Analysis: Ousting Hamas may leave Israel in charge of Gaza

Unfortunately, Israel would have to learn to live with Gaza's fanatic rulers for the time being.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's assertion Tuesday that Israel would reoccupy the Gaza Strip should it be necessary to do so sounds like another unrealistic threat voiced by a government that woke up one morning and realized Hamas could not be done away with and that, unfortunately, Israel would have to learn to live with Gaza's fanatic rulers for the time being. Livni's threat, coming two days after the IDF withdrawal from the Gaza Strip following three days of fighting, gives voice to that frustration, as it is slowly dawning on Israel that Hamas cannot be removed from power, Israel cannot turn back the clock and reoccupy the Gaza Strip, and a new balance of terror will have to be established between Israel and Hamas in which the latter is constantly placed under pressure to seek a cease-fire. The prevailing feeling among the Israeli population is one of a missed opportunity - that the last IDF operation "didn't go all the way" to topple Hamas. Taking Livni's comments to their logical conclusion, one could ask why the government pulled the troops out of Gaza on Monday morning and did not use the momentum of the three-day offensive as a launching pad to a much wider offensive to topple Hamas, as many politicians from the Right and within the coalition have demanded. Why is the army not systematically taking apart Hamas's administrative and security apparatus and consigning the movement's achievement as the first radical Islamic party to democratically take over a territorial entity to the dustbin of history? What happens to Gaza after Hamas is defeated and no longer rules Gaza? Who pays the teachers and fixes the sewage pipes? Who fills the vacuum? If the IDF were to act to destroy Hamas in Gaza, the operation would last several months at least, would entail massive human casualties on both sides, and would likely not finish off all Hamas resistance, leading instead to a protracted guerrilla conflict as per the first Lebanon War model. Some estimates put the Israeli death toll at over 300 in the initial push to dismantle Hamas's power structure and destroy its regular units. Once the initial conflict eased into an inevitable guerrilla war, a steady stream of IDF soldiers would be coming home in body-bags at the more-than-one-a-month rate they did in southern Lebanon's security zone. As evidenced by last weekend's operation, Hamas is able to shoot rockets at Ashkelon from almost anywhere in the Gaza Strip, so the IDF will not be able to stop only at Beit Hanun and the outskirts of Gaza City. Infantrymen will have to go all the way into one of the most densely populated cities on earth to fight local gunmen who have the sympathy and support of the population. How many IDF deaths can Israelis handle before pressure on the government to withdraw becomes overwhelming? This week, the mother of a Givati soldier killed in battle Saturday said she was pulling her other son from the IAF pilot's training course and would no longer "sacrifice her children" for the army, which she accused of not doing enough to protect her son. "Why did they send you in on foot, exposed? Why couldn't they do everything from the air?" Merri Dan-Gur, mother of St.-Sgt. Eran Dan-Gur, cried at her son's funeral. Her son "died for nothing," she said. On the other side of the Gaza predicament, Hamas lawmaker Khalil al-Haya, speaking at a Gaza morgue where he had gone to identify his son Hamza's body, said he was honored to have the 10th person in his family martyred in the fight against the Israelis. The equation seems simple enough: The more Gazans die in action, the more their brethren want to fight, while the more IDF soldiers are killed, the less appetite Israelis have for the fight. Assuming Hamas can be toppled and run out of town, Israel would be forced into reoccupying the Gaza Strip for the foreseeable future, as no international force, be it NATO, EU or UN, would agree to take control over the territory while internecine guerrilla fighting and terror bombings threatened their troops. Neither would Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, or anyone representing him, ride into Gaza on the top of an Israeli tank. That would be ideal in Israeli eyes, but it is a hallucination. Any Palestinian who wants to rule Gaza after the Israelis have cleared it of Hamas will have no credibility whatsoever. That leaves only Israel in charge of Gaza's close to 1.5 million hungry, angry, desperate people, as was the case between 1967 and 1993 - an unwelcome prospect, and not one the government wants to revert to. As it is, the UN's refugee and relief agency, UNRWA, feeds roughly 800,000 Gazans. Any large-scale and prolonged ground assault on Gaza would likely halt all UNRWA operations and debilitate all municipal and welfare systems. That would place the burden of caring for the Gaza population entirely on the Israeli military as an occupying force, as mandated by international law. Israel will have legal obligations it cannot escape for as long as it remains the sovereign in Gaza. The humanitarian crisis from an IDF-Hamas battle to the death would be enormous and very hard to keep in check, let alone reverse. Initially, protracted open warfare could lead to a massive exodus of Gazans to the Israeli and Egyptian borders, and both countries would be hard-pressed, for humanitarian reasons, to turn these refugees back toward the fighting. Furthermore, neither Israel, Egypt nor the UNRWA have the means to properly care for hundreds of thousands of refugees in the Sinai and western Negev respectively for months on end. Egypt will be putting a not-insignificant amount of pressure on Israel not to reoccupy the Gaza Strip. Hamas is working to scuttle the Annapolis process, as it is not part of it. By killing the Hamas leadership and removing it from power, Israel will also lose Abbas as a negotiating partner, since the PA president cannot withstand withering criticism from his own people and the Arab world as the body count grows. Hamas runs Gaza now, not the PA from Ramallah, and it is Hamas that pays the salaries of the municipal workers. If it is toppled, it will revert to a purely military-terrorist organization, free of the burdens of providing services to a population, and will harass the occupying military force, Israel, which will be obliged to keep the Gaza population alive. While the gut may want to go all the way and take down Hamas, the head must weigh the consequences. For more of Amir's articles and posts, visit his personal blog Forecast Highs