Like many Israelis, I’ve been skeptical that this summer’s war in Gaza achieved anything more than a temporary calm. So I was encouraged to read the following tweet from Jerusalem Post reporter Khaled Abu Toameh Saturday night: “Gaza landlords refusing to rent out apartments to Hamas members and their families out of fear of being targeted by Israel in future.” His subsequent news story revealed that tenants are equally unenthusiastic about having Hamas neighbors.
This development doesn’t yet constitute victory. But judging from Israel’s experience in the West Bank, it’s an important step in the right direction.
To understand why, it’s worth recalling the early days of the second intifada, when an argument raged between the IDF and the Shin Bet security service over how to handle it. Many senior IDF officers then – like many today – insisted there was no military solution, because fighting terror was like trying to empty the sea with a spoon: No matter how many terrorists you arrest or kill, there’s a limitless supply of new recruits to replace them.
But then-Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter thought otherwise. While recognizing that the potential supply of new recruits is indeed vast, he argued that the actual supply could be dried up by making terror a business that doesn’t pay.
Any rational cost-benefit analysis would have concluded that during the intifada’s first 18 months, terror paid handsomely. The odds of being killed or arrested were low, and the rewards were high: Not only did terrorist organizations pay relatively well at a time when the hostilities had destroyed many other jobs and businesses, but terrorists were lionized as heroes throughout Palestinian society.
What Dichter understood, however, was that Israel could alter this cost-benefit analysis by arresting or killing enough terrorists. First, increasing the odds of being arrested or killed would increase the costs of terrorism. But perhaps even more importantly, it would reduce the benefits, because other Palestinians wouldn’t want to associate with people who were liable to be raided by IDF troops or hit with an airstrike at any moment. Thus instead of being lionized, terrorists would find themselves ostracized – which isn’t a price most people would be willing to pay.
And indeed, West Bank terrorists who subsequently abandoned terror routinely cited social ostracism as the reason for their decision. When they went into coffeehouses, they complained, everyone else fled, and the owners would kick them out, fearful their presence would bring the IDF. Taxi drivers wouldn’t pick them up. Barbershops wouldn’t cut their hair. And worst of all, they couldn’t get married. One former terrorist, for instance, said his fiancée's family conditioned their marriage on him abandoning terror and obtaining an amnesty from Israel. Another girl’s father said he would never let his daughter marry a terrorist, because “I want her to have a good life, without having the army coming into her house all the time to arrest her while her husband escapes into the streets.”
Gazan terrorists, like their West Bank counterparts during the early days of the intifada, have until now enjoyed high benefits and low costs. After all, Hamas controls Gaza, so it can and does ensure that its members get the best of everything – including by seizing aid shipments meant for the needy and distributing them to its operatives instead. At the same time, they face little risk, since Israel largely leaves Gaza alone except during periodic wars, and then, Hamas personnel can retreat to their underground bunkers for protection. Indeed, according to Israel’s own estimate, only about 1,000 of the 2,127 Gazans killed during the latest war were terrorists, meaning that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and company lost less than 5 percent of their combined forces.
But because Hamas commanders’ houses doubled (according to Israeli intelligence) as command and control centers for the organization’s military operations, Israel could and did target them. Such strikes rarely hit the Hamas commanders themselves, since Israel’s policy of issuing warnings before attacking any target where civilians might be present, such as a house, gave them ample time to flee. Rather, the goal was simply to disrupt Hamas’ ability to command its men by disabling its regular command posts and forcing it to relocate to improvised ones.
Yet it turns out these strikes had a side effect no less important, if not more, than their immediate military purpose: changing the cost-benefit analysis of terrorism by imposing real costs on the terrorists. Hamas commanders not only lost their homes during the war, but are having trouble finding new ones, because landlords no longer want them around: The risk of having their property destroyed by an Israeli airstrike come the next war is too high. And for most people, the prospect of being permanently homeless would be a significant deterrent.
Of course, this effect won’t last: Because Hamas controls Gaza, it can impose its will on the population and has never hesitated to do so ruthlessly, including by putting political rivals under house arrest and then shooting those who violate this decree. Thus reluctant landlords will almost certainly be presented with offers they can’t refuse, along the lines of “rent these apartments to our people or we’ll kneecap you.”
That’s why I remain skeptical about Israel’s ability to end terror from Gaza without reoccupying the territory and toppling Hamas: As long as the organization remains in power, it will probably be able to ensure enough benefits for its members (and costs for its opponents) to outweigh the costs Israel can impose by long-distance action. But I’d love to be proved wrong, and any progress toward the social ostracism of Hamas terrorists constitutes progress toward that goal.
Judging solely by the polls, one might have thought this summer’s fighting had the opposite effect: Opinion surveys indicate that the war support for Hamas. But what people do is far more indicative of what they really think than what they tell pollsters. And if Gazan landlords no longer want to rent to Hamas members, then the war has clearly persuaded at least some Gazans that today, the cost-benefit analysis favors keeping far away from terrorists.