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Palestinian Hamas militants attend a military drill in preparation to any upcoming confrontation with Israel, in the southern Gaza Strip March 25, 2018. .(Photo by: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA / REUTERS)
Should Israel seize the Gaza Strip?
By EHUD EILAM
04/02/2019
In 2005, Israel left the rest of the Gaza Strip. Israel therefore has already captured and ruled the Gaza Strip twice. The third time is not likely to be a charm.
One solution to the seemingly endless conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip would be for the Jewish State to recapture the blockaded coastal enclave which it unilaterally pulled out of in 2005.

Such a move would entangle Israel in the Gaza morass, with all its heavy costs on the human, political, military and economic levels. In such a grim situation, many Israelis would then likely call for a Gazaexit i.e. quiting the Gaza Strip yet again. Thus, it could be argued, what would be the benefit of another war to seize Gaza if the IDF were only to be pulled back at some future point.

Israel seized the Gaza Strip in 1956 for a few months. In 1967, Israel again conquered the Gaza Strip governing it under military rule until 1994, when most of the territory was turned over to the newly-created PA. In 2005, Israel left the rest of the Gaza Strip. Israel therefore has already captured and ruled the Gaza Strip twice. The third time is not likely to be a charm.

Israel should stay out of the Gaza Strip because another occupation would be too costly, and indeed counterproductive. Yet at the same time Israel has to convince Hamas that it is still considering the military option in order to encourage Hamas to accept a long-term ceasefire. This contradictory strategy may be the best way to prevent a fourth war with Hamas – and all the negative outcomes that would entail.

The vast majority of the two million Gazans are struggling to meet their basic needs. Hamas’s corruption, incompetence and poor management have brought the Gaza Strip to the brink of economic collapse and a humanitarian crisis. Yet Hamas seems determined to continue to provoke Israel in violent ways, forcing the latter to continue its air, naval and land siege.

One could argue Hamas wants Israel to seize the Gaza Strip. It could then blame Israel for the economic chaos there. Israel should avoid this trap. As Colin Powell cautioned: “You break it, you own it.” The Gaza Strip is broken, and Israel should avoid assuming the responsibility for fixing the enormous mess there.

Since March 2018, Hamas has been running a campaign of terrorism, firing rockets and launching incendiary balloons to burn fields and forests inside Israel. Hamas also initiated the so-called Great March of Return. These popular protests alongside the border with Israel are well organized and violent demonstrations in which thousands of Palestinians confront the IDF.

The casualties between the two sides in these border clashes are asymmetric. If Israel were to seize the Gaza Strip, its casualties would likely be much higher.  Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups are well armed, and have constructed a skein of tunnels for offensive and defensive purposes. A military confrontation with them would likely involve a tough guerrilla war set in a hostile urban environment ill-suited to a mobile, hi-tech army anxious to avoid spilling blood.

Hamas’s border skirmishes may lead Israel to reduce its siege on the Gaza Strip. Yet Israel knows that were its blockade to be lifted, Hamas would likely be emboldened to expand its arsenal of long-range rockets. But using those weapons could trigger a war in which Israel retakes the Gaza Strip, topples the Hamas regime, and assassinates its leaders. Ironically Israel’s siege is protecting Hamas from itself.

In a “lion shall dwell with the lamb” scenario, Israel might consider lifting its siege if Hamas were to surrender its arsenal. But until the Messiah comes, this will likely not happen. Rockets have been manufactured in and fired from the Gaza Strip since 2001, four years before Israel left it. Even if Israel were to occupy the Gaza Strip, and even if destroyed the rocket stockpiles, new rocket production facilities would likely be built in underground bunkers, just as workshops to manufacture Carlo Gustav submachine guns keep popping up in the West Bank.

Israel does not seek to run the Gaza Strip. Nor does it want some other international body there either. The PA will find it difficult to take back the Gaza Strip. Similarly Egypt, the only Arab state that has a border with Gaza, does not want to return to Gaza, which it ruled from 1948 to 1967.

Therefore Israel is stuck with Hamas ruling Gaza, for lack of a better choice.

Finally, while Israel is busy with its southern front, defense planners recognize that a campaign in Gaza could spill over into a broader war on the northern border too. Israel’s covert battle to prevent Iran from building bases in Syria and upgrading the precision of Hezbollah’s rockets in Lebanon could result in a multi-front war in which the IDF is simultaneously fighting in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. Israel wishes to avoid such a scenario.

The general elections taking place on Tuesday also mitigate against war breaking out in the immediate future. Israel prefers that a new coalition government be formed before embarking on an ambitious military adventure.

Bottom line, notwithstanding the serious security challenge Hamas poses, Israel is unlikely to launch a campaign to retake the Gaza Strip anytime soon.

Ehud Eilan is an analyst of Israel’s national security. His newest book is Israel’s Military Doctrine (Rowman & Littlefield: Lexington books, 2018)
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