The Israeli air assault on Gaza enters its fourth day, and the possibility of an accompanying ground assault is increasing. The suffering of the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza is becoming ever more appalling and unbearable. [A long history of errors and miscalculations by all sides has led up to this situation, but that is not my immediate concern here. This is a moment for sober thinking by Israel's leaders.] The narrower goals of the Israeli operation--with the telling name "Cast Lead"--are the humiliation of Hamas, the degrading of its military capacity, the restoration of the cease-fire in Gaza, and the rehabilitation of Israeli deterrence that was left in tatters after the summer 2006 Lebanon War. But broader goals have also been mentioned, though in vaguer terms. Among them is the hope of producing a long-term change in Hamas’ behavior or even of eliminating it. To attain such goals, Israeli leaders repeatedly assert, this operation will last a long time. That would be a grave mistake for the following three reasons.
First, Israel is about to exhaust obvious and legitimate military targets, especially those available for aerial bombardment, even under their broadest interpretation. Admittedly Hamas never seriously tried to separate its political and military wings--unlike, say, the Basque nationalist ETA (who have had both the clandestine ETA and various incarnations of the Hari Batasuna Party) or the Irish Republicans (who had the IRA and the Sinn Fein Party), partly because it does not really have a political strategy distinct from its military one. Even so, bombing Hamas police stations and Hamas's organizational structure is different from striking the Hamas broadcasting center, let alone the Islamic University in Gaza City. Attacking distinctly civilian targets and the infrastructure of civil life is a potential war crime. It is also counterproductive. The number of civilian casualties will rise, and the international community will be mobilized to chip away at the immunity Israel now seems to possess in targeting Hamas.
Second, the degree of tacit support Israel has so far enjoyed for this operation is fragile. It is remarkable that Mahmoud Abbas, Egypt, and even Saudi Arabia (through its semi-official Asharq Alawsat) blame Hamas for the Israeli operation even though none of them justifies it. All three were involved in either arranging the cease-fire between Hamas and Israel or promoting Fatah-Hamas talks and, consequently, hold Hamas responsible for ending the cease-fire with a bang and, by so doing, inviting Israel to undertake this operation. Indeed, it is becoming ever clearer just how grave Hamas’s miscalculation was in taking control of the Gaza Strip through a local coup d’êtat in June 2007. As a result of the coup Hamas has isolated itself in the Arab world and is viewed as a surrogate of Iran. Its Arab “allies” are keen to see it weakened, even if through Israeli pounding. But it is doubtful how long Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be able to withstand the pressure of the demonstrations throughout the Arab world that call for closing the Arab ranks behind the Palestinian cause. Hamas's ability to draw support from reluctant Arab governments will increase the longer the Israeli operation goes on.
Third, and most crucial, Israel has already attained many of its narrower military aims and is not likely to accomplish its larger political goals. Contrary to much wishful thinking that presents itself as realism, a genuinely realistic analysis has to begin by recognizing that violence against Israel is Hamas’s raison d’être. Its non-military goals, such as they are, call for Israeli concessions without tying its own hands in the future. Furthermore, by casting its “truce” proposals not in international diplomatic terms that can be monitored and enforced by the UN but in Islamic terms (hudna) that may be interpreted only within Islamic jurisdiction, it removes the possibility of an agreement with a non-Islamic adversary. All this might, hypothetically, change in the future, but Hamas is not going to suddenly transform its core identity under military pressure.
Hamas's alleged pragmatism has evaporated since its coup and we are left with the reality of an exclusively military world view. The consequences have been disastrous for Palestinians, not just for Israelis. But deploring this reality is less important than facing up to it. How else can one explain the fact that instead of hunkering down after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in September 2005 and letting Kadima implement its planned withdrawals from the West Bank, Hamas chose to allow the rocketing of nearby Israeli towns thus effectively destroying the Kadima plan. How else can one account for the fact that Hamas defends the firing of rockets that are singularly ineffective and cause more psychological than actual damage in Israel? At a strategic level, Hamas is not interested in political alternatives to armed confrontation. But whether one wants to call the Hamas strategy resistance or terrorism, the lack of a serious political plan to accompany military strategies is always counterproductive, as it is has been for Hamas and for the people of Gaza.
It will be equally counterproductive for Israel. It appears that Israeli political leaders and military planners labor under the illusion that there is a military “solution” to Hamas. The extended military operation in Gaza is expected to serve as a pedagogical tool for moderating or eliminating Hamas. But this will not work, and the idea that a ground invasion of Gaza could actually eliminate Hamas as a force in Palestinian politics is delusional. The Israeli approach is every bit as driven by militarism as Hamas’ strategy is. Beyond a certain point, it can serve no realistic political goals. In fact, I would offer a concise definition for militarism as not knowing when to stop. Israel is in danger of recapitulating in Gaza the last few weeks of the war against Hezbollah, which increasingly turned into a war against Lebanon.
Continuing the reciprocal militarisms of Hamas and Israel can do no more than prepare the ground for another and probably more lethal round. Hamas is not about to change, but Israel now has the opportunity to act in a way that is realistic and might limit the suffering inflicted on the civilian Palestinian population. Olmert and Livni have both stated that they are fighting Hamas, not the Palestinians of Gaza. To show this, rather than just state it, Israel should now stop its military operation for a stated period while indicating that they are doing so to give Hamas a chance to return to a de facto cease-fire. At the very least, that would demonstrate the alleged good will of an Israel seeking to defend its citizens, rather than harm the citizens of Gaza. If Hamas ignores or rejects that opening, the gap between Hamas and the real interests of the Palestinian civilian population would become even more visible. But an Israeli initiative of this sort would also put Hamas under tremendous pressure to reciprocate by restoring is side of the cease-fire. And once the rocket attacks on Israeli towns have actually been stopped, after having provoked this massive Israeli retaliation, it would not be easy or costless for Hamas to allow their resumption.
The strongest argument in favor of such an approach is that all the available alternatives--including the currently stated Israeli policy of seeking ‘to educate’ or eliminate Hamas--lead nowhere and can only yield disastrous and counterproductive results, along with unnecessary human suffering. Israel has made its point. Now it should know when to stop.