Neither Israel nor Hamas can win in Gaza, but the biggest loser is the Palestinian Authority.
- By Hussein IbishHussein Ibish is Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW)
With Israel having launched a significant ground operation in Gaza following Hamas’s refusal of an Egyptian cease-fire proposal, the latest wave of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities is intensifying yet again. To what end and from what beginning, however, is unclear. While both Israel and Hamas have publicly stated and implicit objectives, neither side seems poised to achieve any significant strategic gains.
In the meanwhile, more than 260 Palestinians in Gaza, many of them civilians, including children, have been killed — as well as at least two Israelis — and the grim tally of death and destruction is only likely to increase as long as the seemingly pointless fighting drags on.
Israel’s stated goals to "restore deterrence" and degrade — if not eliminate — Hamas’s rocket capabilities are straightforward, but unachievable unless the country were to fully reoccupy Gaza and reverse the "unilateral disengagement" enacted by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has called for such a reoccupation, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed these ideas as "background noise." There appears to be no real possibility that Israel’s military will once again police the streets of Gaza as an army of direct occupation. Under such circumstances, even given the significant ground operations launched on Thursday, all Israel can really do is single out stores of rockets, secure or demolish launching sites, destroy tunnel infrastructure, and target the homes and offices of Hamas officials and members.
At first glance, such an imperative might seem rational, since Hamas and other extremist groups in Gaza have been firing missiles at not only southern Israel but virtually the whole country and even parts of the occupied Palestinian territories. However, each time invasion has been the response to missile attacks from Gaza, Israel has failed to find a long-term — or even a mid-term — remedy. And each time, Hamas has emerged better equipped and more technically capable.
The implausibility of Israel’s avowed goal of destroying Hamas’s rocket capabilities (some officials even speak in terms of Gaza being "demilitarized") is all the greater given that most of the missiles Hamas is currently using are actually manufactured in the Gaza Strip rather than imported from Iran. Iranian expertise and spare parts are undoubtedly crucial, but since Hamas (and possibly other militant groups in Gaza) is manufacturing its own rockets — even when Egypt has ensured that smuggling is more difficult than ever — there’s every reason to expect that more can be manufactured locally and in short order.
Israel’s conundrum gets even more complicated when one considers that while it wants to degrade Hamas’s capabilities and strike a blow at the organization, it does not wish Hamas to fall from power in Gaza. Israel fears the potential for anarchy or more extreme groups emerging in a power vacuum were Hamas to collapse. So, in addition to pursuing a strategy that has proven to be ineffective, Israel has goals in Gaza that are greatly circumscribed by its counterintuitive, but undeniable, preference for a weakened Hamas to remain in power.
Hamas, too, has a long list of goals, all of which also seem to be out of reach. A key demand is that Israel release "security prisoners" who had been part of the Gilad Shalit swap but were rearrested in a West Bank crackdown a few weeks ago. It’s virtually impossible to imagine Israel agreeing to this.
Most of Hamas’s other key demands are aimed at countries other than Israel. For Hamas, this conflict is about trying to break out of an impossible situation in which it has found itself in recent months. It is broke. It is isolated. And internal divisions and its growing unpopularity in Gaza bedevil the group. Hamas may have hoped that the "unity government" agreement with Fatah would strengthen its hand and give it a new foothold in the West Bank. But as it happened, Hamas gained nothing from the agreement.
But to understand the root of Hamas’s current frustration, one must look not northeast from Gaza, but west. The epicenter of Hamas’s growing desperation lies in the policies of the new Egyptian government. Following the ouster of former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian military swept into Sinai and the border area with Gaza. They reportedly killed up to two dozen Hamas operatives in Sinai whom they believed were operating in cahoots with insurgent groups, and virtually shut down Hamas’s smuggling tunnel network. In the ensuing weeks, as the new government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi cracked down on its opponents, it treated Hamas as an unindicted co-conspirator in a terrorist campaign in Egypt being conducted by the extremist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and, according to the government, the Muslim Brotherhood itself. The Egyptian government sees itself as being at war with the Egypetian Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is the Brotherhood group in Palestine. The relationship between Egypt and Hamas is therefore distinctly unfriendly, if not outright hostile.
In addition to seeking Egyptian and American support for the transfer of promised funding from Qatar to pay its employees, Hamas wants Egypt to permanently open the Rafah crossing and effectively end the blockade of Gaza, at least insofar as the movement of people is concerned. But for Egypt the crossing and the whole border area is a major national security issue and its level of trust in Hamas is nil.
However, the question of Rafah has major implications for Ramallah, which has brought the beleaguered Palestinian Authority (PA) and the sidelined (and seemingly impotent and irrelevant) President Mahmoud Abbas to the fore. The only real prospect for reopening Rafah on a permanent basis is an old idea now suddenly revived: that PA security forces, along with international monitors, would control the Palestinian side of the crossing rather than Hamas.
Whether Egypt would be willing to agree to this is not clear, although Abbas has expressed interest. In light of Cairo’s cold shoulder, Hamas has attempted to bring its current patrons, Turkey and Qatar, into the center of diplomatic activity to help secure a cease-fire, to little avail. The centrality of Egypt to a potential cease-fire is simply unavoidable. It is the only Arab state that borders Gaza, and therefore has a direct influence on what does and does not happen there.
But Egypt’s priority is not, as some mistakenly think, to preserve its allegedly coveted role as the go-to mediator and broker of Israeli-Hamas truces. Instead, the Egyptian government is determined to ensure that Hamas is not able to coerce it into modifying what Sisi regards as key national security policies regarding Gaza. Hence its initial proposal, essentially of "calm for calm," offered Hamas no major gains. It was predictably, if not inevitably, rejected.
But now, Cairo has brought Abbas and the PA back into the talks, center stage. The Egyptians have grasped, even if Israel and some others have not, that the long-term political impact of the conflict probably depends more on restoring and enhancing the credibility of the PA than any other factor.
The PA has been badly damaged by the failure of the last round of peace negotiations and the lack of a viable ongoing diplomatic track towards Palestinian independence. Other strategies, such as U.N. recognition initiatives, have demonstrated limited impact and a prohibitive cost. Meanwhile, in the West Bank, the improvements in governance, reforms, economic development, and public services achieved by the state- and institution-building program led by former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have been stagnant, at best. In many cases, the palpable, measurable successes of that program are fraying.
There is no question that Abbas and the PA were suffering a crisis of legitimacy in recent months, at the same time that Hamas was enduring an even greater crisis at virtually every register. But now, at least, Hamas has seized the initiative, albeit at a hideous cost. It alone appears to wave the Palestinian flag, however speciously. It alone claims to have a strategy for national liberation — armed struggle and "resistance" — no matter how implausible.
The danger is that the bloody and reckless hostilities between Israel and Hamas at least constitute something, which a PA armed with nothing may find difficult to counter politically. With each successive flare-up of violence between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group has taken more blame from both Palestinian and broader Arab public opinion for the deaths and destruction. Hamas’s political "bounce" from nationalist sentiment against Israel has been more fleeting. But if the PA still appears ineffective, marginal, and irrelevant, even the heaping of public blame on Hamas might not stop it from gaining significant ground in the Palestinian political landscape.
If we are, as it appears, looking at a lose-lose scenario between Israel and Hamas, the biggest loser of all could be the PA. That loss of legitimacy will be good for no one — not Egypt, not Israel, and certainly not for the cause of peace. Thus, even as Israeli tanks roll into Gaza, regional and international powers must move quickly to help the PA restore its diplomatic and political relevance. This means ensuring that Ramallah, not Gaza, remains the primary address for Palestinian issues, and that a clear and credible contrast in both governance and the consequences of their policies can be drawn by each and every Palestinian who compares the PA and Hamas. Otherwise it will be hard for Palestinians and others not to conclude that Hamas is right when it claims that armed struggle and violence yield dividends — albeit at a high cost — while negotiations, diplomacy, and security coordination are a pointless dead end.