Remember Cast Lead

Prospects or talks producing a peace breakthrough are faint enough; Hamas’s rule in Gaza represents a huge obstacle to the implementation of any accord.

cast lead 311 (photo credit: kobi gideon)
cast lead 311
(photo credit: kobi gideon)
This time two years ago, Israel was on the verge of launching the 22-day Operation Cast Lead. The fighting began at 11:30 a.m. on December 27 with a wave of F-16 air strikes on Hamas strongholds in Gaza, aimed at putting a stop to the relentless cross-border fire that was terrorizing Israelis living in towns and cities in the South. Now, after two years of relative quiet, Gaza seems to be heating up again.
Late Monday, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi ordered the air force to strike eight targets in the Gaza Strip, including a Hamas training camp and a tunnel used for smuggling, in retaliation for a string of offensives against Israeli troops and civilians over the last two weeks. Upping the ante, terrorists in Gaza on Tuesday morning fired a Kassam rocket that struck near a kindergarten in Ashkelon, lightly wounding a girl on her way to school and causing shock to two other people. Later on Tuesday, the IAF struck back again.
IDF sources say Hamas is not interested in a full-scale escalation. However, limited escalation does seem to be in Hamas’s perceived interest, in part as a means of deflecting growing frustration over its failure to attain political goals such as the release of its prisoners from Israeli jails in exchange for captive Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit.
TWO YEARS after Cast Lead, renewed terrorist activity from Gaza is a reminder of the split that has taken place in the Palestinian leadership in recent years. While the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority struggles to maintain control of the West Bank and move toward statehood, Hamas is pursuing a bleak policy of low-intensity terrorism from Gaza.
Hamas’s victory in the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections was the culmination of a long process that marked the official end of a half-century during which the Palestinian national movement was dominated by a more secular political culture. Nizar Rayyan, a Hamas leader in Gaza who was killed by the IDF in January 2009, had proclaimed that Hamas’s fight against Fatah was to “uproot secularism in Gaza.”
It is no secret that Hamas aspires to extend its control to the West Bank. And as the Israeli academic Asher Susser noted in The Rise of Hamas in Palestine, growing Islamism is not limited to those territories either. It is part of a larger trend of Islamic ascendancy and re-Islamization of society and politics from Egypt to Jordan, from Iraq to Syria.
Part of the reason for Hamas’s electoral success was disgust with the rampant corruption and cronyism that permeated Fatah and its leadership. But there was also a belief among Palestinians that Hamas’s ruthless methods were more effective against Israel. As Azzam Tamimi wrote in Hamas: A History from Within, Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, months before the 2006 elections, was widely regarded as proof that violence and terrorism had produced results where the PLO’s professed abandonment of the “armed struggle” and focus on negotiation had failed.
That election victory was followed a year later by a violent coup, in which Hamas gunmen ousted Fatah from the Strip. Even though 2005’s disengagement meant there was no Israeli civilian or military presence there, the rocket fire escalated, and a reluctant Israel saw no alternative but to launch its Cast Lead assault on the Islamists.
SOME ANALYSTS believe that Hamas is losing popularity among the Palestinians, who may be internalizing the destruction their Gaza government brought down upon the Strip by goading Israel into military action two years ago. Some argue, too, that Gazans are beginning to look across to the West Bank, where stability and economic coordination with Israel are producing a much-improved day-to-day climate. Finally, it is suggested that Hamas’s gradual efforts to impose a fundamental Islamic framework in Gaza are producing growing disaffection.
Whatever the accuracy of these assessments, however, there are no significant signs that Hamas’s grip on Gaza is loosening. Having capitalized on ballot-box support to engineer its violent takeover, Hamas will not willingly relinquish control.
The prospects of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations producing a peace breakthrough are faint enough; Hamas’s rule in Gaza represents a huge obstacle to the implementation of any substantive accord.
More immediately, the current minor-escalation of fire from Gaza underlines Hamas’s potential to wreak havoc in southern Israel with the mortars, rockets and missiles it has been steadily acquiring since Operation Cast Lead.
For two years, the force of that operation evidently served as a deterrent to this kind of cross-border fire. However firm it considers its hold on Gaza to be, Hamas would be foolish to risk forcing Israel into a repeat resort to such use of force.