July 17, 2019

Surrendering to (the Reality of) Hamas

Israelis take cover as a siren sounds warning of incoming rockets from Gaza. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

It is quite annoying to have to declare Hamas the winner in a round of violence. And yet, at least to a certain degree, Hamas is a winner. This week, Israel celebrates its 71st anniversary, and again, instead of talking about Israel’s achievements, one must talk about Gaza and Hamas.

Four Israelis were killed in the first half of this celebratory week, hit by rocket fire from Gaza last weekend. These casualties, and the more than 600 rockets and mortar shells launched from Gaza, make this brief eruption of violence the deadliest for Israel since the 2014 Protective Edge operation.

As is Israel’s habit in recent years, the response to rocket fire was bombing and destroying several locations in the Gaza Strip. But as the number of Palestinian fatalities testifies (fewer than 30), Israel was careful to harm as few civilians as possible and not too many Hamas operatives. Had it not, thousands would have been killed or maimed. Had it not, escalation would have followed, with more bloodshed.

Why does Israel act with such caution in Gaza? Why does Israel restrain itself when Hamas (or Islamic Jihad) opens fire? One reason is moral: Israel has no desire to see mass Palestinian casualties. But of course, this doesn’t fully explain the restrained response. Sometimes it’s necessary to respond harshly. To get to such a point, one of two thresholds must be crossed. The first is a threshold of violence that Israel can no longer tolerate. The second is a threshold of reasoning, namely, for Israel to have a plan that would make a harsh response more effective than a mild response. 

Repeatedly over the past five years, Israel has chosen restraint over brute force when rockets fall on Israeli towns. Time and again, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accepted a supposedly intolerable situation and refrained from ordering a harsh response. This comes with a certain political price: Netanyahu is criticized from the right for being too weak and is criticized from the left for having no long-term plan to improve the situation in Gaza.

“Netanyahu isn’t pleased with the recurring eruptions around Gaza. But he also doesn’t wish to make a bad situation worse — or see more people killed and gain nothing from it.”

He currently ignores such criticism. Having just won reelection, he probably believes he has enough political capital to make unpopular or difficult decisions. Thus, his goal seems to be the same at every instance of Gaza violence in recent years: to end it quickly, with as little damage as possible, knowing full well that what he gets is a temporary respite from violence. Nothing more than a timeout. 

What Netanyahu does is simple: He buys periods of quiet. Hamas is short on cash, Qatar is willing to provide it with cash, Israel is willing to trade cash for quiet. Hamas will get the cash — from Qatar — if it keeps Gaza calm. Sometimes it’s $10 million, sometimes $15 million or even $30 million. It all depends on the timing, the conditions and the ability of the parties to reach a compromise, mediated by Egypt. 

Why?

Because Netanyahu doesn’t seem to think that the thresholds were crossed beyond which the only option is war. He believes that Israel can withstand an eruption of violence from time to time, absorb it and move on. Of course, no one wants to minimize the suffering of Israelis who live under the threat of such eruptions, and yet when we look at these instances when the situation calms, it’s clear that the south is quick to recover and go back to normalcy — or what southern Israelis accept as normalcy.

The threshold of violence is the one with which the prime minister has little room to maneuver. If a rocket, rather than killing one Israeli, would kill a score of schoolchildren, the government would have no choice but to act with harsh force. Hamas — don’t mistake the group for fools — also knows this and hence, in some cases, attempts to avoid such incidents or at least create the impression that it also restrains itself. A clear testimony to that was on display on May 5, when an anti-tank missile fired by Hamas killed Moshe Feder, 68, when he was driving his car near Kibbutz Erez. After the attack, Hamas distributed a video that creates a false impression that Hamas chose to hit one car rather than a passenger train. In reality, no trains were running in the south at the time of the attack. The video is propaganda.

While the threshold of violence is in some ways a matter of calculation and in some ways a matter of chance, the threshold of reasoning is dominated by cold calculation. It is based, in essence, on the answer to a simple question: Can Israel improve its strategic situation by acting in a different fashion, whether this means more violence, or more compromise, or more creative ingenuity? Clearly, Netanyahu’s answer to this question, at least for now, is no. He doesn’t see a way for Israel to improve the situation by upping the ante, intensifying the military response, killing more people, making the rounds of violence longer. Netanyahu isn’t pleased with the recurring eruptions around Gaza. But he also doesn’t wish to make a bad situation worse — or see more people killed and gain nothing from it.

Two fundamental suspicions form the basis for Netanyahu’s calculation. He suspects that the military cannot provide him with a victory that is more beneficial than the short-term arrangements he can get by bribing the enemy with Qatari money. He is also suspicious of the notion that Israel can engineer the future of Gaza, by doing this (occupation), that (easing of security measures) or the other (handing Gaza to the Palestinian Authority). In a true conservative fashion — not neo-conservative — Netanyahu prefers the status quo over the pipe dream that Israel can liberate and democratize the Gaza Strip. 

His suspicion is based on his reading of Middle East realities and on Israel’s experience. When Israel attempted to engineer a new Lebanon in the 1980s, it failed. When it meddled in Palestinian politics, in the 1990s, it also failed. When other nations attempted to democratize other countries or regions in the Middle East, the result was often disastrous. By making war, President George W. Bush didn’t make Iraq a better place. By making speeches, President Barack Obama didn’t make Egypt a better place. Netanyahu knows that in this region, intervention often leads to chaos and anarchy — the rise of ISIS, the civil war in Syria. These are examples that Israel doesn’t want to copy in Gaza. They make the rule of Hamas, as bad as it is — and it is bad —  better than the alternatives. 

And thus, a sour cease-fire. There is no glory in the compromise with Hamas, and no promise for a better future. Netanyahu is buying time and will keep buying time until one of two thresholds is crossed: Either violence forces him to act, so as not to give the impression that Israel is willing to tolerate an even more aggressive Hamas, or someone comes forward with a plan that convinces the highly reluctant, highly suspicious, highly cautious prime minister that Israel has a viable way for igniting a long-term improvement in Gaza.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.