Analysis

Gaza Violence: Just Another Flare-up on the Road to a Long-term Deal

Hamas, like Israel, has political exigencies for maintaining the balance of deterrence

Palestinians gather near the remains of a building that was completely destroyed by an Israeli air strike, Gaza City, November 13, 2018
\ SUHAIB SALEM/ REUTERS

The accepted narrative for the current round is that the Israeli special forces operation in the Gaza Strip Sunday was disrupted when the unit encountered a Palestinian force, and massive air strikes were needed to facilitate the unit’s rescue.

As to the question of whether the covert operation was itself necessary, the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson said, “The activity was deep in the Strip and it’s just the tip of the iceberg of these activities, which are ongoing and whose purpose is to maintain Israel’s superiority and capabilities as they exist today.”

Details of the operation cannot be published, but one can ask why it was so urgent to conduct such an activity just when Israel, Hamas, Egypt and Qatar were on the verge of working out the details of an agreement aimed at preventing just the type of escalation that followed the IDF operation.

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Did the planners — who according to the IDF Spokesperson had the political leadership’s approval for the operation — assume that success was assured and therefore there was no reason not to proceed with it, and presumably not for the first time? What was the basis for this assumption? Should we accept unquestioned the explanation that this was not an assassination operation but rather a “routine activity?” Perhaps the approval at the political level was a response to the demands of Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who is a fan of targeted killings?

In light of the dangerous development on the Gaza border, arguments about the desired response will again be heated. Should Israel reoccupy Gaza or only “inflict pain” on it, not because mass bombings will destroy Hamas, but to convince the Israeli public that Israel’s deterrent capability has not been undermined. Over the past two days, meanwhile, deterrence has become a theoretical concept given Hamas’ rocket and missile barrage on the south.

Common sense says that a deterred organization would have been satisfied with a local retaliation for the killing of six of its members, rather than display a broad assault capability that could undermine the important political and economic accomplishment it had achieved when Qatari aid began flowing into the Gaza Strip.

But like Israel, Hamas also has complex political calculations that require it hold up its end in the balance of deterrence with Israel, or at least to erode the exclusive deterrence Israel claims.

Hamas doesn’t need to speculate on how Israel will respond to rocket fire; it knows darn well and can unhesitatingly rely on it. It allows Hamas to close ranks, to harness Islamic Jihad and the Popular Committees, which regularly attack it for its concessions to Israel, even if they are prepared to go along with any agreement, and to demonstrate its leadership by showing that Hamas, and only Hamas, will determine what is a “justified” response and what is considered unnecessary fire, like the last Islamic Jihad rocket fire in October.

The important element of Hamas’ military strategy is that Israel will always have to take into account Hamas’ response, since Israeli attacks on Gaza will not give border community residents the quiet that the attacks are supposed to achieve.

Both Israel and Gaza understand the rules of the game of mutual deterrence, and both are clear that the current conflict will end at a table at which Egypt, the UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov, Qatar, Israel and Hamas will go back to discussing the arrangement they were working on, because too much is at stake for both sides.

Hamas, through the agreement, will release itself from economic dependence on Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority; the agreement will revive the economic situation in Gaza and Hamas’ political power within it, and will solidify its status as a governing body, recognized both by Israel, which considers it a responsible party in every respect, and by Egypt, which only three years ago considered it a terrorist organization threatening its security. It will achieve all this without having to give up its national-religious ideology, without committing to a diplomatic process or capitulating to Abbas’ conditions, which include transferring its weapons to the PA security forces and giving up the tax collection and judicial systems it has set up in Gaza.

From the Israeli government’s perspective, the split between Hamas and Fatah ensures the continuation of the diplomatic deadlock and the validity of the argument that Abbas doesn’t represent all the Palestinians, even if he comes back to the negotiating table. On the practical level, Hamas relieves Israel of the need to manage the Gaza Strip directly, as reoccupying Gaza would require; Hamas, more than any other organization operating in the Gaza Strip, can help Israel maintain a deterrent balance based on real interests without having to pay a diplomatic price.

The problem is that the arrangement is being stymied by the Israeli political jumble that has its own rules. Gaza policy has become a test of nationalism and patriotism that also involves the IDF, which is obligated to deliver the military capability. As a result, the duration and scope of the current conflict and achieving the subsequent calm will be determined not by the damage caused by the bombing in Gaza, but by getting Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman to make peace.

Until two days ago, Israel’s political accounting department was dealing with the hollow dialogue between Bennett and Lieberman, who ostensibly hold the same worldviews. Both want a blow that would deal with Gaza “once and for all,” and neither have an answer for what will happen “the day after.” The voice of logic is actually being heard from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who explained that he saw no purpose in another Gaza war that would just bring both sides back to the table to negotiate an arrangement or a cease-fire. Now he will have to carefully examine his balance sheet vis—a—vis these two ministers more than the balance of power with Hamas.