Winning the Stalemate

Winning the Stalemate

For 25 years Israel and Hamas have fought, and for 25 years neither has prevailed. Hamas has scored many victories: it began as a small terrorist organization in 1987 and steadily grew in size and importance. In 2006, it won elections in Gaza and seized power there in 2007, becoming the Strip’s de facto government and emerging as an equal to Fatah, which dominates the West Bank. Israel, however, has prevented Hamas from gaining further ground in the West Bank while, over time, forcing Hamas to realize, in practice if not in rhetoric, that the Jewish state is here to stay.

The problem, then, with trying to end the fighting and prevent another recurrence is that both sides believe that using force advances their interests. Now, they each want more, and both face domestic pressure to demand more.

Rocket attacks from Gaza have increased in 2012, making life miserable for Israelis near the Strip. The goal of Israel’s most recent campaign, "Pillar of Defense," is to force Hamas to end its own rocket attacks and to compel other Palestinian groups to do so as well. As Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, declared, "Hamas is responsible for the rocket fire and all other attempts to harm our soldiers and civilians, even when other groups participate." Israel is demanding what all governments demand: that its own people be safe.

Hamas’ goal is less straightforward but grander. On the one hand, it seeks to govern Gaza, both because it cares about the welfare of Gazans and because it wants to enhance its status among Palestinians outside Gaza. In so doing, it hopes to out-govern and thus outstrip Fatah, its longstanding and more moderate rival, and become the voice of all the Palestinian people. Hamas also seeks international recognition, and recent visits from senior leaders of Qatar, Tunisia, Turkey, and Egypt are important milestones for the group.

Hamas, however, also gains credibility by being what it calls a "resistance" organization — one that has used suicide bombings, rocket attacks, and other forms of terrorism and violence against Israel. Hamas’ long struggle with Israel has won it other foreign backers, most notably Iran, and gained it admiration from Palestinians who want revenge on Israel or who believe Israel will only make concessions if forced to do so. In addition, Hamas faces rivals in Gaza — groups like Palestine Islamic Jihad and Salafi-jihadist groups with a radical ideology more akin to al Qaeda’s — that want to continue fighting Israel and would accuse Hamas of collaborating if it abandons resistance.

When Israel entered Gaza in its 2008-2009 "Cast Lead" operation, which killed over 1,000 Palestinians and destroyed much of Gaza’s infrastructure, it forced Hamas to confront the contradictions inherent in these goals: Hamas could not deliver services and otherwise govern well while it used violence against Israel. Since then, Hamas has tried to limit its own involvement in violence to avoid Israeli retaliation and gain international support. At the same time Hamas, has kept its toe (and sometimes more) in the water to maintain its resistance credibility. Even more importantly, from an Israeli point of view, Hamas has tolerated — sometimes more, sometimes less — attacks by other groups on Israel in order to avoid charges of collaboration. But as often as not, Hamas stopped attacks from other groups. As Aluf Benn, one of Israel’s leading security analysts, declared, "Ahmed Jabari" — the Hamas commander Israel killed last week — "was a subcontractor, in charge of maintaining Israel’s security in Gaza." The trickle of rocket attacks, however, grew stronger as the memory of Cast Lead grew hazier, and what was seen as a nuisance became a threat.

With Pillar of Defense, Israel seeks to force Hamas to again police Gaza on its behalf and restore its deterrence while reassuring its own citizens so Hamas cannot intimidate them. In other words, Israel is playing both offense and defense.

Israel’s strategy has five components. Striking Jabari was meant to frighten Hamas’ military leaders — both with death and with the prospect that their organization could disintegrate under a continuous loss of senior leaders. Second, Israel is actually trying to degrade Hamas’ organizational capacity — and thereby render it incapable of protecting or providing for Gazans — by hitting other leadership targets, police facilities, and elements of Hamas’ military and political infrastructure. As the conflict has worn on, Israel has gone from strictly military sites to political and media ones, demonstrating to Hamas that Israel can increase the pressure. Third, Israel has destroyed many of the long-range rockets that enabled Hamas to target Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. (At the same time, it has accepted that small towns near the Gaza border and large cities like Ashdod and Beersheva will be in range of Hamas’ shorter-range rockets, which have proven harder to destroy.) Fourth, Israel is relying on the "Iron Dome" missile defense system to shoot down incoming rockets (the government claims a 90 percent effectiveness rate) and to serve as a visible symbol that the government is protecting its people. Finally, Israel has called up reserves and threatened to send ground troops to Gaza, signaling to Hamas that it can dramatically escalate the conflict.

Israeli leaders often cite the struggle against Hezbollah as a model. The 2006 war went poorly for Israel’s military, and the continuance of rocket attacks throughout the conflict led many observers at the time to declare it a political win for Hezbollah. But Hezbollah seemed deterred in the war’s aftermath. It has kept the peace along Israel’s border, and the last six years in the north have been quiet and rocket-free.

In a different way, Hamas’ strategy is modeled after Hezbollah’s approach during its 2006 war with Israel. Hamas cannot beat Israel, but it hopes to prove that it can outlast it. If Hamas can keep firing rockets, it can demonstrate to its own people that though it is bloodied, it is also unbowed. Moreover, by striking not only areas near Gaza but also firing on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Hamas is trying to bring the war home to all Israelis — and score points with Palestinians at home with television images of Israelis running for cover. Ghazi Hamad, Hamas’ deputy foreign minister, told CNN that Hamas wants to make it clear to Israel that it cannot "do everything" it wants in Gaza. "We send a message to them that Gaza is not an easy bone. … You can’t eat Gaza in one minute. If you do something, we will react." Hamas also hopes that continued rocket attacks will wear down the Israeli people, while international pressure will force Israel to give up the fight. Finally, Hamas feels confident — or at least more confident — that it has Egypt’s backing, which it lacked when Hosni Mubarak was in power.

For now, both sides think they can win. Gaza is being hit far harder than Israel, but Hamas has far more tolerance for the casualties of its own people and fighters than does Israel. In fact, its military side is probably braying for revenge for Jabari’s killing, and giving in too early would be risky for Hamas’ political leaders, who worry that some of its military wing might join rival groups if they are seen as kowtowing to Israel. For Israel, on the other hand, calling for a ceasefire as rockets fall make it hard to claim that it restored deterrence and is bending Hamas to its awl. The fighting not only may continue for a while, but it could even expand as Israel in particular feels the need to ratchet up pressure.

Israelis believe that, even if Hamas agrees to a ceasefire now, they will probably have to hit Gaza hard again in future years to keep Hamas deterred. Cast Lead in their view worked — but if Hamas is not regularly reminded of Israel’s military superiority, Israel’s deterrence will decline. However, in addition to the cost in lives and property, continued strikes will make Israel an even greater pariah and hinder any long-term hope for peace. Instead, Israel’s coercion needs to be balanced with real incentives. For Hamas to again act as Israel’s subcontractor, it needs to be able to score political wins among Palestinians by governing Gaza. It must have a chance to restore economic and social normalcy to the Strip. This achievement can then be held at risk if it uses violence — or if it allows other groups to do so. Rather than be both a government and a resistance movement, Hamas must be forced to choose, with real rewards if it goes along a path toward peace and harsh punishment, internationally supported, if it refuses to reject violence.

To break the stalemate and end the fighting, both sides have to believe they will gain more from peace than from violence. For Israel this means a permanent end to rocket attacks from Gaza, including those fired by other groups. For Hamas it means that it must gain more of an ability to govern. Without such gains, any ceasefire is unlikely to hold.