It seems pretty evident that for our prime minister, the desired political outcome of this war is a weakened Hamas still in control of Gaza. This can be the only explanation for why there has been an Israeli negotiating team in Cairo negotiating with Hamas, indirectly, on improvements to the Gaza isolation policy instituted by Israel when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007.
How can one explain the lack of an Israeli political initiative with clearly defined political goals for the postwar period? No Israeli initiative is the best indication that the prime minister, who is in charge of the delegation he sent to Cairo, wants to preserve the status quo. It seems that having Hamas in control of Gaza, albeit a weakened Hamas, appeals to his political agenda of having no political initiative toward peace with the Palestinians.
The Palestinian delegation in Cairo is composed of all the main factions and is led by Fatah representative Azzam Ahmed. It is clear that the power of veto is clearly in the hands of the Hamas representatives there. They call the shots, not the Fatah representative of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. By the time this article is published we will know if they have agreed to extend the 72-hour cease-fire, or if they have decided to draw us back to war. If their basic demands are not met, they will renew the fire.
Believe it or not, Hamas feels that it is in control. It believes it won this war, despite the heavy damage and high casualties. According to it, it has fought a longer war than Hezbollah in Second Lebanon War. This is what Hamas claims: It has kept over three million Israelis under the terror of rocket attacks. Its long-range rockets went as far as Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It shut down civil aviation to Israel for several days and some airlines have cut back their flights throughout the war. It surprised Israel with its massive network of tunnels, and claims Israel has not found all of them. Its elite force of some 3,000 men remains largely intact and almost all of the officers unharmed. The political leadership remains alive and well and because many of their personal homes were demolished, they can put themselves in the same class as those who did not enjoy the protection of underground bunkers.
Most of all, they say, “We stood up to Israel – 3,000 brave Hamas fighters took on the strongest army in the Middle East and we beat them.”
Both Israel and Hamas want to end the war and both sides are trapped in a corner, not knowing how to do it.
Hamas must show some political achievements to justify all of the damage that has occurred in Gaza. Since Israel did not decide to remove Hamas, militarily or politically, Israel must ensure that Hamas does not have the ability to rearm and plan for the next war. From war to war, the fighting gets more complicated and difficult and there are more casualties on both sides.
Official Israeli policy since the beginning of the war has been to return quiet to the south and to prevent Hamas from rearming. There has not been a war policy directive to eliminate Hamas’s control of Gaza, to conduct a regime change or even to disarm Hamas entirely. The goals have been rather amorphous and quite modest.
The army (and all of the ex-army spokespeople on the airwaves) speak about rebuilding Israeli deterrence. There is no mathematical formula for achieving deterrence and you only know you have created it much later. I would contend, from my familiarity with Hamas and its leaders and members, that it is almost impossible to create deterrence against this organization.
Many of the Hamas fighters in their main elite fighting units have been recruited from bereaved families. After Operation Cast Lead, Izzadin Kassam (the military wing of Hamas) commanders visited bereaved families and recruited youngsters from those families and assured them of revenge for the killing of their family members.
This together with a strong Hamas type Islamic preaching on the positive attributes of sacrificing your life for Allah, for Islam and for Palestine removes fear of death from their consciousness. Before the Israeli ground operation began, the 3,000 Hamas elite troops were sent home to depart from the families for the last time. Most of these young fighters went into battle with the sense that they would not be coming home and they were prepared to die.
Many commentators have argued that while perhaps the young fighters are not afraid to die, their leaders are – look how those cowards are hiding underground while their people are exposed to Israeli bombs. Yes, it is true that the leaders all headed for cover, leaving their people above ground and exposed. None of the Hamas leaders have been killed. Many of them have lost their homes as they were direct targets of the Israeli air force. Most of these leaders, some of whom have profited very nicely from their leadership positions, are also not afraid to die. There is a difference between wanting to live in order to serve as leaders in their mission of freeing Palestine and serving Allah and the fear of dying.
From my personal experience in negotiating with them, I believe that they share a deep belief that their fate has already been sealed by Allah and if they live or die, it is not in their hands at all and death is something they do not fear. This was certainly the view of Ahmed Jabari, their commander in chief, who was killed in November 2012.
My conclusion is that creating deterrence is not really possible against Hamas. If it chooses to stop the war, it is not because of deterrence but because of a whole other set of reasons. In 2012 it was clear that it accepted a cease-fire in order to rearm and prepare itself for the next round, which happened this summer.
The most bewildering thing about this war is that the government of Israel has set no political goals, they haven’t even discussed this. War is a form of diplomacy usually used to create geo-strategic changes on the ground. In order for that to occur in a way that serves the interests of the country, it is usually wise to at least set those goals. This has not been done. While many new opportunities have emerged because of the war and other reasons, the prime minister of Israel seems intent on preserving the status quo of keeping Hamas in power in Gaza and continuing to reject the Palestinian reconciliation government. It seems evident that this plan enables Netanyahu to continue to stand in place without taking any initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates all have common cause in combating Islamic fundamentalist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, Israel refuses to take any initiative that could merge these interests into a plan that could lead to a regional security and stability pact and perhaps even peace. The reason is because the price that Israel must pay for that to happen is to end its occupation of Palestine and arrive at a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians that will grant them freedom and independence. This is beyond Netanyahu’s abilities.
The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas from The Toby Press.