Shadow Government

We can’t let Hamas off the hook

By Michael Singh I’ll come back to this question soon, but first I want to speak to the situation in Gaza. Making foreign policy demands a certain amount of detachment. I must admit, therefore, difficulty in detaching myself from events transpiring in Gaza and Southern Israel. I lived in Tel Aviv for two years at ...

By Michael Singh

I’ll come back to this question soon, but first I want to speak to the situation in Gaza.

Making foreign policy demands a certain amount of detachment. I must admit, therefore, difficulty in detaching myself from events transpiring in Gaza and Southern Israel. I lived in Tel Aviv for two years at the height of the recent intifada, and saw firsthand the effects of conflict on Israelis and Palestinians alike. So it is hard, as I read the news, to detach myself from thoughts of the men and women in Israel who must live in constant fear of a sudden rain of rockets, or men and women in Gaza who are trapped in that desperate canton under international blockade and terrorist rule. Both, though their anger is directed at one another, in reality face a common foe in Hamas: the group fires its rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilians, and uses Palestinian civilians as shields for its forces. In assessing Gaza, it is better perhaps to begin with this moral clarity than with detachment.

Even before Israel’s incursion into Gaza, intense diplomacy was under way to achieve a ceasefire; which side prevails in Gaza will depend not only on the IDF’s fortunes on the ground, but also on the outcome of this diplomacy. No responsible person would wish for anything but an end to the violence as soon as possible. But the United States has been correct to insist that any ceasefire be sustainable. In practice, this means that it must correct the deficiencies of the previous "calm" by providing for a strengthened counter-smuggling regime (which may require third-party forces stationed along the Gaza border) and for some Palestinian Authority (PA) role in Gaza (for example, in administering the Rafah crossing as proposed by Egyptian President Mubarak). 

The stakes involved in this diplomacy are high: a ceasefire on terms identical to or weaker than the one that expired late last month will strengthen Hamas and its backers, set back the peace process, and serve as a prelude to further fighting. On the other hand, a tough ceasefire can weaken Hamas and diminish the influence of its Syrian and Iranian backers, strengthen the PA, and bolster peace prospects. 

Achieving such an outcome will require that Egypt, as well as other Arab states, demonstrate fortitude in the face of popular protests and use their leverage with Hamas to compel the group to accept a strengthened ceasefire. It will also require that European states be disciplined in their diplomacy and hold Hamas to account, rather than easing its isolation and thereby rewarding the group for its resort to violence. All of this will require vigorous diplomacy by the Bush Administration and a seamless handoff to the Obama team, which will inherit Gaza as its first major foreign policy challenge.

Finally, after the guns have fallen silent, the United States will need to address the broader dynamics that led to this conflict — the absence of effective PA political and security institutions, the trend in the region toward extremist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas seeking to practice politics and terrorism, and Iran’s funding and equipping of these groups to destabilize the Middle East and further its agenda. How the Obama Administration tackles these issues will reveal much about its strategy for the Middle East.

When I lived in the Middle East, I was struck by two things in particular about the Israelis and Palestinians I met: their ability to adapt and carve out a normal life amid chaos, and how fiercely they clung to the hope that things could one day be better. Hamas seeks to extinguish that hope. If they are not prevented from doing so, the future will look very bleak indeed for the men and women of Gaza and Israel alike.

Michael Singh is managing director at the Washington Institute. He was senior director for Middle East affairs at the U.S. National Security Council from from 2005 to 2008. Twitter: @MichaelSinghDC

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