A goal for Gaza: Régime change

It would be neither necessary nor wise for Israel simply to call a halt to its military operations before it gains some sort of unequivocal victory over Hamas.

Hamas' armed wing spokesman speaks during a news conference in Gaza City July 3, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hamas' armed wing spokesman speaks during a news conference in Gaza City July 3, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
History has a habit of repeating itself.  Everyone seems to agree on that.  But circumstances are never exactly the same, and the outcome of apparently parallel events can never be accurately predicted.
Since Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007, it has provoked conflict with Israel on three separate occasions – in 2008, in 2012 and now again in July 2014.  Each episode was initiated in precisely the same way – an escalation of rocket attacks into Israel to such an extent that, in order to protect its citizens, Israel felt obliged to respond.  History, in short, is repeating itself.  But the circumstances each time have varied – and though Hamas emerged from its two previous adventures with discernible benefits, both materially and in terms of its public relations, there is no guarantee that it will do so on this occasion, and every reason for Israel ensuring that it does not.
Israel launched its military campaign codenamed Operation "Cast Lead" on December 27, 2008.  Beginning with an intense bombardment  targeting Hamas bases, training camps and civilian buildings used as storage for weapons and rockets, a few days later it moved on to a ground invasion. Extensively covered in the world’s media, the pictures of civilian casualties evoked a massive criticism of the Israeli operation.  The Muslim world proclaimed it a “Gaza massacre”, a cry taken up by a variety of organizations. When fighting came to an end, Hamas emerged with its reputation in the Arab world substantially enhanced, while Israel’s reputation generally had suffered. 
There were some practical benefits for Israel from the ceasefire, for it certainly provided relief for a period from the rocket bombardment.  As for Hamas, it afforded time to re-equip itself in preparation for the next encounter – which duly arrived in November 2012. 
Responding to the ever-bolder and more frequent rocket attacks directed indiscriminately into the country from within the Gaza strip, Israel’s seven-day incursion codenamed Pillar of Defense started on November 27.  For eight days Hamas stood in the center of the world stage conducting the “armed struggle” against Israel, and finally it was Hamas, as one of the two principals, which agreed the ceasefire terms negotiated under the auspices of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi.  The result – a self-declared “victory” − greatly increased Hamas’s prestige in Palestinian popular opinion.
Yet this was not quite history repeating itself.  On this occasion Israel did not face the near-universal condemnation that it had suffered during and after the Cast Lead operation.  World opinion generally acknowledged the extreme provocation that had led to Pillar of Defense, and the restraint exercised by the Israel Defense Forces in conducting the operation. 
And now, for the third time, Hamas has engineered a military encounter with Israel, relying on the same provocation as in the past.  Israel has responded with its Operation Protective Edge.  But this time Hamas is starting from a position of unprecedented weakness. During the previous operations, it was firmly allied with Hezbollah, Syria and Iran as part of the “axis of resistance” against Israel and the West. Hamas could replenish its stockpile of rockets using an established supply system emanating from Iran and Syria.
Today, the Syrian civil war has fragmented the old alliance.  In the early days of the conflict Hamas – a Sunni extremist organization allied to the Muslim Brotherhood – opposed Syria’s President Bashar Assad, and was accordingly expelled from Damascus. It is also doctrinally opposed to Iran’s Shia confederation, which is supporting the Assad régime.  Even though the Iranians speak out in favor of Hamas, the old relationship under which Iran supplied unlimited quantities of sophisticated long-range rockets is under strain.  Meanwhile, the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo means that Egypt now has a régime with no qualms about sealing off Gaza, destroying the tunnels that used to supply a ceaseless flow of goods, or cooperating with Israel, particularly in countering terrorism emanating from the Sinai.
Even Hamas’s newly-forged alliance with Fatah is now virtually a cipher.  PA President Mahmoud Abbas unequivocally condemned the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers, and is cooperating with Israel in seeking the perpetrators.  Meanwhile, if Hamas had hoped that the deal with Fatah would provide the wherewithal to pay its 42,000 employees, those expectations were quickly dashed. The seven-month overdue salaries never arrived, and banks had to be closed against the fury of its customers.  In short, Hamas is more isolated than ever before.
Moreover it is apparent that Hamas is expending its store of missiles to little effect.  Israel’s state-of-the-art defenses against rocket attack are more effective than ever before. The 200 or more rockets so far fired from within Gaza into Israel have either been destroyed in mid-air, or – through the Iron Dome’s sophisticated tracking devices – been allowed to fall and explode in open ground.
Moreover, Western media coverage of the conflict, at least in its early stages, has been noticeable by its comparative restraint in describing the Israeli operation, even compared to the media response to “Pillar of Defense”.  Israel’s pin-point targeting of military installations and of individual Hamas leaders has resulted in a reasonably balanced picture emerging of its military operations – and, indeed, of the unhappy effects on Gazan civilians in general and some Palestinian families in particular.  Most news coverage has taken care to describe also the effect on Israeli civilians of being under constant fire from Hamas’s rockets.
So the question is whether this time Hamas has made a major miscalculation.  Starting from a position of comparative weakness, it may have hoped to boost its popularity with the Palestinian man or woman in the street, perhaps with an eye to the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.  On this occasion, however, especially with a somewhat more understanding world watching, it would be neither necessary nor wise for Israel simply to call a halt to its military operations before it gains some sort of unequivocal victory over Hamas.
If “unequivocal victory” requires further definition, it should mean removing the Hamas administration entirely – régime change, in short.  Since the régime in question is unequivocally illegal, the result of a coup d’état mounted against the legitimate Palestinian government democratically elected in 2006, little justification would be needed in doing so.
There is a potential downside. Active in Gaza are Sunni jihadists – especially groups in sympathy with the newly-renamed Islamic State – ready and willing to extend their grip on the Muslim world.  If Israel succeeds in knocking out Hamas in Gaza, it must be ready to counter any such move.  It must ensure that the Palestinian Authority, shorn of its newly-acquired Hamas partners,  moves in and brings the whole of the Gaza strip under its control.  An outcome along these lines might conceivably set the scene for an eventual renewal of realistic peace talks.
The writer is the author of One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com)