When I first sat down to write this submission, I must have typed and retyped it at least three times. I simply could not articulate everything, or anything I had to say. Four boys had just been murdered by the monsters on either side of this conflict and it seemed like the next war against Hamas, which has finally come, was on the horizon. At the risk of being cliché: it appeared that the die had been cast. An uncomfortable malaise began to settle onto people, a resignation wrapped in classic Israeli cynicism. There was some hope that it would all blow over, but it was a fleeting sentiment. Indeed, here we are, aren’t we?
Par for the course, the usual suspects began to emerge. Western networks scrambled for their breaking news graphics while foreign pundits, in their shiny New York or London studios, questioned their khaki clad foreign correspondents. As many of us expected, the media gods – a fickle bunch – have not been kind. The heart-breaking deaths of four Palestinian boys by errant Israeli shells will likely eclipse any story about the lengths to which Israel has gone to prevent civilian casualties. Meanwhile, on the sillier end of things, a tweet by CNN’s Diana Magnay (who apparently has the social media instincts of a 15 year old girl) characterized Israelis as “scum” after a few imbecilic locals in Sderot decided to harass the journalist. From tragic to petty, these stories will likely become the face of the operation in the international eye and be, for years to come, talking points in the glee-full arsenal of Israel-defamers and keyboard warriors. Still, there is reason to believe that the real battle, not the one for ratings, belies a far more complex reality.
Beneath the resistance rhetoric and rocket fire, Hamas is feeling some serious hunger pangs. A lingering financial crunch, compounding the economic strains of a seven-year blockade, has for a while been a serious threat to any credibility Hamas has left in Gaza. Inescapable even for it’s own bureaucracy, 46,000 government workers have been living on only half-wages for months now. Their paychecks have shrunk, in some cases, to just 1,000 shekels (290 USD) per month. Yet this pales in comparison to the state of ordinary Palestinians in the strip. Among Gazans, all of which are already under severely austere conditions, 40% are unemployed. Those who do generate an income have faced merciless tariffs imposed by Hamas on smuggled Egyptian commodities, goods which constitute 65% of the Strip’s flour, as well as 52% of its rice and 100% of cement and steel. On everything, from gasoline to cigarettes, Hamas had become accustomed to a 30 million shekel tax revenue stream, a sum that has been a main source of its political viability among their beleaguered electorate. But no more.
The road to Hamas’s economic ruin began in 2012, when it’s external government left Damascus in the wake of Bashar al-Assad’s continued crackdown on a mostly popular and mostly Sunni three-year rebellion. For a time it appeared that Hamas had made a strategically sound decision. Four months after it had broken ranks with it’s Shia surrogate, the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power in Egypt could have led one to believe that there would be two democratically elected Islamist regimes sitting on the Eastern Mediterranean. But Hamas, as much as the Brotherhood, was caught off guard by the Egyptian army’s counter coup in the summer of 2013. Suddenly it found itself not only in unprecedented isolation, but with a bitter enemy in the General turned President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose distaste for anything Islamist manifested itself in the handing out of 182 death sentences, mostly to members of the banned MB, and the destruction of a reported 1, 370 smuggling tunnels circumventing the sealed Rafah crossing. Effectively trapped and unable to provide the services it once could, the leadership in Gaza also had to contend with an emboldened local rival. Tehran, which had provided Hamas with approximately $150 million annually, not only demoted its ties to the terror organization, but boosted relations with Islamic Jihad, lining its pockets with the same petro-dollars that were once reserved for Hamas.
It is no surprise then that around the same time Hamas finally became amiable to joining a Palestinian unity government. Before, when it could secure backing from Iran and/or the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas could afford to bait its Fatah rival with the prospect of unity, but ultimately snub the idea altogether. This back and forth served two purposes. Firstly, it drummed up support for Hamas by reminding those who needed reminding that it still walked the path of resistance. Secondly, it painted Abu Mazen as a Zionist collaborator willing to forgo violence in favor of capitulation. But in lieu of such backing, this hubris evaporated. Hamas had to put its revolutionary zeal on the backburner.
A tangible picture of Hamas’s dropping popularity emerged with a 2013 poll conducted among Gazan Palestinians. The results hinted at a shifting political landscape that showed Hamas garnering only 23.3% of the seaside enclaves goodwill, as opposed to Islamic Jihad’s 13.5% (the smaller group had clocked in at only 1% in a 2010 survey). Fatah meanwhile claimed a 32% advantage over either Islamist group individually, suggesting that Hamas’s decision to hand over all “official” authority to Ramallah was truly was one of pragmatism, not ideology.
Indeed, before its slide into the current financial crisis, pragmatism was becoming part and parcel of Hamas’s strategy concerning resistance against Israel. Neither side wanted a repeat of Caste Lead (the cost to Hamas’s manpower was too great) or another Pillar of Defense (the damage to Gaza’s infrastructure had already elicited backlash in the Strip). Consequently, there seemed to have emerged an unofficial agreement, one in which Hamas would remain in power, relatively unscathed by the IDF, but would have to rein in the more extreme factions operating in the Strip, preventing them from firing too many rockets at communities too far beyond Gaza.
The wild card in all of this was, as one might imagine, the triple murder and revenge murder that occurred between June and July. The deaths of Eyal, Naftali and Gilad were, strategically, a setback for Hamas. Firstly, the Qawasmeh clan, a veteran Hamas branch to whom the killers of the three Jewish teens belonged, proved that Hamas was unable to control its operatives in the West Bank, a fact which weakened its standing in the unity government. Secondly, the murders provoked a massive IDF round-up of about 350 Palestinian suspects, many of which were Hamas members let go from Israeli prisons in exchange for Gilad Shalit. This too weakened Hamas, and also robbed it of a historic victory. Thirdly, the two previous factors increased the organization’s isolation, compelling it to renew violence both as a way to rebuff speculation of its shrinking clout, and as a way for it to pressure Fatah to broker some sort of deal with Israel to ease the tension. Unfortunately for the Hamas, Abu Mazen seemed to lack any real diplomatic capital with Bibi. So, unwilling to have its bluff called, and stoked by the gruesome immolation of Muhammad Abu Kdeir, Hamas subsequently raised the stakes. It refused to stop rocket fire or heed any proposed ceasefire agreement. Simply put, Hamas put way more chips than it could afford to lose on the table.
While writing all of this, I have been trying to set aside the sheer human cost being paid in Gaza at the moment. I assure you, dear reader, it is not easy. I have friends there, friends whose faces I want – more than anything – to see again, happy and safe, at restaurants, bars and parties. I also sympathize with the Palestinians. They are a people victimized both by their leadership, the Arab world and yes, also by Israel’s fight against the terrorist elements embedded in their society. They deserve better, as do the Israeli citizens that have been under the umbrella of Hamas’s rockets for seven years. So, why am I trying to shelve the terrible visions running through my head? Because as bad as things are now, they might get worse if Israel, and indeed the world (if its up to it) actually decide to make the change that must be made.
Allow me to clarify. All ideology aside, it is not possible to go back to the situation that may have been. It was possible, before all of this, to have a tense, dysfunctional but existent Palestinian unity government working with a suspicious but begrudgingly cooperative Israeli government. True, the two sides would surely drag their respective feet toward a half-doomed diplomatic initiative, and third parties would issue impotent calls for bipartisanship, but it would be something. That is no longer possible. No, an Israeli withdrawal now would only allow Hamas to gloat over having forced the IDF to retreat. It would also give it a dangerous edge over Fatah. The situation that must happen on the ground should be one that, at least, produces a similar understanding that Israel struck with Hezbollah after the second Lebanon war, after which Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general, regretted having provoked the wrath of the IDF and, for years since, dared not fire a single rocket beyond the border.
If that is the model, then question is “how much is enough?” The IDF has already stated that its main objective is to destroy the terror tunnels leading into Israel, not the topple Hamas. Yet, as we have seen in the last two weeks, things do have a tendency to escalate. If the IDF does decide to expand its fight against Hamas, Israel might find itself chasing Hamas further into Gaza’s urban center where it will likely kill more of its fighters, but not eliminate its leadership (who are hiding in bunkers like the one beneath Shifa hospital). In losing fighters, territory and access to vital infrastructure, Hamas’s divisions and regional commands would become severed from one another. This lack of cohesion might then create a power vacuum, one that the factions repressed by Hamas will likely try to capitalize on. Islamic Jihad, for example, has plenty of reason to take a bite out of Hamas’s monopoly on power. After upgrading their relationship with Iran, several members of the PIJ, to express their gratitude to Tehran, became practicing Shias – an anomaly among the almost exclusively Sunni Muslim Palestinians. Hamas, in response, organized a brutal crackdown on the newly converted Shia worshipers, beating many and arresting 14. This mutual bitterness might easily translate to an intra-Islamist conflict. Generally speaking, various fronts and groups, still fueled by vendettas and rivalries, would likely begin fighting each other as well as the IDF, a situation that could lead to a string of successor conflicts that will persist even if Hamas is “eliminated”, whatever that might mean.
Given such a scenario, Israel would then have to commit itself to the long haul in the Strip, which, as anybody with a shred of knowledge about the nature of urban warfare can say, will be bloody. But there is one way to mitigate the losses to Israel and the Palestinian population. Israelis, despite the very fresh UNRWA school controversy, would have to put suspend their contempt for the “dreaded” international community and agree to the deployment of a multinational peacekeeping force. For their part, the peacekeeping force’s command would have to be selected well, arrive soon and be willing to fight if need be. Executed correctly, their presence can dismantle the regressive resistance narrative, undercutting it by replacing “the Zionist enemy” with a neutral party and improving the Strip’s humanitarian circumstances. Once stabilized, Fatah, the best option we have for a long-term governor in Gaza, can be reintroduced and normalization, to some degree, can begin.
To assuage any doubt of whether there is any potential for normalcy in Gaza, I’d refer anyone to a poll by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, showing that not only do a whopping 88% of Gazans prefer that PA officials replace Hamas as the administration in the Strip, but that 82% of those surveyed would like to see more Palestinians working across the fence in Israel. These figures demonstrate a massive disparity between Hamas’s resistance narrative and the reality of the ground. The fact is that most Palestinians do not want war, but more importantly, they don’t want Hamas. They see the far better quality of life that their cousins have in the West Bank and genuinely want it for themselves. If given the chance they are likely to try and emulate it, shunning any band of thugs who would want to spoil their chance.
I don’t mean to advocate for this conflict, and I realize that if you’ve read this far it might seem like that’s exactly what I’m doing. But know dear reader, that I lament the use of force, and always will. Not once during my service in the IDF did I disrespect, abuse or hurt a Palestinian, and I’ve taken quite a bit of flack for my “lefty” views. But I do believe that terrorism must be fought. Yes, fought with weapons. The reality is that we’re passed the point of de-escalation. Reports of soldiers dying are trickling in, both via the media and through connections inside the army. Israel is engaged at this point and the noose that Hamas had placed around its own neck is tightening. Now is the time to kick the chair out from under its feet. The biggest folly of this conflict might not be how many have died or the damage done to infrastructure (I don’t mean to diminish these tragedies). Rather, like certain conflicts of the recent past – Iraq, Afghanistan – the greatest danger might emerge when the dust settles and the wounds that were thought to have been cauterized erupt bloodier and deadlier than ever.