Israel must Formulate a Strategy Regarding the Palestinians Before it’s Too Late

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The citizens of Israel, alongside many global observers, were reminded that contrary to general wisdom the Palestinian national movement is very much not moribund. 

The convergence of events in the West Bank, mixed cities in Israel and Gaza has emphasized that whether we like it or not, the Palestinian problem is still very much alive and present albeit in a new and arguably more threatening form to Israel and the status quo. 

If in the past Israel preferred strategic patience vis a vis the Palestinian national movement, a new understanding of its urgency has taken hold. The recent conflagration in Gaza was the confluence of previously seemingly separate factors that are increasingly better understood together: the cancellation of elections in the Palestinian Authority (and indeed the threat of a Hamas takeover via elections) Mahmoud Abbas’ slipping status and questionable health, and Hamas’s desire to become the leading faction in Palestinian politics and tie itself to Jerusalem. These developments require Israel to immediately stop digging the head in the sand and to formulate a strategy that is in line with Israeli interests.

Hamas’ decision to open fire against Israel over Sheikh Jarrakh and the Temple Mount/Al Aqsa complex to claim legitimacy in the eyes of Palestinians as a “defender of Jerusalem ” is a “red flag ” for Israel’s current policy towards Hamas. Hamas’ rocket firing was especially egregious considering Israeli steps taken to lead to calm such as changing the route of the ultra-nationalist ‘Flag March’ in the Old City of Jerusalem. This flagrant attempt at exploiting the instability and violence in Jerusalem necessitated a strong response.

Israel has several options for its future policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Assuming that the continuation of the current situation will lead to future clashes with Hamas (Given the fact that the fundamental problems for which Hamas initiated the recent clash with Israel have not yet been solved) Israel has to change its current policy. There are three main options for Israel:

  • Military action to topple Hamas– Israel could theoretically take over the Gaza Strip and end Hamas’s rule. This is ostensibly a classic military solution, but beyond the cost of such an operation (both human and material), even if Israel succeeds in achieving this goal, it is not certain who would control Gaza if and when Israel withdraws. In addition, Hamas was democratically elected in 2006 and is (unfortunately) increasingly viewed as a legitimate actor by many worldwide. While a larger military operation against Hamas to severely degrade its capabilities may occur and be feasible, the chance of Israel re-occupying Gaza is overall very low due to a lack of political will, international criticism and more.
  • A “small” political move – Israel can continue the differentiation between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and try to reach a long settlement with Hamas (including allowing workers from Gaza to work in Israel, building a port, etc.) but as the events of the latest operation have shown, these considerations, even if they have been central in recent months and years, became secondary once Hamas decided that it wanted to take control over the Palestinians people by becoming the “defender of Jerusalem.” Considering this fact, no matter what economic incentives are offered to Hamas, it is unlikely that they alone will force Hamas not to act against Israel again. 
  • A “big” political move – perhaps the only solution to the situation in Gaza is to go to a “robust” political process that includes the Palestinian Authority and the moderate countries in the region, which will work to achieve an internal agreement that will defuse the tension between Hamas and Fatah. For agreeing to embedded Hamas in the PLO, Hamas will give to the PA the control over the civilian aspects in Gaza and begin the process of merging into the Palestinian security apparatuses.   This move will not lead to the disarmament of Hamas in the short term, but if Israel helps the Palestinian Authority economically and politically, its strengthening on the ground could contain Hamas politically and militarily. This move will also allow the PA to become a representative and reliable interlocutor for the Palestinian people in the eyes of the international community which would increase the chance of significant aid spending being contributed to Gaza.

Bottom line, 

The latest confrontation proved that Israel cannot solve the Gaza problem separately from the overall Palestinian problem and cannot rely on economic incentives alone to ensure peace and security. Israel must initiate or join a combined process aimed at strengthening the PA by beginning a political process and at the same time accepting Hamas – Fatah reconciliation that will lead to Hamas joining the PLO. If Israel will not initiate or join such a move, the next round of fighting is inevitable. In the current political circumstances of the Palestinian national movement, Hamas has nothing to lose and would probably not hesitate to continue armed struggle against Israel.

About the Author
Danny (Dennis) Citrinowicz is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs and a senior WEBINT instructor at Cyberpro. Previously, he was senior fellow at the Institute of Policy and Strategy (IPS) and the Abba Eban institute at Reichman University. Danny served 25 years in a variety of command positions units in Israel Defense Intelligence (IDI) including as the head of the Iran branch in the Research and Analysis Division (RAD) in the Israeli defense intelligence and as the division’s representative in the United States.
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