No strategy, no change

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The official end of the six-month ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza is not going to change very much in Israel-Hamas relations. Of course, it could change a lot for those Israelis and Palestinians who may now again be exposed to more intense physical danger. But just as before the ceasefire and during the ceasefire, Israel will continue not knowing what to do about Hamas.

Not only Israel, but Egypt, the PLO, the United States and Europe as well will remain at a loss. None of these actors has a workable strategy for dealing with Hamas. While the more distant actors in Washington and Brussels can perhaps afford to continue muddling through this issue, for Jerusalem, Cairo and Ramallah this has become a critical and inexcusable lacuna.

All three would like Hamas to disappear. But they don’t know how to make this happen, at least not at a reasonable price. And when they fail, they have no reasonable alternatives to fall back on.

Obviously, it is Israel that concerns us here. Over the three years since Hamas began gradually taking over the Gaza Strip, first through elections and then by force, Israel has invoked a variety of economic, military and political measures for dealing with it. All have proven ineffective.

The most constant strategy has been economic boycott or blockade. The goal is to prevent all but the most basic necessities in terms of food, medicine and services from reaching Gazans, on the assumption that this will turn them against their Hamas government. Here Israel has enjoyed the explicit or tacit support of Egypt, the PLO and the West.

This strategy, invoked prior to and during the recently-ended ceasefire, has inflicted terrible humanitarian suffering on 1.5 million Gazans without producing any obvious political benefit in terms of altering Hamas’ attitude toward Israel or reducing the violence emanating from Gaza. Indeed, it appears to be counterproductive, insofar as it has caused the population to rally round its leadership and has led Hamas to encourage an underground economy (both literally, through the philadelphi tunnels, and in classic economic terms) that benefits Hamas insiders while stripping traditional moderate commercial interests in Gaza of both their dignity and their assets.

In fact, the only security justification for keeping Gaza commercial passages closed is the penchant of Hamas and other extremist groups in Gaza to attack them when they are open. This is by way of acknowledging that, when it comes to Gaza, Hamas too is capable of invoking a counterproductive strategy. But this hardly justifies the Israeli insistence on economic boycott as a productive long-term approach.

A second Israeli strategy is to invoke limited warfare against Hamas and other militants in Gaza, on a kind of tit-for-tat basis. This approach produces occasional limited reductions in Hamas military activity, alternating in spates of escalation, but never leading to a resolution of the conflict: everybody suffers, nothing is concluded. An adjunct to this dysfunctional strategy is Israel’s growing investment in civil defense measures, meaning primarily shelters, among the communities located in a growing radius around Gaza that is targeted by Hamas rockets. The greater the investment in defense, the more obvious the admission that the limited offensive military strategy doesn’t work.

One possible exception to this list of failed military strategies is a concerted campaign to target the Hamas leadership as a means of deterring it from supporting aggression against Israel. This approach was temporarily effective in 2004, when Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdul Aziz Rantisi were assassinated, leading to six months of peace and quiet. But for obvious legal and ethical reasons, this is a controversial strategy both internationally and domestically.

An alternative military strategy not yet invoked would be to launch a full-fledged military invasion aimed at reoccupying Gaza and physically eliminating Hamas. The high price Israel would pay in civilian and military casualties, the difficulty in maintaining control over 1.5 million civilians in reoccupied Gaza, the trauma of an unsuccessful military campaign in Lebanon in 2006, the regional and international complications and, most glaringly, the absence of a workable exit strategy that could turn over a pacified Gaza Strip to an alternative sovereign capable of maintaining control–all combine to prohibit such an adventure. Of course, this doesn’t prevent some of our politicians from talking about it endlessly.

Here it bears mention that, in addition to these failed strategies, Israel’s focus on Gaza is also currently influenced in an exaggerated manner by two side-issues: approaching elections and the fate of a single IDF soldier in Hamas captivity.

There is a growing school of Israeli strategic thinkers who advocate a radical strategic reversal and a resort to political means: opening a political dialogue with Hamas. Here, too, the obstacles are considerable. First of all, most Hamas leaders and activists refuse to talk to Israelis, preferring to convey their demands and ideas via the media and third parties. Even were they to agree to meet and talk, their agenda is limited to a set of demands that are extremist compared to those discussed with the PLO: ceasefire rather than peace along the 1967 lines, no recognition, and insistence on the right of return of all Palestinian refugees.

Moreover, the very act of talking to Hamas about these demands would violate a set of preconditions for engagement proffered by Israel and the Quartet back when Hamas won the last Palestinian elections: Hamas must first recognize the right of Israel to exist, abandon violence and accept all previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements. Those demands never made sense as preconditions for talking between enemies. But Israel can hardly abandon them unilaterally without coordinating with the Quartet. Perhaps the Obama administration, with its apparent readiness to engage America’s (and Israel’s) state enemies unconditionally, will consider talking to Hamas as well.

Yet doing so would undermine the already weakened PLO with which Israel continues to negotiate along more reasonable lines. And it would strengthen the possibility of the emergence of a "three-state solution", with Israel confronting "Hamastan" in Gaza and a Fateh-dominated mini-state in the West Bank. This is not a strategic decision that Israel should take without consulting with its Arab neighbors.

Meanwhile, yet another strategy–ceasefire–has failed, at least for now. The development of effective anti-Qassam and anti-mortar weapons that could neutralize Hamas’ offensive capabilities is years away. Hamas appears to be here to stay–on the Israeli, Palestinian and Middle East Islamic scene. Under these circumstances, whether we are now entering into an informal ceasefire, a new round of conflict or something in between appears to be largely irrelevant to the big picture. That Israel has difficulty acknowledging this fact–that it’s ineffective leaders continue to bluster day in and day out with an utter lack of credibility about what Israel is going to do to Hamas rather than acknowledging strategic bankruptcy as a first step toward more constructive thinking–is part of the problem.

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