The Palestinians in the picture below are carrying a boy killed by an Israeli military strike in Gaza, and they’ve wrapped his body in a Hamas flag adorned with the Shahadah, the testament of the Islamic faith. Hamas has made itself the symbol of solidarity over the deaths of Palestinian civilians, and however these men may have felt about the group before the war, what they wear in death now reflects where they stand in life.
Does this look like a movement losing popular support?
In their misery, the Gazans are coalescing around the hard line that there is no negotiating with the Israelis. Such is the logic of total war. And yet, for Israel, total war in Gaza was never an option. From the first day of the fighting, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert stated that a full-scale invasion followed by a long-term occupation was off the table, meaning that Hamas would most likely remain in power, and able to import or at least build new rockets to launch into Israel, whether or not the Israeli economic blockade of Gaza remained in effect.
”Israel is getting close to achieving the goals it set for itself,” Olmert reportedly told his cabinet during a weekly meeting several days ago. “But patience, determination and effort are still needed to realize these goals in a manner that will change the security situation in the south.”
Hamas announced Wednesday that it would accept an Egyptian-mediated ceasefire, and an Israeli negotiator is now in Cairo. Interestingly, the director general of the Israeli foreign ministry is also said to be in Washington to iron out a Memorandum of Understanding with the outgoing Bush administration regarding the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.
Meanwhile, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who remains in exile in Damascus, said the group would agree to a cease-fire under which Israel withdrew its forces and agreed to end its economic blockade, reopening border crossings into Gaza.
In other words, Israel is fighting for gains it’s unlikely to realize, and Hamas is fighting to reestablish the terms of the previous ceasefire, which the U.S. and the rest of the international community are likely to impose on Israel regardless. As long as goods can’t get through the border crossings, reconstruction in Gaza will be impossible.
So what do the Israelis think constitutes success? An 80% degradation of Hamas’ military capacity? 90%? More importantly, what’s the political endgame? “No international party has the will to impose its presence on Gaza,” my Carnegie Endowment colleague Nathan Brown observes, “so any international force could only be located in Gaza with local support — and that means with Hamas acquiescence.”
Hamas says it will not accept international forces in Gaza, meaning that any troops patrolling the southern border would face a hostile population. Who does Israel realistically expect to step up to the plate amid the prospect of policing a Palestinian civil war? The U.S.? Not likely. Egypt? It can’t even control the border, and the Mubarak government has no political will to fire on Palestinians who break through it. The EU will be of similarly little help.
”What has been destroyed in Gaza,” Carnegie expert Marina Ottaway observes, “will make it almost impossible for anyone to control.”
Israel’s supporters are right to note that a UN-mediated settlement is likely to end the economic blockade of Gaza without ending Hamas’ rocket attacks into Israel. Yet the strategic truth of the matter is disarmingly simple: Because the Israelis can neither permanently disarm nor remove Hamas from power by force, their only options are to take their lumps, or pursue a negotiated political settlement.
It’s important to recognize that a negotiated peace will not soon be a perfect peace, merely a better and more perfect one than that offered by ongoing inconclusive military actions. These negotiations should take place at first behind closed doors, where they stand to leave less egg on the participants’ faces if things should turn south, but they must occur nonetheless, and they should concentrate on finding ways to split the political wing of Hamas from the group’s military wing over time.
For starters, the Israeli economic blockade of Gaza needs to end. The fewer alternatives ordinary Palestinians have, the more radicalized they remain, and the more Hamas can extract payments and political loyalty from them in exchange for basic human necessities. To help Israel save face, the U.S. could perhaps broker a deal under which the blockade was lifted in late spring or summer, when the world was preoccupied by another development, like the G-20 meeting in London in early April.
Under a near-term settlement, one of Israel’s key political objectives will be to enable Palestinian moderates to take credit for a softening of its stance, instead of the hard-liners, who’ll claim they fought Israel to the table. The war won’t make that any easier.
”Hamas is strong now in part because their Fatah rivals were made to look like dupes before their fellow Palestinians,” writes Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian. “They gave up the ‘armed struggle,’ they recognized Israel — and what did they get for it? More checkpoints and settlers on the West Bank than ever before.”
Israel will have to find ways to make life better for ordinary Palestinians, and empower more moderate factions, even as it has few short-term means of weakening the more radical ones.
The Islamists “are not going to be eradicated,” Mohammed al-Masri, a Mahmoud Abbas loyalist and former Gaza intelligence chief, says in a recent interview with Newsweek. “Hamas will come out stronger on the ground than before.”
Adding insult to injury, the parliament of Kuwait has even pressured the emir to withdraw an invitation to Abbas for a state visit.
”There is a fixed idea among some Israeli leaders that Hamas can be bombed into moderation. This is a false and dangerous notion,” Jeffrey Goldberg wrote earlier this week in the New York Times. “It is true that Hamas can be deterred militarily for a time, but tanks cannot defeat deeply held belief. The reverse is also true: Hamas cannot be cajoled into moderation.”
From an American standpoint, this position accepts a politically unacceptable status quo. It may well be that peace is difficult to come by, or that we and our allies must accept a less-than ideal outcome. But whether or not Hamas resumes firing rockets once a ceasefire is reached, no American president can afford to allow Israel to pursue military action in Gaza without end. The buck stops there — and maybe the bucks, too.
Though Israel has lately taken to painting it as one, Hamas is not a monolithic organization, nor the sum of its ideological pronouncements. It is a state within a state (or a state within a non-state, you might say). Israel’s aim should not be to influence Hamas’ extreme elements, but to reduce their numbers through low-level diplomacy, and seek inroads with those who have joined the group for non-violent reasons, giving them other ways to eat, find medical treatment, and make a living. That means lifting the blockade and allowing aid to flow freely, in a manner Hamas cannot monopolize, with the ultimate aim of creating new interests that Hamas cannot control.
For Israel to abandon clarity of ends, particularly while employing means as blunt as brute force, is for it to abandon any hope of success in accomplishing its objectives. Like the Israelis, the U.S. is now forced to contend with groups we wish didn’t exist, but denying their existence, or addressing them alternately with silence and smart bombs alone does little more than remind them why they hate us.
The Israelis were justified in retaliating against Hamas for the rockets it fired at them, but foolish to do so in a manner that will leave them with the same problems they had before. They must recognize that they no longer face serious conventional threats by forces that can roll from the Galilee to the Mediterranean within hours. They cannot go on making decisions as if every adversity were intolerable, and every threat, existential.
People hardly ever blame their own leaders when a foreign army attacks them. No matter how much damage the Israelis can inflict on Hamas’ military machine, as long as the men in that picture can blame the Israelis instead of Hamas for making them suffer, Israel will face a growing problem.
-David Donadio is a 2008 Phillips Foundation journalism fellow, a writer and editor at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and managing editor of Doublethink Online. Photo credit: Flickr User hammahmoud.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire