A PALESTINIAN woman takes cover during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border fence on Friday.
(photo credit: REUTERS/IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA)
When Hamas implemented a coup d’état in Gaza in 2007 and kicked out the Fatah forces of the Palestinian Authority, Israel responded by designating Gaza as an “enemy territory” and implemented a policy it called “differentiation” (bidul in Hebrew). The basic idea of the policy was to enable the Palestinians to understand that if they supported moderation, the PA, there would be prosperity, openness, economic development and political opportunities. But if they supported Hamas, there would be economic closure, no development, territorial restrictions on movement and access, and no political opportunities. This is collective punishment against the Palestinian people for electing a Hamas government. The policy failed. Hamas has remained in power and has strengthened their hold on Gaza since the inception of the policy. The failure was not only because collective punishment rarely works, but also because the situation in the West Bank has not developed into the peace and prosperous reality that was supposed to be the “difference” that the Palestinian people would see between the reality on the ground in both Palestinian territories.
The realization of the failure has led Israel to engage together with the assistance of Egypt in trying to manage the relations with Gaza and the Hamas regime there. Egypt, which has genuine leverage of Hamas, serves as the primary access point for Gazans to the rest of the world. Egypt has managed to get Hamas to dissociate itself entirely from its roots of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt also succeeded in getting Hamas to modify its covenant in which it eliminated some of its antisemitic content and i accepted a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, without committing to peace with Israel. Egypt has successfully and repeatedly pressured Hamas into ceasefire understandings with Israel. With the assistance of Qatar, Israel has bought six months of quiet with Gaza for the price of $15 million a month of Qatari money as well as additional Qatari fuel that comes from Israel and provides Gaza with electricity.
Israel is clearly interested in weakening Hamas. Despite Hamas being in deep political and financial crisis, it is not being weakened. The PA has come to the realization that there are very little chances of reconciliation between it and Hamas and have returned to a policy of sanctions against the Hamas regime. President Abbas is seeking support of Egypt and other Arab leaders to agree to pressure Hamas. Hamas has refused to accept Abbas’s demands to turn over the control of its military wing to a single-headed Palestinian government led by Abbas. In principle, Israel’s interests and policies of wishing to weaken Hamas should give credence and support to Abbas’s demands and needs. But this is not the case – mainly because if Gaza continues to deteriorate – it will end up with rockets being shot into Israel’s civilian communities and could easily develop into another war. So while Israel does not wish to empower Hamas, it finds itself working towards understandings with Hamas that will postpone the next round of violence.
This is truly a dilemma for Israel. In the absence of any genuine peace process – which is the only thing that I believe could have a chance of weakening Hamas – Israel correctly wants to avoid another war in Gaza. The main reason is that there is no real strategic advantage of another war. There is no intention or even a real consideration of re-occupying Gaza. Israel does not want to get bogged down and does not want the responsibility to provide health, education and welfare services for two million Palestinians in Gaza, nor have thousands of Israelis soldiers policing the densely populated neighborhoods of Gaza. Nor can Israel deliver a defeated Gaza to the PA – no Palestinian leader will ride on the back of Israeli tanks to attempt to control Gaza.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not yet seen a political advantage in the election season to engage in another war, although if he gets indicted on corruption charges it may be an option. But this is a very dangerous one, even if it is clear that Israel would win the war, no one can predict the results on the ground, particularly because Hamas’s main weapon, the Qassam rocket is a statistical weapon – it can fall anywhere – even on a school bus, a kindergarten or a shopping mall. Most of the time it gets shot down or falls in open spaces.
An agreement to a negotiated ceasefire would be supported by the Left. The agreement would anger Netanyahu’s base and the Right, who would view it as next to capitulation. This is also why it is very unlikely, during the next six months at least, that there will be a negotiated agreement with Hamas to return the bodies of IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul and the live Israeli civilians Abera Mengisto and Hisham A-Sayed. To achieve that Netanyahu would have to agree to release a limited number of Palestinian prisoners including some Hamas members, who were originally released in the Schalit prisoner exchange deal and rearrested in June 2014. Bringing the soldiers bodies home and the civilians who are alive would be a victory for Netanyahu, but the payment would strengthen Hamas once again and that would not be a victory.
The choices are not easy. The one consideration that will not be weighed is the welfare of the two million Palestinians in Gaza. That is truly a pity. Perhaps when we and our leaders begin to think about those people as human beings and as neighbors and not as the enemy, the situation on the ground will have a chance of improving and with it, the strategic options that decision-makers will face.The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine was published by Vanderbilt University Press.
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