a major military confrontation. 

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin decided to give Abu Nidal what it wanted. At an emergency cabinet meeting, Mr. Begin brushed aside the information that the PLO had nothing to do with the attempt on Argov's life. "They're all PLO. Abu Nidal, Abu Shmidal. We have to strike at the PLO," he said, according to Israeli historian Benny Morris in his book Righteous Victims. Begin reportedly said the alternative was "Treblinka," the Nazi death camp in Poland. 

Two days later Israeli tanks began rolling into southern Lebanon, the start of a war that became a quagmire. 

Israeli troops occupied parts of Lebanon until 2000, and over 1,100 of their soldiers lost their lives. While the PLO was duly expelled from the country, the invasion added another dimension to the Lebanese civil war. It also led to the birth of Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite Lebanese political party and army that is today a far greater military threat to Israel than Yasser Arafat's PLO ever was.

Begin's penchant then for painting the PLO as monsters, and of Palestinian resistance factions as functionally indistinguishable from each other is echoed today in the fight against Hamas. And while it seems clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government is bent on the total destruction of Hamas, it's far from certain that it can be accomplished – let alone at a price that isn't more damaging than the alternatives.

A kidnapping, and a scapegoat

Let's look back to the precipitating event for the current crisis – the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers near Hebron in the West Bank on June 12. Netanyahu immediately blamed Hamas. His government's official position was that the teens were kidnapped and alive until the bodies were found, while military censors prevented Israeli media reporting that the boys were likely already dead.

When the teen's bodies were eventually found, he said "they were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by human animals. Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay." Netanyahu sees Hamas in much the same apocalyptic terms that Begin used for the PLO. 

Immediately after the teens went missing, Israeli forces swept through the West Bank, arresting hundreds of members of Hamas, among them 54 men who were released from prison in the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap in 2011. 

Hamas, which had tamped down rocket fire from Gaza to its lowest level ever in 2013, as part of a tacit cease-fire with Israel, responded by unleashing fire towards Israel. Netanyahu said Israel had no choice but to mount a major offensive to dismantle Hamas's military capabilities. 

And here we are today: a mounting civilian death toll and no clear and achievable strategic outcome for Israel. 

Enter the spoilers

But as in 1982, it doesn't seem Hamas was responsible for the killings. And Netanyahu appears to be cast in the role of Begin, refusing to see daylight between his enemies.

Israel's prime suspects in the murders (both still at large) are two members of the Qawasmeh clan from the Hebron area. The extended family has spawned many militants who have engaged in terrorist attacks on Israelis. And, just like Abu Nidal before them, they are bent on acting as spoilers towards any initiatives that lead to compromise or cooperation.

Abu Nidal broke with the PLO after the organization began moving towards accepting the possibility of two states and away from its early insistence that the Israeli state should be destroyed. This splinter group assassinated two PLO representatives in the UK a few years before the attempted murder of Argov, and its operations seemed designed at weakening the PLO as much as they focused on Israel. The tactic was simple – strike out at Israel, and watch the PLO reap the whirlwind. And it worked.

In the words of Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar, the real suspects in the murder of the teenagers have played much the same role.

Marwan Qawasmeh, the man behind the abduction, emerged as a dominant figure in the clan after Israel arrested Imad Qawasmeh and sentenced him to life in prison. Each time Hamas had reached an understanding with Israel about a cease-fire or tahadiyeh (period of calm), at least one member of the family has been responsible for planning or initiating a suicide attack, and any understandings with Israel, achieved after considerable effort, were suddenly laid waste. If there is a single family throughout the PA territories whose actions can be blamed for Israel’s assassination of the political leadership of Hamas, it is the Qawasmeh family of Hebron.

... Marwan Qawasmeh and Amar Abu Aisha (the other suspect) have brought Hamas to a place where its leadership never intended to go. By kidnapping the three Israelis, the Qawasmeh family decided to take the leaders there anyway. In each of the previous events, Hamas’ political leaders were forced to align themselves with the movement’s military wing. Not one of them dared to say anything. They wouldn’t dare condemn a kidnapping ostensibly intended to release Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, or to denounce some terrorist attack, ostensibly launched in retaliation to the assassination by Israel of some Hamas activist or other.

Though the official government line remains that Hamas was responsible for the killings, cracks are beginning to emerge in that story. Buzzfeed's Sheera Frenkel and the BBC's Jon Donnison spoke to Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld over the weekend. Both wrote on Twitter that he told them that the killers were a "lone cell" affiliated with Hamas but not acting on orders from leadership.

A unity government

At the time of the murders, Hamas had just initiated a unity pact with Fatah, the political party that runs the West Bank and is headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The hope was that a unified Palestinian front would give them more heft in negotiations with Israel, which continues to expand settlements in the West Bank. But Netanyahu was furious that Abbas had reached a deal with "terrorists" and immediately set about undermining the deal.

Here's the International Crisis Group's Nathan Thrall on that now shattered potential:

Yet, in many ways, the reconciliation government could have served Israel’s interests. It offered Hamas’s political adversaries a foothold in Gaza; it was formed without a single Hamas member; it retained the same Ramallah-based prime minister, deputy prime ministers, finance minister and foreign minister; and, most important, it pledged to comply with the three conditions for Western aid long demanded by America and its European allies: nonviolence, adherence to past agreements and recognition of Israel.

Netanyahu and his advisers view Hamas as lumpen "terrorists," rather than a political movement with rational goals and strategies that can evolve. That's not to say that Hamas doesn't use terrorism – it does, witness the crude rockets fired at Israel – but the practice of naming a group "terrorist" as if all terrorists are the same, can lead to major strategic errors. "Terrorist" in this usages means that your enemy is irrational and bloodthirsty – and therefore impossible to counter except by using maximum force. 

Consider this op-ed by recently retired Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren, who can safely assumed to be close in thinking to Netanyahu in this matter. He appealed last week for the international community not to work towards a ceasefire and instead to allow Israel to destroy Hamas.

Senior statesmen can be most helpful now by doing nothing. To preserve the values they cherish and to send an unequivocal message to terrorist organizations and their state sponsors everywhere, Israel must be permitted to crush Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

This is the lesson of previous rounds of fighting between the Israeli Defense Forces and terrorist strongholds. In Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2008 and again in 2012, Israel responded to rocket attacks on its cities with fierce counteroffensives. Fighting against a deeply dug-in enemy that both blended in with the local population and used it as a shield, Israel’s best efforts to avoid civilian casualties invariably proved limited. Incensed world opinion generated immense pressure on governments to convene the U.N. Security Council and empower human rights organizations to censure Israel and stop the carnage. These measures succeeded where the terrorists’ rockets failed. Israel was compelled to back down.

Then he goes on to write about Hamas and Hezbollah that they are "jihadist organizations no different from the Islamic State and al-Qaeda."

Netanyahu expounds a similar worldview. In 2011, he also said there was no difference between Al Qaeda and Hamas. However, as I wrote then:

Unlike Al Qaeda's vision of a global caliphate – and hostility to modern states and democratic processes – Hamas wants an independent Palestine with a dominant role for Islam in guiding legislation. Al Qaeda generally views the Brotherhood and its progeny with scorn. And while Hamas's charter continues to call for an end to Israel, the organization offered Israel a 10-year hudna (truce) after it won the 2006 elections.

Israel's leaders argued that the truce was nothing more than a way for Hamas to buy time and build its strength toward the Jewish state's ultimate destruction, and they may well have been right, but the offer itself was a long way from Al Qaeda's continuous demand that Israel be destroyed as quickly as possible.

Hamas also seems to have a firm grasp on violence as a tactical tool in pursuit of its goals. Since the reconciliation deal with Fatah, no rockets have flown out of Gaza, as far as I can tell.

Hamas is not the sort of group to give Israelis the warm and fuzzies. But it has proven capable of moderation. Though its original charter called for the destruction of the state of Israel, its 2006 election manifesto said recognition of the Jewish state was a matter for the "Palestinian people." Its recent unity deal with Fatah – which was intended to bring non-Hamas technocrats into Gaza's government – was arguably a signal that it's willing to work towards a two-state solution.

Has Hamas put its signature to a map that indicates it would tolerate a Jewish state next to a Palestinian one yet? No – but neither has Israel's current leadership. 

Molly Malone, and world domination

There are other Palestinian factions that consider that a betrayal, like Islamic Jihad. Yet Israel continues to strive to present Hamas as bent on world domination, despite its local ambitions. Consider this from the Israeli Embassy in Ireland over the weekend.

Refusing to understand Hamas for what they actually are, and what their short-term motivations for violence are, is probably not going to be productive for Israel in the long-term. It's also not clear how Hamas, or any other militant Palestinian group, can be stopped from rearming, judging by recent history. So Israel's only choice is "mowing the lawn," its euphemism for periodic military operations in Gaza

A war of choice

Israel's dramatically greater military strength, coupled with the Iron Dome missile defense system and the small size of Hamas's rockets, meant it had a choice. It could have chosen not to make mass arrests after the teens went missing. Once that was done, it still had the choice to seek deescalation in Gaza. And there's a track record of negotiated truces with Hamas that have held, despite the tensions.  

Many Israeli experts doubt that Hamas wanted this escalation. Yuval Diskin, the former head of Israel's Shin Bet security agency, told Der Spiegel:

Hamas didn't want this war at first either. But as things often are in the Middle East, things happened differently. It began with the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. From what I read and from what I know about how Hamas operates, I think that the Hamas political bureau was taken by surprise. It seems as though it was not coordinated or directed by them.

... It was a mistake by Netanyahu to attack the unity government between Hamas and Fatah under the leadership of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel should have been more sophisticated in the way it reacted. We should have supported the Palestinians because we want to make peace with everybody, not with just two-thirds or half of the Palestinians. An agreement with the unity government would have been more sophisticated than saying Abbas is a terrorist. But this unity government must accept all the conditions of the Middle East Quartet. They have to recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and recognize all earlier agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

For now, the government is choosing a heavy military response, and so far that has proven wildly popular among Jewish Israelis. In 1982, the invasion of Lebanon to "crush" the PLO in Lebanon was also wildly popular. The Israeli minority who questioned the wisdom of that approach were derided as traitors, much as those who question what's happening in Gaza are today.

But the consequences and the strategic landscape that this war leaves behind may surprise its architects, much as the consequences of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon did.

And if Hamas were crushed, what might replace them? Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the outgoing head of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, thinks he knows: " If Hamas were destroyed and gone, we would probably end up with something much worse. The region would end up with something much worse," he said over the weekend. "A worse threat that would come into the sort of ecosystem there … something like ISIS," the Al Qaeda-style militant group now rampaging across parts of Iraq and Syria. 

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