Shock-and-awe Unlikely to Work on Hamas, Gazans

Israel is banking on scope of destruction to cow the enemy, but is making the wrong assumptions.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Palestinian woman stands next to her destroyed house in Beit Hanun, in Gaza, which was targeted by Israeli strikes, July 26, 2014.
Palestinian woman stands next to her destroyed house in Beit Hanun, in Gaza, which was targeted by Israeli strikes, July 26, 2014. Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The purpose of the “humanitarian cease-fire,” as Saturday’s lull in the fighting was euphemistically called, was to show the inhabitants of Gaza, and especially the Hamas leadership, the scope of the devastation that the Israeli army’s attacks had caused. The assumption was that if the leadership could only see for themselves what had happened in Gaza, it would soften and agree right away to the original Egyptian proposal or a more moderate version that would be drawn up during the diplomatic talks.

It is hard to understand exactly what the grounds for that assumption were. After all, if Israel and its friends perceive Hamas as a group that cares nothing about the death toll and the amount of devastation, then they have no reason to expect Hamas to be shocked by humanitarian concerns. The belief that the Gazan public would rebel against Hamas’ leadership and demand that it stop shooting immediately is also groundless. The public in Gaza did not rebel against Hamas throughout the eight years of its regime, even when the number of its dead during Operation Cast Lead surpassed the number of people killed in Operation Protective Edge, or even when the siege was at its height, before the smuggling tunnels eased the economic hardships there.

The Gazan population learned to make do, and maintain a routine of study and commerce, even under harsh conditions. In addition, if it was claimed that Hamas was using Gaza’s civilians as human shields and they could not rebel against being used as such, then by that same logic there is no reason to expect that Gaza’s population would manage to mount a powerful rebellion under wartime conditions.

Hamas can see

Incidentally, Hamas has no need of daylight or a cease-fire to know how many people have been killed or how bad the damage is. It is very well connected to the social networks and the television networks, which show up-to-date images – images that make extremely tough viewing and that hide nothing.

Israel still treats Hamas as an organization even though it defined Hamas, throughout all the years of its rule in Gaza, as the “Hamas administration,” the “Hamas government” and “Hamastan,” and even held indirect talks with it for cease-fires, prisoner releases and the import and export of goods to and from the Gaza Strip, in recognition of its near-total control there.

In the current talks, too, Israel treats Hamas as though there were no Palestinian unity government or Palestinian president responsible for all Palestinian affairs. Hamas does not need Israel to recognize it; it exists in practice. But beyond that, despite the reconciliation with Fatah, Hamas still acts like a separate government, not like an organization, both in the foreign relations it conducts and in the way it sets the conditions for the cease-fire.

Hamas’s answer to the Egyptian-Palestinian-Israeli channel has been to establish a Qatari-Turkish channel, and has even made the United States treat that channel with proper respect, no less and even perhaps more than the Egyptian-Palestinian-Israeli track.

The demands Hamas is making for a cease-fire are national, not tactical, in character. For example, it demands that the blockade be lifted, that the Rafah crossing be opened and that the border crossings into Israel be opened to regular traffic (under supervision), that people be allowed to live normal lives in Gaza and that Gaza be rebuilt after the destruction.

Except for the rebuilding of the ruins, none of the other demands is new. They were discussed as recently as last April, prior to the signing of the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, when Hamas claimed that Egypt had promised to open the Rafah crossing when the unity government was established. According to Palestinian sources, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had promised Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal during the talks to work for the lifting of the blockade and for expansion of the importation of goods to Gaza. Now Meshal will have a hard time agreeing to accept less than he believes he could have received in exchange for the reconciliation with Fatah.

Israel’s assumptions

Another Israeli assumption is that Hamas will not be able to dictate conditions to Egypt, and that any agreement it might achieve would have to be approved by Egypt. But Hamas has succeeded in extricating the talks from the Egyptian-Israeli grip, and now Egypt finds itself facing American and European pressure.

Israel assumes that Hamas, and not the Palestinian Authority, will be asked to enforce a cease-fire, and is acting according to the approach that it needs Hamas’s leadership to ensure that the Strip’s other armed groups also honor the agreement, and that Gaza does not disintegrate into sub-regions, each under the control of a different organization. While this assumption ensures the continuation of the split in security forces between the PA and Hamas, which Israel took advantage of in the past for political and other reasons, it is not necessarily inevitable that this division will endure.

The Israeli/Egyptian demand that the PA’s security services be the ones to supervise the Rafah border crossing, in addition to the PA’s control over the salaries of 45,000 Hamas officials, the strong relationship between Abbas and the president of Egypt, and the statements by Abbas and Meshal that Palestinian unity is a national asset, all give Abbas enough leverage to serve as an important player in the talks for a long-term cease-fire.

But Israel, for political reasons, does not seem interested in making Abbas more powerful, thus pushing him into a position that is not much different from that of Hamas. At the same time, it is giving Hamas, which was in an inferior position until three weeks ago, the power to dictate and direct the Palestinian political discourse.

It looks like we will see the results of this in the elections for the Palestinian institutions, which are to take place in the West Bank and Gaza early next year. The outcome could confound the thinking of Israel’s leaders yet again.

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