"Is there going to be another war with Gaza?"
That’s the question I’m asked, after another nerve-wracking week in Israel. My initial answer is, "I hope not." But after 25 years in the IDF, I know that hope is not a method.
History has taught us that there can be no decisive victory in conflicts like this. Asymmetrical warfare waged in civilian arenas extract a huge human cost, and bloodshed won't change the minds of people with entrenched opposing ideologies.
However, what is clear with Hamas is that while the organization carries the banner of Holy Jihad, it still wishes to maintain its control over the Gaza Strip and to seek power beyond, into the West Bank. Every attempt, by persuasion or force, to make Hamas relinquish its powers and responsibilities in favor of the PLO-ruled Palestinian Authority has failed.
Hamas has ruled Gaza for 12 years and has utterly failed the people of Gaza. The territory's problems, both internal and external, have multiplied. Gaza under Hamas has a huge energy crisis. Water quality is at a record low, with 97% of the coastal aquifer water unfit for human consumption. Cash flow is at an all-time low, illustrated by the steep decline in truck loads going into Gaza. All of these are a huge burden on the leadership, and on the street - a pressure cooker waiting to explode.
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The nature of Gaza’s problems historically suggest that all problems eventually spill over into Israel.
Over the last two months particularly human complexities have been spilling over into Israel. The Gaza Return March, that began as a grassroots movement, was hijacked by Hamas - who seized the opportunity to channel the internal frustrations away from their failures.
Israel was faced with waves of rioters, violence - real security challenges. Israel’s forceful response has amassed over 100 dead Palestinians, many of them terrorists, some of them innocents including medics, journalists and youngsters.
These violent events caused a wave of global criticism of Israel, and to a lesser extent, the Palestinians. The most frequent statement heard has been calls for restraint from all parties.
What was absent from the majority of the statements by the UN Security Council members was one word: Hamas. The U.S., Europe and of course Israel mentioned, or blamed, Hamas. The other world powers at the table tiptoed around Gaza's ruling power as if the Palestinian Ambassador at the table, Riyad Mansour, actually represents that power. He doesn’t.
Hamas controls Gaza. As such, Israel and the world need to engage Hamas, not ignore them.
Back in 2007, I participated in discussions about how Israel should relate to Hamas. Then, the government declared that Hamas-controlled Gaza was a "hostile entity." The main idea was not to reward its rocket terrorism with a beneficial relationship; and, at the same time, to proactively create favorable conditions to build a relationship with Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank - partly by locking Hamas out.
Israel's relationship with Abbas has been fruitful. It has led to the distinction between three political territories: Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
Israel’s capacity to maintain security in the West Bank, and thwart Hamas’ attempts to reestablish terror infrastructure with suicide bombers and abductions, has rested on its security coordination with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The same Abbas, 83 years old, has been in and out of hospital recently, sparking repeated premature rumors about his death.
Abbas has no clear successor, and his policy of combatting Hamas in the West Bank is not guaranteed once he's out of the game. The possibility of chaos is a real risk. The question mark around Abbas’ successor is key to knowing how Israel will deal with the West Bank in the near future.
In any case, I suggest, based on Israel’s interests, we must deal with the two political territories separately. The reality for the forseeable future is that the West Bank is led by Fatah and Gaza is run by Hamas. All of the attempts to push Fatah to retake Gaza have failed - and eventually blown up on our doorstep. To embrace the reality on the ground is an Israeli national security interest, not least for Israelis living within reach of the mortars, rockets, incendiary kites and tunnels.
With even more unpredictability in the foreseeable future, now is the time to create a new dynamic - not of escalation but a dynamic of endurance. Hamas have proven time and time again that they can control and prevent rocket fire. That self-control must be bolstered by the international community, regional powers and western powers taking concrete steps to give Gaza hope, security and a better future.
Every attempt at a political option to stabilize Gaza above the heads of Hamas, or bypassing them, have failed. Hamas, too, are watching Abbas’ health, and considering how to take advantage of expected future unrest. That makes the timing of engaging with them more critical.
Hamas needs to be engaged on two levels. One level is directly, through professional technocratic Israeli components, to alleviate the most immediately pressing humanitarian and infrastructure issues. The other level is contact on the diplomatic level - at first through mediators - in order to create the prospect of a long-term cessation of hostilities.
Egypt is a key factor to any process. The Gaza Strip has only one place to expand, and that is towards the Sinai peninsula. It’s enough to look at night-time aerial satellite photographs to see how the peninsula is dark and under-developed.
Israel lacks vision regarding Gaza. All of the options appear to be military force, but even those have been tried and exhausted. The human cost of Israel retaking Gaza from Hamas by military means would be heavy, and would have no guarantee of success in terms of defeating the idea of Hamas - not to mention the possibility of creating a vacuum that could well be filled by a more radical and violent organization.
Senior Israeli military officials made statements this week that made clear the solution to Gaza isn’t a military one, but rather a political and diplomatic one. The three wars fought against Hamas haven’t changed the strategic reality, or the situation of a million Israelis living in southern Israel who, only this week, faced over 100 incoming rockets and mortars.
The sooner Israel embraces ideas like an offshore artificial island, or a Cypriot port to Gaza, and a comprehensive regional and international road map to alleviate the energy, water and unemployment challenges Gaza under Hamas face the better. Addressing these issues could generate a new type of dialogue to managing the conflict with Hamas.
As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu headed to Europe to meet with Merkel, Macron and May, he announced that he had two issues to talk to them about: Iran and Iran. It would’ve been better if he had broadened the linkage issue: not only Iran’s nuclear aspirations, and Iran’s regional agitator status, but also Iran's involvement in destabilizing Gaza, with its $80 million funding spout to Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
In engaing with Hamas, it would be essential to bring Israeli popular support onside. The government would have to show good reasons for any change to its existing hardline policy. One step would be for Hamas to offer a humanitarian confidence-building measure such as the return of Avera Mengisto and Hisham al-Sayed, Israeli civilians held under duress by Hamas.
But even without that, Israelis have lived under rocket and mortar fire for 17 years from Hamas. That stagnant reality calls for something new and positive to be interjected into the relationship with our neighbors.
The military option is always there. But it’s time for something else, for the people of Gaza and for southern Israel alike.
Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) Peter Lerner is a crisis communications consultant. He served for 25 years in the IDF as a spokesperson and a liaison officer to international organizations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Twitter: @LTCPeterLerner