REALITY CHECK: Toppling Hamas is not the solution

Even Prime Minister Netanyahu accepts there is no alternative to Hamas rule in Gaza.

A member of Hamas' military police walks through rubble at a site that was hit by Israeli air strikes in Gaza City on August 9, 2018 (photo credit: MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
A member of Hamas' military police walks through rubble at a site that was hit by Israeli air strikes in Gaza City on August 9, 2018
(photo credit: MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
Back in 2009, on the eve of the general elections that brought Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back into power, life was much more black and white for the man who has been our prime minister ever since.
Talking about Hamas’ control over the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu the contender had no doubts as to what Israel’s policy regarding the Palestinian territory on Israel’s southern border should be: “There is no choice but to uproot the Iranian-backed regime in Gaza.”
Hamas, he said “is at the service of Iran and militant Islam. Israel cannot tolerate an Iranian base next to its cities.” Talking at a conference a week before the elections took place, Netanyahu also harshly criticized the just-completed Operation Cast Lead, arguing that the then-government had not allowed “the military to plug the hole in the south.”
One decade later, two terms in power and two large-scale major military offensives against Gaza (Operation Pillar of Defense and Operation Protective Edge), and the past summer skies filled with incendiary kites setting Israeli farmland and forests ablaze, Netanyahu’s government today is, at one step removed, deep in negotiations with Hamas, seeking a long-term cease fire that will provide Israel with quiet in the south and maintain Hamas’ rule over the Gaza Strip.
As Netanyahu well knew back in 2009 and is totally aware of today, Israel has no alternative but to accept Hamas control in Gaza. In a rare, on-the-record interview with Yediot Aharanot a few days ago, Brig.-Gen. Dror Shalom, head of the IDF’s Military Intelligence research department, laid out clearly the situation facing Israeli policymakers.
The 2014 Operation Protective Edge, the senior IDF officer said, bought Israel a few years of quiet but did not resolve the humanitarian crisis inside the Strip. Rather than concentrate on relieving the suffering, Hamas continued seeking to improve its rocket capability, thus keeping the closure on Gaza firmly in place, further deteriorating the economic situation for ordinary Gazans.
Much as Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump seek out and inflate external enemies to hide their failings and keep their base energized (my words here, not those of Shalom), Hamas turned the population’s discontent against Israel and began the weekly demonstrations at the border fence, which sparked off this summer’s round of violence, almost setting off another large-scale IDF ground offensive.
What’s to be done? Not a lot, according to Shalom, the senior IDF military intelligence officer. “Our challenge,” he said, “is to keep the Gazan population’s head above the sewage. Bringing about the collapse of the Hamas is not the solution. If Hamas falls, who will rule in Gaza? Poli [Yoav] Mordechai [the former IDF Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories]?
Without having the political courage to say so openly, it seems as if our prime minister has reached the same conclusion. In a briefing last week with reporters, part on the record and part “senior political source” for those topics less on-message with his official talking points, Netanyahu made it clear that the humanitarian problem in Gaza was the most pressing issue there, not Hamas.
Sending in tanks and troops will not solve the need to restore Gaza’s infrastructure nor resolve the deep economic crisis in the Strip. As Shalom said on the record, there is nobody in the wings to take over control from the Hamas. The Palestinian Authority is unable to do so, Egypt isn’t interested and as Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar himself pointed out last month in an interview, the last thing Netanyahu wants is responsibility for another two million Arabs.
This past weekend saw perhaps the beginning of the end of the current round of tension between Israel and Gaza. While the regular Friday protests at the border fence did take place, they passed relatively quietly and no incendiary balloons were launched into Israel. This was no coincidence. In recent days, Egyptian intelligence officials, and the United Nations Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov have been holding intense talks with the Hamas to bring about a cease-fire.
While not officially part of the talks, Israel is closely monitoring and playing its role in helping bring these negotiations to a successful conclusion, supporting the Qatari-funded shipments of diesel fuel into the Strip, which is increasing the number of hours a day Gazans have electricity, as well as backing an arrangement under which Qatar would pay for government workers’ salaries in Gaza. According to a Lebanese newspaper report over the weekend, there is a 10-step incremental accord on the table, including a prisoner swap toward the end of the process, to ensure long-term quiet.
Could it be, that come the 2019 election campaign – whenever that falls – for the first time in a decade we will be spared Netanyahu’s (and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s) empty threats to destroy the Hamas?
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.