Mowing the Grass and Taking Out the Trash

Israel doesn't want to wipe out Hamas, and putting it in a corner will only backfire.


Nobody seems able to stop the Gaza war. The conflict kicked off in earnest again last week with continued Hamas rocket attacks and Israeli strikes on Hamas commanders. Perhaps more troubling, even if negotiators reach a cease-fire, both sides think another round is inevitable — there will, it appears, be more death and destruction in the months and years to come.

Although the conflict is often portrayed in existential terms, in reality the goals of both parties are far more limited. Israel has no desire to reoccupy Gaza: Doing so would be a diplomatic disaster, require Israel to care for and govern Gaza’s residents, and force Israel to fight a grinding counterinsurgency campaign against Hamas and other militant groups. Instead, Israel simply seeks quiet on its border. Hamas’s calculations are more complex. On the one hand, it considers itself a "resistance" organization dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state, and points to Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and 2011 swap of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for captured Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier Gilad Shalit as proof that only force compels Israel to make concessions.

Yet Hamas also sees itself as — and in reality is — the government of Gaza. As such, it wants to prove that it can exercise power effectively: In other words, it aims to ensure law and order, pick up the garbage, educate its young, and enable citizens to prosper. Governing also helps Hamas fulfill its ideology, as it believes it is advancing God’s will by running a government in accord with Islamic law. Politically, Hamas tries to offer itself to Palestinians as a more competent organization than its more moderate rival, Fatah — and indeed triumphed over Fatah in 2005 legislative elections in large part because Palestinians saw it as better at providing services and less corrupt. Running Gaza well will help Hamas cement its power and enable it to rival Fatah for leadership of the Palestinian people.

Making this even more complex, Hamas is divided. Some leaders have accepted the necessity of working with moderate Palestinians, and thus grudgingly accepting the reality of Israel’s existence. Others, particularly among its military wing, believe that any cease-fire is simply a period to rearm and reload for the next round of violence.

Israel has often tried to use deterrence to win quiet in the Gaza Strip — but due to the nature of both Hamas and the Israeli leadership and society, this has proved easier said than done. For deterrence to work, Israel must convince Hamas that launching rockets, kidnapping Israelis, or other violence will be met with a response so tough that Hamas will be in a far worse position after the dust clears. However, although Israel seeks to deter Hamas, its policy is predicated on the assumption that any deterrence successes will not endure. Israelis describe their counterterrorism policy as "mowing the grass" — the idea is that Hamas’s leadership and military facilities must regularly be hit in order to keep them weak. Broader destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure also reminds Hamas leaders that they and their people will pay a high price for attacking Israel.

Yet if we look at the latest round of fighting, as well as Israel’s two prior wars with Hamas since the group took over Gaza, the problems with Israel’s approach become clear. Deterrence has a strategic logic — but in this conflict, both sides are driven more by domestic politics than strategy. Israeli leaders compete to maintain their security credentials: While most democratic leaders struggle to convince their people to use force when necessary, Israeli leaders must struggle to explain that force can often backfire. Then-Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, part of the hawkish wing of Netanyahu’s Likud party, was just one of the figures who threatened to turn the war into a political liability for Netanyahu in its early days — he was a vocal advocate for an extensive ground campaign in Gaza and publicly criticized the decision to temporarily accept a cease-fire, leading the prime minister to fire him.

On the Hamas side, the domestic politics are cloudier but probably even more significant. Hamas is struggling to unite a movement that has branches in Gaza and the West Bank, a headquarters in Qatar, and a large presence in the Palestinian diaspora. These factions regularly debate such hot-button issues as the degree of reconciliation with Fatah, how much to prioritize rule in Gaza over the group’s needs elsewhere, and of course whether and when to confront Israel. And rival groups are constantly baying at Hamas’s heels: Palestinian Islamic Jihad and militants in Gaza with an ideology closer to al Qaeda than Hamas criticize any break in the fighting as a sign that Hamas has given up on freeing Palestine. At times, rival groups have launched attacks on Israel in spite of Hamas’s orders, and at other times Hamas has looked the other way while they acted.

There is one ironic danger of Israel’s war against Hamas — for deterrence to work, you don’t want your enemy to become too weak. A weaker Hamas makes rogue attacks more likely, and disarming Hamas, which Israeli leaders have at times called for, would risk Gaza being controlled by even more extreme groups.

Deterrence also failed to stop Hamas this time around because of the dismal position the Palestinian group was in prior to the war. Hamas was squeezed from every direction: Israel and the international community deliberately sought to isolate Hamas and keep Gaza’s economy in a wretched state, past promises to partially lift the blockade never materialized, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government engaged in an unprecedented crackdown on cross-border smuggling into Gaza. In such circumstances, Hamas had little to lose — and potentially much to gain — by restarting the conflict. It might just work: After the latest destructive round of violence, Gaza is back on the world agenda, and moderate Palestinians are embracing Hamas’s position on ending the blockade.

Violence also helps Hamas politically in its struggles with Palestinian rivals. When Israel attacks — particularly when the attacks kill appalling numbers of civilians, as happened in the 2008-2009 war and in the current conflict — it makes moderates like Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas look at best like fools and at worst like collaborators with the Israelis. It also makes peace negotiations impossible, denying Abbas his most important tool for delivering on a Palestinian state. Hamas is particularly likely to gain influence in the West Bank, where Palestinians applaud striking Israel but do not suffer the brunt of Israel’s response.

Israel also faces many limits when trying to deter Hamas. The Jewish state won’t escalate indefinitely — it has no desire to reoccupy Gaza, and Hamas knows this. In addition, Israel is highly casualty-sensitive: If Hamas kills 10 Israelis and Israel kills 100 Gazans, then Hamas claims victory — and Israelis agree. This means that a lucky Hamas rocket hit or a successful Hamas operation against Israeli troops can dramatically transform the political equation, making Hamas a "winner" and Israel a "loser" overnight. Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system has helped Israel reduce this risk, but it remains real, particularly as the range of Hamas’s rockets steadily increases, enabling the group to terrorize Israelis throughout the country.

If Hamas cannot be fully defeated, and if isolating it politically and economically makes it more likely to lash out, then the Israeli goal should be to use deterrence as part of a broader strategy to transform Hamas. Because Hamas cares about governing Gaza as well as defeating Israel, it should be given a stark choice: If it ends its own violence and launches a full crackdown on other militant groups in Gaza, the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza will be eased. Palestinian moderates, working with the international community and Israel’s neighbors, would control crossings to prevent the smuggling of arms. If not, the blockade will remain, and Israel will strike Hamas leaders and at times conduct more massive military campaigns: In other words, the suffering will continue.

Under such a deal, Hamas will be given a true chance to govern — but the price of that legitimacy is an end to violence. With this approach, Israel and its backers should change their policy toward Hamas’s feud with Fatah. They should want Hamas to be tied to more moderate elements, and thus be part of a technocratic Palestinian unity government. Indeed, if Hamas is implicitly part of such a government, it strengthens Hamas’s acceptance of peace and helps the Palestinian Authority regain its influence in Gaza. It also strengthens Palestinian moderates, showing that a peaceful path can lead to progress.

The good news is that negotiations underway in Cairo have all the elements of such a broader deal — but politics on both sides stands in the way. Israel doesn’t want to reward Hamas for the latest round of violence and, in general, is skeptical that Hamas will ever transform into a more peaceful movement. Hamas, for its part, wants to retain the legitimacy it gains from the occasional use of violence, and believes that only the threat of force will move Israel. The result, unfortunately, is that both parties are only thinking of a short-term stopgap measure. Mediators need to describe what a sustainable solution would look like, laying out specifics about Hamas’s responsibilities to stop the violence and the extent and nature of the easing of the blockade of Gaza.

Such an offer will lead to a crisis in Hamas from which Israel can only benefit. If Hamas rejects such terms, it will anger Gazans who want an end to violence, alienate any international support for the group, and legitimize a strong Israeli response. If Hamas accepts the offer, however, then it is implicitly accepting Israel’s right to live in peace and moving away from violence. It would also compel the group to crack down on more violent groups in Gaza.

The transformation of Hamas will not occur overnight, and Israel may have to mow the grass again. But the stark choice should remain, allowing both Israelis and Palestinians a real chance for peace.

Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the new book Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad. Twitter: @dbyman

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