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Hamas and Israel: Two to Tango

The first thing to understand about what is going on in Gaza is that it is not the result of a sudden decision or an immediate provocation by one side or the other; this thing has been in the planning … Read More

By / January 5, 2009

The first thing to understand about what is going on in Gaza is that it is not the result of a sudden decision or an immediate provocation by one side or the other; this thing has been in the planning by both sides for months. It was only a question of when to trigger events.  Since both Israel and Hamas can always be relied upon to overreact to a provocation, thus each side has the ability to effectively schedule the others’ overreactions (hence the metaphor of the tango, a form of dance consisting entirely of a series of carefully scheduled overreactions.)

At the beginning of last week, it seemed clear that this was a conflict by something like mutual agreement.  Both sides wanted to improve the terms of the existing truce, and both saw military conflict as a way to get there.  Israel had never been satisfied with the conduct of that truce:  no suicide bombings was a relief, but continuing (albeit much fewer and ineffectual) rocket attacks and above all continued weapons smuggling were intolerable.  Hamas, in turn, was infuriated by Israel’s refusal to relax its siege of the territory — imposed in retaliation for the election of a Hamas government — despite the truce and despite Hamas’ statements that came within a hair of formally recognizing Israel.  Despite these concessions to Israel’s demands Hamas found itself governing a besieged and slowly starving population that was rapidly heading from crisis into something close to famine.  (The cynicism of Tzipi Livni’s assertion in Paris that "there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza" was simply breathtaking, as is the hypocricy of the constant description of conditions in Southern Israel as "intolerable" while residents of Gaza are reduced to eating pet food.)  To make the case explicit, in December Hamas offered to extend the truce in return for opening border crossings, despite having allowed sporadic rocket and mortar fire into Southern Israel throughout the length of the truce. Israel responded by a raid to destroy a tunnel that they said was going to be used to attack Israelis. Hamas responded with a barrage of rockets. Israel initiated Operation Cast Lead.

Ha’Aretz investigations have shown the operation was in the planning stages for six months.  Israelis on the Right criticized the government for its inaction in this period, but the IDF was spending the time poring over photographic data from drones and satellites, pinpointing bases, weapons silos, camps, and the homes of officials; Hamas used that same period to make its own preparations including booby traps and IEDs (many of which appear to have been destroyed by Israel’s air and artillery bombardments).  The final plan was presented to Barak on November 19, and approved by the Cabinet on December 19th, following which Livni flew to Cairo to brief the Egyptian government.  The timing on the Israeli side obviously involves considerations of upcoming Israeli elections — both Livni and Barak have shot up in the polls over the past week — and the last chance to act with the anything-goes free pass of the Bush administration.  The timing considerations on the Hamas side are less clear, but may well include a desire to create a certain set of facts on the ground for the new American President and Secretary of State.

Israel’s preparations appeared to pay off handsomely during the air phase of the operation.  IDF data on Gaza are so complete that the IAF frequently calls houses up by cell phone and delivers ten minutes’ warning, a maneuver called "roof knocking."  Targeted assassinations from the air, in addition, fuel suspicions of informers on the ground, but it is possible that they are simply the result of drone surveillance technology.  In the past, sometimes residents of targeted houses would take to the roof of the targeted house in defiance; sometimes the IAF pilots would not fire.  Such a warning appears to have been given in the case of Nizar Ghayan, who was killed along with his four wives and eleven children.  (Why did Ghayan not leave his house?  Maybe he wanted martyrdom — he had previously sent his son on a suicide bombing mission that killed two Israelis — or maybe it is just not possible to get 16 people out of a house in ten minutes and he did not want to choose.)

As a result of Israel’s careful preparations and relatively discriminate air attacks, the operation seemed to be working out to Israel’s advantage to an almost startling degree.  Most importantly, an emergency meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo produced statements by Arab governments that essentially blamed Hamas. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal told the session "this terrible massacre would not have happened if the Palestinian people was standing united behind one leadership," and Arab League Secretary General Amr Musa focused on the "unacceptable" disputes within Palestinian ranks and the Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul  Gheit declared that Hamas had "given Israel an excuse" and declared that rocket fire into Israel must stop as a condition of any truce deal as Mubarak steadfastly ruled out opening the Rafah crossing until it is in the control of the Palestinian Authority and international monitors, Cairo police clashed with demonstrators, and 40 Muslim Brotherhood leaders were arrested.  

Meanwhile, while Syria and Iran issues the expected denunciations, Hezbollah has thus far shown no interest in launching attacks from the North.  In Jordan — with its 3 million Palestinians still in giant refugee camps —  King Abdullah stated that "nothing justifies the world’s failure to hold Israel back" and Queen Raina spoke of a "crime against human dignity,"  But Jordanian responses, both government and private, have been focused on providing humanitarian relief, not on threatening to cut off ties with Israel.  Through the weekend protests in Amman were peaceful and relatively small (the biggest saw 24,000 people in the streets near the foreign embassies and was entirely law-abiding). 

Even Hamas’ leadership seemed to be of two minds.  On January 1, on the same day that Ismail Haniyeh said there could be no truce until the siege of Gaza was lifted, senior Hamas official Ayman Taha told reporters that "as soon as we receive a proposal, we will study it.  We support any initiative that would end the aggression and lift the siege."  On Dec. 31st exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal spoke to Russia’s foreign minister of "readiness to cease armed confrontation but on condition of the lifting of the blockade of Gaza," according to a statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry. On Sunday, Jan. 4th he went even further, telling the Iz al-Din al-Qassam Web site that he was prepared not only for a "cessation of aggression" — he proposed going back to the arrangement at the Rafah crrossing as of 2005 prior to Hamas’ electoral victory, in which the crossing would be managed jointly by Egypt, the European Union, the Palestinian Authority presidency and Hamas.

Thus at the end of the second or even the third day of air strikes, had Israel pulled back it would have seemed to be in an excellent position to seek truce terms more to its liking, with Arab support for international monitors and an end to weapons smuggling and an increased role for the PA at the crossings.  In return, perhaps, Israel would have considered lifting the siege of Ghetto Gaza.  As odd as it may sound, the result of the air attacks might have been something like a win-win on the ground, a boost for the PA, and a step toward new levels of cooperation with moderate  Arab governments.

Instead Israel launched a ground offensive that Defense Minister Barak promises will be "neither short nor easy."  The question now is, what is Israel after, and what is its exit strategy?  At the outset of the air campaign, government representatives were eager to assure the world that the only goal was a cessation of rocket attacks.  IDF Brig. Gen. Mike Herzog told reporters that Israel had no intent to topple Hamas, and the IDF’s recommendation (again, as reported in Ha’Aretz) was that "more pressure . . . be put on Hamas to make it agree to a long-term cease-fire under conditions more favorable to Israel" by an intensive but brief incursion.  But even before Saturday the tone from the civilian leadership was different. It is clear that the Israeli leadership has no intention of ordering a cessation of operations until its goals are met, and that its goals go far beyond a cessation of rocket attacks and weapons smuggling.  Comments by Olmert, Barak, and Livni all support this conclusion. 

Livni’s comments to journalists on December 28th in Sderot were particularly interesting.  For one thing, she declared that "this is a zero sum game . . . not between Israel and Hamas, this is a zero sum game between the extremists and the moderates, between Hamas and Fatah, between Abu Mazen and Haniyeh."  In other words, there is no such thing as a win-win outcome by definition.  In addition, she declared that "Hamas is not legitimate and Hamas control of the Gaza Strip is not legitimate" and called on the international community to avoid "legitimating" Hamas. The key, Livni insisted, is that the Annapolis approach represents an attempt to reach out to "pragmatists."  "We decided to initiate the Annapolis process according to a strategy that was agreed with the international community and with the pragmatic part of the Palestinian Authority. The idea was to work with the moderates, to work with the pragmatic leadership of the Palestinian Authority in order to reach a peace treaty."  Friday evening Vice Premier Haim Ramon told Israeli TV that "we need . . . to reach a situation in which we do not allow Hamas to govern."

So there seem to be two distinct sets of goals at work, here:  1) to end the rocket attacks and weapons smuggling and bring international monitors and the PA into the process of monitoring truce terms; and 2) to bring down Hamas and strengthen the PA and "pragmatic" elements in Arab states everywhere.  The problem is that these goals are incommensurate, and the strategies for pursuing one contradict the strategies for pursuing the other.  The first set of goals are pragmatic, concrete, immediate, and promise to lessen tensions and improve security.  The second set of goals are ideological, global, and promise endless war until final and complete victory.  Which is Israel pursuing?  With the commencement of the ground operation, there is very grave reason to fear that the "pragmatism" that Livni praises on the part of Abbas is not part of her own strategic vocabulary.

What exactly would this mean for military operations over the next week?  Think about those six months of careful preparations.  When an IDF spokesperson says "we have a long list of targets," one has to wonder what these "targets" comprise; names of individuals?  is the whole ground offensive an enormous murder raid to take out the Hamas leadership?  Put it this way:  supposing it wanted to (it doesn’t), how could Hamas "surrender" at this point?  By offering up the dead bodies of every elected official?  That’s how sieges used to end.  The siege had already produced a situation in which electricity, heat, water, food, electricity and medicine were only intermittently available; does Israel contemplate a complete and final destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure?  The creation of its own little African-style famine right here on the shores of the Mediterranean, Somalia-style, complete with Al Qaeda infiltration and new homegrown groups?  American diplomatic personnel with whom I spoke expressed concern about "PIJ" — that’s "Palestinian Islamic Jihad" — as the new wild card, joining the Al Qassam Brigades who were previously responsible for the bulk of the most devastating suicide bombing attacks against Israel.  There are more dangerous creatures than Hamas out there.

Weakening Hamas makes sense if it means strengthening the PA —  the Annapolis model — and bringing Arab states into the process in a postive way.  But "weakening Hamas" by producing mass civilian casualties and an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe, that is something else. The attacks from the air, although savage, were relatively contained and focused.  By contrast, the use of artillery and ground forces is not.  The goal of truce terms that would put an end to weapons smuggling and involve international monitors, accompanied by the promise of a lifting of the siege of Ghetto Gaza, was one that aroused considerable support within the Arab world.  A campaign to exterminate Hamas at the cost of thousands of civilian deaths is not.  There is a real and immediate danger that Israel will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, by radicalizing the population of Gaza even further, depriving pragmatic Arab government of maneuvering room, making it impossible for Abbas and the PA to resume control in Gaza, and finally turning even American public opinion against the program of endless war.

Israel seems to believe that it can calculate these things to a nicety; this much horror will be tolerated, this much we can get away with and still have someone to negotiate with afterwards.  But that is a dangerous calculation.  Already Mubarak has joined Abdullah and Abbas in condemning the ground assault, and Abbas has released hundreds of Hamas prisoners from PA jails.  Does Livni really believe that there are no limits to what Mubarak can tolerate?  (Were those limits, perhaps, spelled out in their meeting in Cairo just before operations began?  Mubarrak, too, is playing a dangerous game.)  Hamas is not beloved among Arab governments or among Palestinians; but how long can any of leader in the Arab world hang on to a moderate position in the face of endlessly broadcast video clips of dead children?

Israel’s leaders have apparently decided that stopping the rocket attacks and the weapons smuggling is not so important after all; what is much more important is inflicting misery on Gaza and showing the world that Hamas must never have a place in the discussion.  Actually securing truce terms favorable to Israel’s security would have required talking with Hamas and international cooperation, which would have bestowed that dreaded legitimacy.  Much better to keep shooting and count on Israel being the last one standing at the end.  As for pragmatism?  Apparently it’s overrated.

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