Hamas and Israel: why a paradigm shift is needed

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Israeli military flare is seen in an area east of Gaza City on July 21, 2014. © ZUMA PRESS INC./ Alamy

Since the beginning of the latest round of confrontations between Hamas and Israel, the debate in both local and international media has understandably focused on the conditions needed to achieve a speedy end to the conflagration and deliver a ceasefire. Yet, while stopping the violence should indeed be a priority, it is just as important to develop policies for the post-ceasefire period that will ensure that the end of hostilities amounts to more than a temporary lull.

Indeed, the relationship between Hamas and Israel since 2007 has followed a repetitive pattern, with periods of relative quiet followed by recurrent short-term military escalations. Likewise, Israel’s overall policy toward Hamas has undergone very little change, focusing as it has on the political isolation of Hamas, a comprehensive siege on the Gaza Strip, and an approach based on military deterrence.

The 2012 ceasefire attempted to partially shift the paradigm by going beyond a mere cessation of hostilities, directly referring to the need to progressively open border crossings and facilitate the flows of goods and people to and from Gaza. Yet, following some initial steps in the right direction, the terms were never fully implemented, causing a return to the fragile status quo. That shaky equilibrium began to crumble in the past year, particularly after Hamas’s dramatic change of fortune following the ousting of the Mohammed Morsi government in Egypt, leaving the organisation more vulnerable to growing political and financial pressure. Following Hamas’s acceptance of a unity deal with the Palestinian Authority (PA), the precarious situation between Hamas and Israel further deteriorated, especially after the dramatic kidnapping (and later killing) of three Israeli teenagers. The Israeli government pointed the finger at Hamas and promptly launched a military operation across the West Bank that directly targeted Hamas members and infrastructure, worsening the group’s already problematic position. Increasingly under pressure, Hamas resumed rocket attacks against Israel, leading to the current military confrontation.

With Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” – in general, broader and more extensive than its 2012 “Pillar of Defence” – still in full force and with a military ground operation taking off after ten days of conflict, it is imperative to reflect upon not only the steps needed to stop the hostilities, but also the long-term strategy necessary to avoid yet another repetition of the dangerous cycle of violence that has been in place between Israel and Hamas since 2007.

Here, again the limits of an approach based solely on military force appear evident. Firstly, short of the politically unrealistic and all-around wretched idea of a full-scale invasion and re-occupation of the Gaza Strip, Israel should understand that it cannot permanently disable Hamas’s military infrastructure, let alone “destroy” the group. Secondly, even if that option were feasible, it would still be far from clear whether pushing Hamas toward an implosion would benefit Israel. With the growth of Salafi-jihadi groups in Gaza, the downfall of Hamas could very well lead to rapid internal destabilisation, empowering irredentist armed factions and generally worsening, rather than improving, Israel’s security situation.

Therefore, with a military solution unlikely to dramatically alter the strategic balance between the parties in the long term, the best result Israel can obtain from the current military escalation is to temporarily downgrade Hamas’s military infrastructure, weaken its military leadership, and restore the prior uneasy status quo based on unstable deterrence. As far as Hamas is concerned, the armed clashes are even less likely to change the balance of power between the group and Israel, with the organisation perhaps hoping to gain some short-term popularity, obtain temporary concessions and some financial relief, and manoeuvre itself back on the national political scene in Palestine. In other words, short of significant changes in the policy, the best Israel and Hamas can hope for is to have a few months of quiet before the next round of hostilities.

This understanding should therefore underscore the importance of not only pushing for this round of hostilities to end, but – at a deeper level – to seek a fundamental change of policy. To this end, the next ceasefire ought to be different, both in terms of process as well as content.

In terms of process, the political consultations leading to a ceasefire between the parties need to be inclusive. The lack of direct engagement with Hamas may very well have been one of the main reasons why Egypt’s recent attempt to broker an end to the hostilities failed to gain Hamas’s acceptance. Furthermore, while Egypt continues, albeit reluctantly, to lead indirect negotiations between the parties, other willing regional players like Qatar should not be left out. At the same time, the PA and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas should be kept as involved as possible.

In addition, the content of the next ceasefire should not limit itself to a quiet-for-quiet formula; rather, it should both build on the 2012 terms and go beyond them. A specific timetable should be set for the relaxation of economic restrictions on Gaza and the normalisation of the flows of goods and people, including permanently opening the Rafah crossing with Egypt. This could ideally be linked to the progressive and permanent shutting down of underground tunnels. Also included in an agreement should be the establishment of a solid mechanism for indirect communication and, when necessary, conflict management, between Hamas and Israel, with the direct involvement of Abbas.

In parallel to the official ceasefire between the parties, a shift from unstable deterrence to more permanent stability must also address the precarious economic and political situation in Gaza: in this sense, the best way to do this is by supporting, rather than hindering, the fragile unity government between Hamas and Fatah and by channelling international funds for economic development in Gaza through the unity government. In the immediate term, the PA should pay the salaries of the approximately 40,000 workers on Hamas’s payroll. With the European Union being one of the major economic supporters of the PA, it could play a role in this context by working with the unity government and by specifically investing in the Gaza Strip.

Albert Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Given the failure of the prior minimalist deterrence policy with respect to Hamas, it may indeed be time to try something new.

Benedetta Berti, PhD, is a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, a post-doctoral fellow at Ben Gurion University, and an associate fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Israel.

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