The bloody collision between Israel and Hamas is reaching a significant crossroad, with the US Administration pressuring Israel to stop Operation Protective Edge now, and deal with demilitarization of Gaza later.
However, many in Israel, including key ministers in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, believe that stopping Israel’s ground operation now, before Hamas is defeated, is a blunder that will only result in another, perhaps bloodier, round. Their constituents agree: In a poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 10 television on Sunday, 87 percent of Israelis supported the military offensive and 69 percent said it should continue until Hamas is toppled. Only 7 percent favored a cease-fire.
Democracies fighting enemies like Hamas, who blend terror with guerrilla tactics, and use their own people as human shields, always find it difficult to conduct a war which both conforms with their values and leads to victory. No wonder that the most popular quote in such scenarios is that of Sen. George D. Aiken in 1966, when he suggested to President Johnson that the US declare victory in Vietnam and “go home”.
Historians should judge whether or not Johnson should have heeded Aiken’s advice. For Israel, on the other hand, “going home” is not an option, because we are already home. No rocket fired by the Vietcong could have threatened America, while the Hamas rockets are today harassing half of Israel. And the deadly Củ Chi tunnels, which gave the US Army great headache in Saigon, are almost 9,000 miles away from New York, while the Hamas tunnels lead directly to Israeli villages and townships, ready to pour death on their residents.
The threat of the Hamas rockets and tunnels should be removed, then. And not only because they harm Israel, but also for the sake of the Gazans, who suffer heavily from the consequences of the terrorist, reckless behavior of their leaders. If the US pushes Israel to stop now, without a credible mechanism which guarantees that Hamas is stripped of its capabilities to further harm Israel, then it is not really helping to promote peace in this region in the long run.
A mechanism to disarm Hamas without beating it militarily is easier said than done. Israelis still remember United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which in 2006 ended the Second Lebanon War, promising that there will be “no weapons without the consent of the Government of Lebanon and no authority other than that of the Government of Lebanon”. This, of course, is a farce, because Hezbollah not only continued to keep its own independent military body, but even doubled its rearmament thrust with thousands of rockets smuggled from Iran. Israel will probably have to address this threat again in the future. It is only understandable, therefore, why it is determined not to let another such situation develop on its border with Gaza as well.
Beating Hamas militarily is a must, then, in order to lead to a credible disarmament mechanism. At this point, however, I would like to digress from the chorus of those in Israel who call for bringing Hamas to its knees. Indeed, we need to significantly weaken Hamas, but not to humiliate it. Here we can borrow a page from the Arab-Israeli history book.
The smashing defeat of the Arab armies in the Six Day War only triggered an urge for revenge, which was satisfied, at least as far as the Egyptians were concerned, in the Yom Kippur War. While every military historian would agree that the latter was a great military victory for the Israelis, there are museums in Egypt celebrating the great Egyptian victory in the “October War”. Why? Because, in the words of the great Egyptian writer Nagib Mahfouz, by defying the allegedly impenetrable Bar Lev Line, “we have crossed the defeat”. Also, regardless of the actual results on the battleground, President Anwar Sadat got what he wanted: Jumpstarting a political process which eventually gave him Sinai back. Realizing that Israel cannot be beaten militarily, but also being empowered with a regained pride, Sadat was able to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
The same logic should work in dealing with the Hamas. Israel should destroy as many tunnels and rockets and kill as many Hamas terrorists, but stop short of humiliating Hamas. On the contrary, let Hamas boast some gains (obviously courtesy of Al Jazeera television channel), such as easing restrictions on moving to and from Egypt. This rhetoric will allow it to swallow the bitter pill, not of making peace with Israel – Haled Mash’al and Ismail Haniyeh are no Sadat — but of being coerced to agree to a strict disarmament regime, enforced by Egypt, Israel and others, and to the return of Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority as the governing power in Gaza.
In sum, while Israel can’t follow Sen. Aitken’s advice and “go home”, it should nevertheless endorse the kind of creative thinking he was using, because, as he said about his own idea almost half a century ago, “(i)t may be a far-fetched proposal, but nothing else has worked.”