Circling each other in Gaza

There were two interesting indications Saturday of how future relations between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza will play out, particularly vis-a-vis the prospects for Israeli military intervention. First were the gradually escalating Israel military incursions in the north and south. Then came the Hamas response, a statement by one its spokespeople that Hamas would extend its ceasefire with Israel if Israel ended such incursions and eased restrictions on the movement of goods in and out of Gaza.

Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza the future of relations between Gaza and Israel has been the subject of all kinds of debates at both the political and military levels in Israel. For some Israelis, having the Palestinian territories divided under different leaderships in the West Bank and Gaza makes the mission of Israel easier, since it weakens the Palestinian side politically and militarily and thus diminishes the prospects of any independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories emerging. This school of thought is willing to deal separately with the Fateh leadership in the West Bank and the Hamas leadership in Gaza. Others, however, are worried about Hamas’ control over Gaza and see it as not being in the interest of Israel because it could sooner or later create a base to be used, including on the military level, against Israel.

Hamas’ commitment to the ceasefire since its victory in elections and its ability to ensure the kind of discipline among most of the resistance factions that Fateh was unable to influence, encouraged those Israelis who thought they could live with the current situation. The main worries in Israel relate to the smuggling of arms and trained fighters through the Egypt-Gaza border as well as the continuing rocket fire from Gaza. Indeed, it was an incident of the latter, when a rocket hit a military base and injured some 70 soldiers, which sparked the current debate in Israel about whether to enter into a major military operation in Gaza.

This debate includes several considerations. One of these is a political consideration: whether having Hamas control Gaza is useful for Israel. This has to do with the internal Palestinian situation in which continued Hamas control over Gaza contributes to the weakness of the Palestinian Authority and the government led by Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad. The dilemma here is that continued Hamas control over Gaza undermines the ability of Abbas to deliver any kind of negotiated agreement, but weakening Hamas through Israeli military force will also not play into the hands of Abbas. On the contrary, it will further discredit the West Bank leadership and empower Hamas politically. Yet at the same time, the option of ending Hamas-control by resuming an inter-Palestinian dialogue of a kind that will bring back a unity government is a non-starter from an Israeli and American point of view.

The military considerations also seem to indicate that any military intervention is not an easy mission and will cause casualties on both sides, especially on the Palestinian side. This is going to reflect negatively on the image of Israel and positively on the credibility and popularity of Hamas.

For these reasons, it is most likely that Hamas and Israel will remain on the brink of military confrontation without actually going over the top; the current low-intensity conflict will most likely remain that way at least until the end of the year. This means there will be a continuation of small Israeli incursions and limited air attacks.

Meanwhile, the prospects for the US-sponsored peace meeting between Abbas and Olmert will directly reflect on the prospects for a large-scale military confrontation in Gaza. If the current signs of hesitation vis-a-vis this conference continue, this will increase the chances of violence in Gaza. As it is now, there appear to be serious regional obstacles to that conference. The American exclusion of Syria, for reasons to do with Iraq and Lebanon, is causing Saudi Arabia, which needs Arab consensus to take part in an official meeting with Israel, to take a step back.

If, however, these problems are solved and the meeting takes place, that should reduce chances of a major military operation in Gaza.