Is another Gaza war inevitable? - opinion

Bitter experience would seem to indicate that another round is only a matter of time.

 PALESTINIAN VOLUNTEERS clear rubble from a street in Rafah, after the conclusion of Operation Guardian of the Walls last May. (photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)
PALESTINIAN VOLUNTEERS clear rubble from a street in Rafah, after the conclusion of Operation Guardian of the Walls last May.
(photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)

With two rockets fired from Gaza toward Tel Aviv on New Year’s Day, it could be said that 2022 opened ominously for Israelis. 

Since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 there have been four significant military escalations: Operations Cast Lead (2008-09), Pillar of Defense (2012), Protective Edge (2014), and Guardian of the Walls (2021). Bitter experience would seem to indicate that another round is only a matter of time. 

The knee-jerk reaction of many across the world is to suggest finding a political solution. Yet Hamas remains stuck in a radical Islamist ideology that precludes peace with Israel. Its 1988 charter, never repudiated, specifically renounces any negotiated settlement while proclaiming the goal to “raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.”

In 2006, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan offered Hamas a possible opening, presenting three benchmarks for the organization to be acknowledged as a legitimate political interlocutor: rejection of terrorism, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previously signed peace agreements. Sixteen years on, Hamas has failed to meet even one of these requirements.

Instead of being viewed as a partner in talks, Hamas is designated as a terrorist organization in Britain, Canada, the European Union, Japan, and the United States, as well as, of course, by Israel. More countries, including Australia and New Zealand, classify the Hamas military wing as terrorist (although experts agree that the distinction between the movement’s wings is artificial).

 A picture taken with a drone shows Hamas supporters taking part in a protest against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' decision to postpone planned parliamentary elections, in the northern Gaza Strip April 30, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMMED SALEM) A picture taken with a drone shows Hamas supporters taking part in a protest against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' decision to postpone planned parliamentary elections, in the northern Gaza Strip April 30, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMMED SALEM)

Of course, many in the international community insist that a genuine political solution between Israelis and Palestinians demands removing settlements and withdrawing to the 1967 lines. But Israel already put those ideas into practice in Ariel Sharon’s 2005 disengagement plan, and there have been four Gaza wars since.

The Israeli public is in a different place. Polling done by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) last June following Operation Guardian of the Walls showed that 27% of Israelis believed in strengthening deterrence through additional harsh IDF strikes against Hamas. Another 21% supported an incursion deep inside Gaza that physically dismantles Hamas’s military capabilities. 13% of Israelis favored a solution through humanitarian relief and economic development, while just 10% thought Israel should reconcile itself to Hamas rule and negotiate a ceasefire.

Last September, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid suggested testing a policy involving both economic carrots and military sticks, the goal being to “cause the residents of Gaza to pressure Hamas because they understand what they are missing out on as a result of terrorism and understand how much they stand to gain if that terrorism stops.”

Official Palestinian statistics show third quarter 2021 GDP per capita in Gaza at only $297, less than a third of the $1,097 in the West Bank. Half of Gaza’s workforce is unemployed, the young being disproportionately among the jobless.

Economic carrots could encompass extending Gaza’s fishing boundary and issuing more work permits for Gazans in Israel. It has also been suggested that the newly completed Israel-Gaza barrier allows for land on the Palestinian side, previously left barren for security reasons, now to be used for agricultural cultivation.

Although infrastructure development is a longer-term endeavor, it can still provide construction jobs in the interim. The basket of possible projects includes establishing a new power station, building a desalination plant, connecting Gaza to Mediterranean gas, and even the creation of an artificial offshore island port.

All these ideas share a common hope that, in providing economic tangibles for the people of Gaza, it is possible to strengthen the incentive to keep the peace and thereby defer the next round of fighting.

HOWEVER, SERIOUS obstacles remain.

First, it is unclear to what degree Hamas is willing to prioritize the well-being of ordinary Gazans over its ideological commitment to “resistance.” Skeptics can rightly point to the millions that Hamas invested in its subterranean military projects at a time when the civilian population was in desperate need of assistance. 

Second, even if Hamas agrees to keep the Israel-Gaza frontier quiet, it is unlikely to abstain from encouraging and orchestrating deadly violence on the West Bank. A “ceasefire” in which Hamas continues terror attacks from Hebron, Jenin, and Tulkarm would be unsustainable.

Third, Hamas can be expected to exploit any ceasefire to strengthen its military capabilities both quantitatively and qualitatively. Hence the danger that short-term quiet is purchased by the creation of a more formidable long-term threat.

Fourth, two live Israeli civilians and the bodies of two IDF soldiers are being held in Gaza. Lapid stated that “bringing back our boys must be part of any plan.” Yet it is doubtful that Hamas will agree to their return outside a deal which includes the release of Palestinian security prisoners. An exchange of this sort is always a highly complex exercise.

Fifth, because Israel and much of the international community refuse to work directly with Hamas, it is necessary for the Palestinian Authority to fill the vacuum. Official rhetoric aside, it is far from certain that the PA is at all interested in enabling Hamas to create a better reality in Gaza. Experts have suggested that the PA may see advantages for itself in the continuation of a negative situation in Gaza that reflects badly on its political rival.

Sixth, Islamic Jihad will always seek to outdo Hamas. This week it threatened a wave of violence if administrative detainee Hisham Abu Hawash died in prison from his hunger strike. Hamas will not want to be seen as passing the mantle of “resistance” over to its smaller brother. It is one thing for Hamas to restrain itself temporarily; it is quite another for it to forcibly reign in others. This gives Iran’s Gazan proxy the ability to play spoiler.

Yet, notwithstanding these and other challenges, a pessimistic belief in the inevitability of an imminent Gaza war is unwarranted. On Benjamin Netanyahu’s watch, seven years of relative quiet separated Operation Protective Edge from Operation Guardian of the Walls. Through an astute strategy of deterrence and incentives it is not impossible to postpone a future round of fighting, maybe even for another seven years. Ultimately, in the absence of complete solutions, if the next serious escalation occurs on or close to 2028, most Israelis could view that as not so bad an outcome.

And if another conflict does break out before then, Israel should at least receive a degree of international understanding for having tried to improve the situation in Gaza (or is that too much to expect?).

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is a senior visiting fellow at the INSS. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.