Neither side can gain from this war of attrition. But is Benjamin Netanyahu willing to risk a ground invasion to stop it?
- By Natan SachsNatan Sachs is a Fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Follow him on twitter @NatanSachs.
The war of attrition that’s ebbed and flowed between Israel and Hamas since the Islamic radical group forcefully took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 has returned with round three: Operation Defensive Edge.
The damage is already gruesome, and bound to get worse. Millions of people are facing constant fear of attacks from the air: a broad swathe of Israelis are seeing Hamas rockets targeted at them (and Iron Dome defensive missiles being launched to counter), while massive airpower over the small and crowded Gaza Strip is killing scores of innocents, as well as the combatants at which it is aimed.
Without in any way diminishing the severity of suffering, reports on the conflict can give the impression that it’s to be perversely celebrated. Social media in particular seem to be saying one thing, in two voices: My enemy is evil. Israelis repeatedly point to the moral asymmetry between those who try to kill civilians and those who try to avoid hitting them. Palestinians repeatedly point to the numbers of their civilian casualties, ready to accuse Israel of anything, even, preposterously, "genocide" — in the words of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
But if we are interested in preventing the suffering rather than using it for political purposes, the real question is not whether Israel is stronger than Hamas (it is, and feels no need to apologize for that fact), nor whether Hamas spends its energy stoking terror (it does, and does not even claim otherwise) rather than on governing and developing Gaza. Faced with the terrible consequences of war, the real questions we face now are: How can this round of violence end? And what are the sides really after?
The special tragedy of this round of fighting is that neither side had clear or attainable objectives going in. Israel, from the start, didn’t want this escalation in Gaza; it hoped to isolate the events in the West Bank and Jerusalem from the Gaza front and attempted Egyptian mediation before the official operation began. In rare overtures to Hamas, Israel conveyed its desire for de-escalation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite criticism from his right flank, has made clear that his primary goal is to end the fighting. And yet it relentlessly continues, with increasing numbers of civilian casualties.
The modest Israeli goal of restoring calm may now evolve into something wider and more deadly. With no end in sight to the fighting, Israel is now contemplating entering Gaza with ground forces. Israel would likely aim to sever the Strip in two or three parts, limiting Hamas’s freedom of action while degrading weapon stockpiles. Israel has — and will continue to — try to strike at the Hamas tunnel infrastructure. While the Egyptian military has dealt a heavy blow to the tunnels between the Gaza Strip and northern Sinai, there are continued attempts by Hamas to dig beneath the Israel border. (One such tunnel was targeted early in the fighting, when Israel, which had intelligence on the its construction, feared the passageway would be used to infiltrate and attack Israeli troops or civilians.)
An Israeli ground incursion risks far greater casualties, however, especially on the Palestinian side. In Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009), Israel, then led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, entered Gaza in what became, predictably, a gruesome and internationally condemned operation. In 2012, during Operation Pillar of Defense, led by Netanyahu, Israel called up very large numbers of reservists, signaling its readiness to enter Gaza, yet refrained from doing so. Despite criticism from the right and frustration by thousands of reservists for being used in the bluff, Netanyahu chose caution. As many have noted, Netanyahu, Israel’s second longest-serving prime minister (after the founder of the state, David Ben-Gurion), has only engaged in two relatively small military operations: the air operation in 2012 and the current one. Despite his hawkish rhetoric, Netanyahu is actually a cautious, conservative leader — in war as well as in peace. This operation may turn out to be his first major use of ground forces across Israel’s borders.
Why then did Hamas refuse the Israeli overtures for de-escalation? Or, as Mahmoud Abbas said to Hamas: "What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?"
The political leadership of Hamas seems to have been dragged into this conflict by the events that preceded it and by its own militants, not always under the control of the political wing. As Khaled Mashal, the head of the Hamas political bureau, claimed: "Yes, we want calm. We don’t like escalation, and we didn’t make an escalation. Netanyahu imposed this aggression upon us." Hamas now demands the opening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt (ostensibly not even a demand from Israel, directly) and the release of prisoners recently swept up in Israeli police actions.
Hamas finds itself in a very difficult situation, and has for a couple years now. Since 2012, when Egypt was governed by a president from the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas’s parent organization), Hamas’s fortunes have declined precipitously. The current regime in Cairo despises the Brotherhood and has only slightly more tolerance for its Palestinian offshoot. Around the region, the apparent ascendancy of actors friendly to the Muslim Brotherhood, including Qatar and Turkey, now appears reversed. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries (save Qatar) have taken a harsh stance against the Brotherhood, in support of the new regime in Cairo. The Egyptian military has gone to lengths to destroy the vast network of tunnels that connected Gaza to Sinai, through which both civilian goods and weapons were transferred. Hamas regulates and taxes these tunnels, providing it with an important revenue source.
Cornered by Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza and the new Egyptian regime, Hamas is strapped for cash. Even the recent formation of the unity government with Abbas’s Fatah party hasn’t helped: The deal provided funding to the official Palestinian Authority (PA) employees in Gaza but not to Hamas employees, to which banks would not transfer for fear of Israeli sanctions.
Hamas operatives inside Gaza (Mashal resides in Qatar) may have been searching for a way out, feeling they had little to lose. More likely, they lost control of their own cadres.
Unintended war is hardly new. This round of violence came on the backdrop of a brutal four weeks in which three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped by Hamas operatives (to be fair, Hamas claims its leadership did not order the kidnapping — but went on to praise the operation); an Israeli operation to recover them that left several Palestinians dead and scores of Hamas sympathizers in jail; hate crimes against Arabs by Israelis that culminated in the horrific murder of a Palestinian teenager; and widespread low-level violence among Palestinians and Israeli Arabs in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Some have even spoken of the start of a Third Intifada.
The horrible events ongoing have been a reactive mess. Neither Israel nor Hamas has much to gain from it, which only adds to the tragedy. There may be some room for a deal involving the Rafah crossing, but Israel and Egypt will likely insist that the PA man that border point — as was the case before the Hamas takeover in 2007 — to avoid renewed smuggling or rewarding Hamas for its violence. In any case, negotiating such a deal appears far off at present.
In the meantime, each side is striving to prove its resolve and restore deterrence against future infractions and interventions. Even if Israel were to enter Gaza with ground forces, it’s unlikely to try and topple the Hamas regime, for fear of the immense cost of such an operation to the local population and to Israeli troops. Instead, Israel prefers a weakened, deterred, but effective Hamas. With the tunnels from Sinai now closed, a hit to the Hamas stockpile stands some chance of lasting longer than previous attempts, since it would be harder for Islamists to replace the lost weaponry.
But even if its weaponry were degraded, Hamas’s motivation to prove "resistance" to Israel will remain. Most acutely, this round of violence has the potential to reinforce the unrest — which had subsided — in the West Bank and in Jerusalem. A full blown Intifada, possibly coupled with attacks from Lebanon or elsewhere, could make this round of violence seem tame by comparison.
And yet, the lack of true objectives for either side in this confrontation also offers some hope. With little to gain, a ceasefire, if reached, might hold. If Hamas could be brought to stop firing its rockets, Israel would likely reciprocate. The formidable challenge, however, is to find channels through which to credibly mediate with a splintered Hamas, as the United States is now reportedly trying to do.
But without a fundamental change to the regime in Gaza — one which Israel would like to avoid carrying out itself — the dismal cycle of this war of attrition will likely continue. Today, generations of Israelis and Palestinians grow up suffering a brutal reality for which they blame only the other. Meanwhile, two populations have become desensitized to human suffering and are increasingly prone to wish vengeance upon the other. This, sadly, is attrition at its most pointless and brutal nadir.