By David Hacham
Although the moment may come in which significant military action becomes inevitable to stop armed attacks on Israelis from Gaza, Israeli governments must exercise patience, sound judgement, and a sober assessment of consequences when it comes to dealing with the explosive problem that is the Gaza Strip.
As someone who has spent years in Gaza as head of the Arab Affairs Department of the IDF Civil Administration, which served as the eyes and ears of the Israeli defense establishment in Gaza, and who has gotten to know senior and rank-and-file members of Hamas and the PLO, I have seen the reality of long-term Israeli military administration of this hostile territory. It is a burden that Israel will not be keen to rush back into.
By all measures, Gaza is an extremely problematic territory. It faces severe social-economic challenges, and a population that lives in highly crowded urban sprawls with multiple layers of housing on top of one another.
The Strip’s population is growing annually, and currently stands at around two million people. Gazans live in some of the most crowded neighborhoods in the world.
In this urban sprawl, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have built organized, hierarchical terror armies that are heavily armed and well equipped, and which are embedded in the civilian population.
The Gazan population is young, which is why demonstrations – both in Gaza and the incidents on the Israeli-Gazan border that are organized by Hamas – typically contain many youths.
Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza, remains genuinely committed to a radical ideology that envisions a takeover of the West Bank, and the subsequent destruction of the State of Israel.
Since June 2007, when Hamas ejected Fatah from power in a violent coup, Hamas has acted as a governing entity, while fully maintaining its militant ideology.
Due to the high cost that Israel would have to pay in the blood of its soldiers in a ground offensive, Israel must continue – as it has been doing – to search for ways to bring about calm that do not involve land operations – for as long as this is possible. Yet it must also respond severely to every rocket attack on its people.
In extreme scenarios, a ground operation runs the risk of turning into another long-term military presence in Gaza. This would place significant military and economic burdens on Israel. Therefore, if a ground maneuver does become inevitable, it is essential for the government to take every step to ensure that it does not turn into long-term control of Gaza.
There is currently no visible alternative to Hamas as Gaza’s ruler. Fatah is unable to take control, and no other organization has the depth of control or size that Hamas does, even though its popularity has begun to erode in recent years.
FOR HAMAS, GAZA IS ONLY THE BEGINNING
Hamas views Gaza as a starting point for much more ambitious goals.
Hamas’s vision involves two ‘Islamic phases.’ The first is based on the goal of taking over the West Bank, replacing Fatah, and destroying Israel. This phase envisions the creation of a Palestinian – Islamic state on the ruins of the Jewish state. The second stage entails the creation of a larger international Islamic Caliphate. Hamas has displayed no willingness to change its ideological DNA.
Since the publication of the Hamas charter in 1988, its ideology has remained utterly opposed to Israel’s existence. The 2017 ‘update’ to its charter is little more than an attempt to gain international legitimacy, without budging on its ideology.
At the same time, Hamas leaders also operate on a second, practical level, and it is here that they are prepared to take into account the current conditions on the ground.
This includes a recognition of Israel’s military strength, and a resulting willingness to negotiate indirectly, via Egypt and the UN special envoy to the region, for temporary ceasefires. Hamas sees a ceasefire as a means of removing the threat of an Israeli military operation, and a way to give it time to grow stronger.
Hamas is a patient movement that is guided by a long-term view of its historic role in the implementation of an Islamic vision. This is driven by the belief that Islam as a ‘solution’ will ultimately triumph.
THE EGYPTIAN ROLE
Egypt’s interest is to contain Gaza and keep it isolated from the stubborn jihadist insurgency that continues to rage in neighboring Sinai. Egypt also wants to prevent any possibility of Gaza empowering the Egyptian-Islamist opposition zealots of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although there is no love lost between the Egyptian Al-Sisi Government and Hamas – viewed by Cairo as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood adversary it faces at home – Egypt has established close contacts with Hamas, as a means of containment.
Egypt has played an active moderating role, often dousing the flames of escalation through intensive diplomacy. It invites Hamas delegations to Cairo, and sends its own delegations of intelligence officials into Gaza, as has occurred recently, in an effort to prevent a new escalation.
Any new escalation between Israel and Hamas could destabilize the Sinai Peninsula, via the Islamist elements that are active there. Hence, the intensive efforts that the Egyptians have poured into building up a rapport with Hamas. Yet Hamas has rejected all Egyptian efforts to create a reconciliation with Fatah, based on the recognition that this would enable the Palestinian Authority to regain a foothold in Gaza.
Israel has an obligation to act with caution, patience, and wisdom, and with a view of its overall national security interests when dealing with Gaza. At the same time, the need for a major operation, including targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders, may become inevitable. There are currently no silver bullet solutions to the problem that Gaza poses to Israel. Only when the fundamental reality in the enclave changes, the Hamas regime is deposed, and new rulers emerge, can real solutions begin to surface.