Palestinian students supporting Hamas stand next to mock Hamas rockets during a rally celebrating their winning of the student council election at Birzeit University in the West Bank city of Ramallah April 23, 2015..
(photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN)
MK Haim Jelin (Yesh Atid) recently expressed a frustration shared by policymakers, strategists and anyone following the ongoing longstanding conflict between Israel and the terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in Gaza.
“What is the strategy for Gaza?’ asked Jelin during a live interview for Channel 2 news, the morning after the largest flare-up between Israel and Gaza since 2014. “In what direction are we leading this operation?” he asked, stating that he “would very much like to hear Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu address the nation and explain what his vision for Gaza is.” His frustration is understandable.
Israel’s strategy since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007 has essentially remained the same: building and rebuilding short-term deterrence through punishment for violence while managing the conflict by continuously honing its defensive capabilities and periodically utilizing violence emanating from Gaza to carry out generally small-scale operations to hurt Hamas’s operational capabilities and send a message.
Every so often larger operations, including high-value targeted assassinations and limited incursions, are deemed necessary to reestablish deterrence and calm and to degrade Hamas’s offensive capabilities, but the threshold of violence and increased capabilities tolerated by Israel before it deems these costly operations necessary gets higher and higher as Israel’s management capabilities increase. While both Israel’s and Hamas’s tactics and capabilities evolve, Israel, with its vastly superior resources, enjoys a clear and significant advantage.
Israel’s strategy is essentially to manage the conflict in Gaza, not actively seeking peace and not seeking escalation either. Israeli leaders do not feel political pressure to wage all-out war against Hamas due to their ability to manage the threats from Gaza to an ever-increasingly successful degree.
Therefore, hard-line strategies such as extensive ground operations or, at the farthest extreme, retaking the strip, are increasingly deemed too costly in light of the decreased threat.
But what about a soft-line strategy? Might Israel somehow be convinced to make enough concessions that Hamas will agree to end the conflict? To end the conflict, Israel would need to reach a bargain with Hamas; Hamas’s terms are unacceptable.
Specifically its unambiguous desire to destroy Israel and kill Israeli civilians, stated explicitly in Hamas’s charter and continuously and publicly by Hamas leaders.
Absent diplomatic pressure, Israeli leaders are unlikely to make concessions that are unpopular politically and unlikely to do any good strategically.
It is also unlikely that diplomatic pressure will be mobilized to force Israeli strategy toward concessions.
Due to both Hamas and PIJ’s repeatedly and brazenly stated extremism, it is difficult, even considering the many cases of seemingly willful media obfuscation, for world leaders to ignore these realities. This is why since the John Kerry peace initiative in 2014 there has not been substantial international pressure on Israel to make concessions to Hamas. This type of pressure is even less likely under the Trump administration.
Therefore, Israel’s strategy is likely to remain the same as it has roughly since the end of Operation Cast Lead in 2009. The border with Gaza will remain militarized, carefully patrolled and tense, and Israel will continue improving its relative military power and management capabilities while Hamas tries to hang on to power in an increasingly futile, quixotic effort to signal that victory over “the Zionist entity” is on the horizon. If the past 10 years are any indicator, Israel only stands to benefit from “keeping calm and carrying on.”
The author is a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia and an IDF veteran.
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