Can Another Gaza War Be Avoided?
How much has Hamas budged from its 1988 Charter?
Mark Regev, a former adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, considers the likelihood of another war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, here: “Is another Gaza war inevitable? – opinion,” by Mark Regev, Jerusalem Post, January 6, 2022:
…Since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 there have been four significant military escalations: Operations Cast Lead (2008-09), Pillar of Defense (2012), Protective Edge (2014), and Guardian of the Walls (2021). Bitter experience would seem to indicate that another round is only a matter of time.
The knee-jerk reaction of many across the world is to suggest finding a political solution. Yet Hamas remains stuck in a radical Islamist ideology that precludes peace with Israel. Its 1988 charter, never repudiated, specifically renounces any negotiated settlement while proclaiming the goal to “raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.”
Hamas has not budged an inch from its Charter: it seeks not a smaller Jewish state, but the destruction of the Jewish state, to be replaced by the Arab state of Palestine, “from the river to the sea.” That is something much of the world, urging Israel to “make peace” with Hamas, still fails to grasp.
In 2006, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan offered Hamas a possible opening, presenting three benchmarks for the organization to be acknowledged as a legitimate political interlocutor: rejection of terrorism, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previously signed peace agreements. Sixteen years on, Hamas has failed to meet even one of these requirements.
Instead of being viewed as a partner in talks, Hamas is designated as a terrorist organization in Britain, Canada, the European Union, Japan, and the United States, as well as, of course, by Israel. More countries, including Australia and New Zealand, classify the Hamas military wing as terrorist (although experts agree that the distinction between the movement’s wings is artificial).
Of course, many in the international community insist that a genuine political solution between Israelis and Palestinians demands removing settlements and withdrawing to the 1967 lines. But Israel already put those ideas into practice in Ariel Sharon’s 2005 disengagement plan, and there have been four Gaza wars since.
Those who want Israel to withdraw “to the 1967 lines” are in fact obscuring, by sleight of word, what should be brutally, and honestly, put to the world by Bennett or Lapid: “what you are in fact demanding is that Israel agree to be squeezed back within the 1949 armistice lines, with a nine-mile waist at Qalqilya. It would take an invader from the east less than an hour to slice Israel in two. No sane Israeli will agree to that.”
In 2005 Israel pulled entirely out of Gaza, removing 8500 Israeli settlers and pulling down their settlements. But Israel left intact the greenhouses the settlers had built and had used to raise flowers and fruit for export to Europe. This thriving business was turned over to the Palestinians as a turnkey operation; the Israelis expected them to continue the business but, to their surprise, the Palestinians in Gaza promptly destroyed them. Did peace between Gaza and Israel then ensue, as some had rosily predicted would happen after Israel’s withdrawal? No, Hamas answered Israel’s disengagement from Gaza only with terrorism, resulting in four wars, and the need for Israel to conduct what it called the “wars between the wars,” in order to discourage terrorism, an exercise that Israelis mordantly call “mowing the grass.”
The Israeli public is in a different place [from those who counsel it to “make peace with Hamas: Polling done by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) last June following Operation Guardian of the Walls showed that 27% of Israelis believed in strengthening deterrence through additional harsh IDF strikes against Hamas. Another 21% supported an incursion deep inside Gaza that physically dismantles Hamas’s military capabilities. 13% of Israelis favored a solution through humanitarian relief and economic development, while just 10% thought Israel should reconcile itself to Hamas rule and negotiate a ceasefire.
Only 10% of Israelis believe the Jewish state should resign itself to permanent rule in Gaza by the terror group Hamas. The other 90% are realists.
Last September, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid suggested testing a policy involving both economic carrots and military sticks, the goal being to “cause the residents of Gaza to pressure Hamas because they understand what they are missing out on as a result of terrorism and understand how much they stand to gain if that terrorism stops.”
Official Palestinian statistics show third quarter 2021 GDP per capita in Gaza at only $297, less than a third of the $1,097 in the West Bank. Half of Gaza’s workforce is unemployed, the young being disproportionately among the jobless.
Economic carrots could encompass extending Gaza’s fishing boundary and issuing more work permits for Gazans in Israel. It has also been suggested that the newly completed Israel-Gaza barrier allows for land on the Palestinian side, previously left barren for security reasons, now to be used for agricultural cultivation.
With a 50% rate of unemployment, Palestinians in Gaza would welcome more permits for Gazans to work in Israel. At the moment a total of 140,000 Palestinians from both the West Bank and Gaza work in Israel or the settlements; fewer than 20,000 of those are from Gaza. Along with many thousands more of work permits for Palestinians in Gaza, Israel can extend the fishing boundary so that more Gazans can make a living as fishermen. Another possibility is that with Israel’s security barrier now completed, it can afford to allow land on the Gazan side, which it has until now insisted be left barren for security reasons, to be cultivated. Israel could also loosen restrictions on the import of “dual-use” goods, such as cement and steel, into the Strip.
Although infrastructure development is a longer-term endeavor, it can still provide construction jobs in the interim. The basket of possible projects includes establishing a new power station, building a desalination plant, connecting Gaza to Mediterranean gas, and even the creation of an artificial offshore island port.
All these ideas share a common hope that, in providing economic tangibles for the people of Gaza, it is possible to strengthen the incentive to keep the peace and thereby defer the next round of fighting.
These are the many, and various, economic carrots that Israel has to offer the Palestinians in Gaza. It’s up to them to choose peace, that brings with it all these benefits, or to choose more war, that will keep the impoverished Gazans immiserated.
HOWEVER, SERIOUS obstacles remain.
First, it is unclear to what degree Hamas is willing prioritize the well-being of ordinary Gazans over its ideological commitment to “resistance.” Skeptics can rightly point to the millions that Hamas invested in its subterranean military projects at a time when the civilian population was in desperate need of assistance.
Hamas’ reason for being is terrorism and war to destroy the Jewish state, not the wellbeing of the people in Gaza. The terror group has already shown how little it cares for the Gazans by dragging them into four disastrous wars with Israel. And its priorities in peacetime are also telling: even as the Gazans sank deeper into poverty, Hamas decided to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in building a vast underground network of tunnels – what the Israelis call “the Metro,” in order to move both fighters and weapons throughout the Strip without their being detected – or so Hamas thought – by Israel.
Second, even if Hamas agrees to keep the Israel-Gaza frontier quiet, it is unlikely to abstain from encouraging and orchestrating deadly violence on the West Bank. A “ceasefire” in which Hamas continues terror attacks from Hebron, Jenin, and Tulkarm would be unsustainable….
Hamas may agree, to obtain those carrots, to keep the Gaza border quiet. But Mark Regev thinks that in the West Bank Hamas operatives will want to score points against their arch-rival, the Palestinian Authority. And the way to do that is to continue terror attacks on Israelis, in sharp contrast to the P.A., which will be seen to sit on its hands.
There is no way – other than re-occupying Gaza – for Israel to keep Hamas from smuggling in more, and better, weapons into Gaza from Iran.. It will also use any ceasefire to improve its own, homegrown weaponry.
Fourth, two live Israeli civilians and the bodies of two IDF soldiers are being held in Gaza. Lapid stated that “bringing back our boys must be part of any plan.” Yet it is doubtful that Hamas will agree to their return outside a deal which includes the release of Palestinian security prisoners. An exchange of this sort is always a highly complex exercise.
In the last disastrous “prisoner exchange,” Israel freed 1,027 Palestinians in exchange for exactly one soldier, Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas. Among those 1,027, some had been imprisoned for terrorism, and went back to their previous murderous occupation. Dozens of Israelis were killed as a result. Israelis vowed that never again would they engage in such a lopsided exchange, and no “security prisoners” would be released. But Israel is also very eager to get back the bodies of two soldiers, and two mentally-disturbed Israelis who had wandered into Gaza several years ago and been held ever since. Regev thinks Hamas will insist on the release of “security prisoners” while Israel will insist it will not do so; somehow this circle has to be squared. Who will yield?
Fifth, because Israel and much of the international community refuse to work directly with Hamas, it is necessary for the Palestinian Authority to fill the vacuum. Official rhetoric aside, it is far from certain that the PA is at all interested in enabling Hamas to create a better reality in Gaza. Experts have suggested that the PA may see advantages for itself in the continuation of a negative situation in Gaza that reflects badly on its political rival.
Given that Israel (and many other states) will not deal directly with Hamas, the P.A. has to be the necessary interlocutor between Hamas and Israel. But it likely will not want to bring the two – Hamas and Israel — to any kind of understanding that would improve the lot of people in Gaza, and increase Hamas’ popularity as a result. Regev suggests the P.A. will do what it can to keep Israel and Hamas at loggerheads.
Sixth, Islamic Jihad will always seek to outdo Hamas. This week it threatened a wave of violence if administrative detainee Hisham Abu Hawash died in prison from his hunger strike. Hamas will not want to be seen as passing the mantle of “resistance” over to its smaller brother. It is one thing for Hamas to restrain itself temporarily; it is quite another for it to forcibly reign in others. This gives Iran’s Gazan proxy [the PIJ} the ability to play spoiler.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a smaller rival of Hamas, but consistently more violent and unyielding. After the Hamas-Israel ceasefire was declared on May 21, the PIJ continued to fire rockets into Israel. If Hamas appears to be too pliable in its dealings with Israel, it can expect PIJ to accuse it of “going soft.” Then, If Hamas attacks the PIJ, to keep it from again breaking the ceasefire with Israel, Palestinians in Gaza will see it as having abandoned the “resistance” in order to make deals with the Jewish state.
Yet, notwithstanding these and other challenges, a pessimistic belief in the inevitability of an imminent Gaza war is unwarranted. On Benjamin Netanyahu’s watch, seven years of relative quiet separated Operation Protective Edge from Operation Guardian of the Walls. Through an astute strategy of deterrence and incentives it is not impossible to postpone a future round of fighting…
Regev considers the carrots that might persuade Hamas to come an understanding with Israel, and he lays out all the possible obstacles, and downsides, to such an agreement for Israel – but that can buy, he says, possibly even the Biblical seven years of peace. Not a permanent peace – Israel can’t count on that – but a hudna, a “truce treaty.” For Mark Regev, that’s quite enough. Meanwhile, with the Gaza theatre’s quiet assured, Israel will be able to focus its attention on its mortal enemy, Iran.
Will Israel, having increased the number of permits for Gazans to work in Israel, extended the fishing boundaries for Gaza’s fishermen, loosened the rules on importing into Gaza such “dual-use” products as cement and steel rods, making it easier for Gazans to rebuild their infrastructure, be the recipient of greater understanding, even sympathy, from the international community?
That’s easy. The answer, I’m afraid, is NO.