Why, for the time being, bear Hamas?

Palestinians take part in a rally marking the 31st anniversary of Hamas' founding, in Gaza City (photo credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA / REUTERS)
Palestinians take part in a rally marking the 31st anniversary of Hamas' founding, in Gaza City
Incidents along Israel’s Gaza front with Hamas are difficult for the 20,000 Israelis who live in the “Gaza envelope,” and shame-provoking for most Israelis.
It is shameful to hear that Israel permits the Qatari envoy to distribute cash, which certainly finds its ways to Hamas’s coffers, only to be paid in kind by violence along and above the fence, knowing full well that the money is going to be used to perfect the many means of violence Hamas comes up with.
It is shame-provoking to see Hamas continuously innovate its means of violence while the IDF seems to be frozen in time in its responses. First there were weekly demonstrations; then the daily harassments using sound, smoke, garbage and excrement; then the incendiary balloons; then the same balloons booby trapped with explosive; and now, drones loaded with explosives.
It is shame-provoking to see the enemy use cheap and plentiful means to undermine expensive Israeli defenses whose cost runs into the billions. These include the building and monitoring of the fence, and more recently, the underground wall that often supplements the one above.
How can one bear, after this list and litany, to see an Israeli army, once famous for its daring innovation and courage, seemingly become so helplessly defensive?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has the correct geostrategic answer, as unpopular and emotionally unpalatable as it may be. The southern front must remain as quiet as possible for the time being. This is even at the cost of the punishing toll which Hamas’s provocations take on the inhabitants of Sderot and the neighboring communities and kibbutzim, and at the cost of the shame and indignation most Israelis feel giving in to Hamas extortion.
To understand why, one must reflect on the strategic objectives of the three major actors (and others) regarding the southern front, Hamas and Gaza.
By far, the most important from Israel’s strategic perspective, are Iran’s objectives.
Iran clearly wants a hot war on Israel’s southern front to deflect attention from its strategic build up in Syria, Hezbollah’s Lebanon, and Iraq in its long-term objective to cement the missile siege over Israel. Iran is using Islamic Jihad as a tool to provoke Hamas and Israel into a large-scale confrontation.
This also explains why Egypt is so energetically involved in keeping the southern front quiet. It wants – like Israel – that the focus and the heat be on Iran and Israel’s northern front.
Israel needs a quiet southern front for the same reason Egypt and the other Arab Sunni states seek it, and even more.
WITHOUT IRANIAN backing, both Hezbollah and Hamas over time will be reduced to the stature of small local terrorist movements that Israel has lived with almost since its establishment. Terrorist organizations are only powerful to the degree that they enjoy the power of a state behind them.
One has only to contrast the fate of the ISIS state that had no state sponsor to the development of Hezbollah, a state and army within a state with a helpless army. The ISIS state, a major social phenomenon and political actor that succeeded in erasing a major border between major Arab states. It succumbed relatively quickly to Russian and allied air power and small ground forces which either the allies brought to the field, or the Kurdish forces they helped.
By contrast, Hezbollah has a dominating presence in Lebanon thanks to Iranian support. Israel wants the US and others to focus on biting economic sanctions, to reduce among other issues, Iran’s ability to finance Hezbollah and Hamas. One needs a quiet southern front to ensure that focus.
To prevent the Iranian build up might require massive retaliation in Lebanon – an outcome that will bring about a campaign of massive delegitimization against the Jewish State. Why waste Israel’s precious few reserves of legitimacy at the present moment on a far less lethal southern front?
Hamas’s strategic objective is different from both Iran and Israel. If the former wants hot war on the southern front, then Hamas wants intermittent and limited violence to extort Qatari aid and Israeli concessions, which also includes indirect subsidies toward its enemy – like the creation of a new electricity line from Israel, which Hamas knows Israel will subsidize for a considerable period of time as in the past (another shame-provoking act!).
Despite election rhetoric, no serious politician or political party disagrees either with Netanyahu’s reading of Israel’s geostrategic predicament, the steadfast way he pursues it, or the need to bear the pain and the shame of a quiet southern front.
His detractors, Gantz, Lapid (much less so Ya’alon) only take him to task for failing to leverage the three-and-a-half years to explore international and regional schemes that seemingly would put Gaza on a trajectory of peace.
Here, indeed, is the difference between Netanyahu’s acumen and courage and these detractors’ empty rhetoric. They should read Prof. Benny Miller, an astute geostrategic Israeli scholar on regional war and peace in the Middle East, who states that outside powers are helpful in ending wars and preserving cold wars, but it is local powers that decide on war and peace.
Israel’s enemies know what they want – certainly not peace. So much for the importance of international and regional schemes.
Only another round of war and victory will do in Hamas, but not right now. Iran and the northern front in the immediate future are far more important.
The writer is a professor in the Departments of Political Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University.