Opinion

Let the Israeli Army's Policy of Restraint Against Hamas Prevail

The more the Gaza economy improves, the more Hamas will have to lose. But to implement this view, the IDF chief must conclude that the cabinet’s current policy is likely to trigger a war against Israel

A damaged mosque minaret is seen as Palestinian Hamas militants take part in a protest in the northern Gaza Strip, December 7, 2017.
\ MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS

The army has a free hand to act against terror. It’s allowed to attack targets even in Syria or Sinai. The army is responsible for providing assessments of threats and opportunities, to propose means of action, or to stop government initiatives that endanger Israel, like an attack on Iran. But the army isn’t allowed to start a war without the government’s approval, and of course it’s not allowed to conduct peace negotiations, even if peace is an integral part of the country’s security.

But is the army allowed to provide legitimacy to an unethical policy masked as a war on terror, or to a policy disguised as safeguarding Israel’s security? Is the army authorized to prevent a war stemming from such a policy?

The test case that’s currently a threat is the severe hardship in Gaza, which according to Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot could lead to a total breakdown that spurs a violent confrontation in the near future. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman dismisses the chief of staff’s words out of hand and insists that there’s no humanitarian disaster in Gaza and it’s not so terrible if Hamas starts to panic a little.

Eisenkot’s warning doesn’t necessarily stem from humanitarian concerns. It’s a professional military assessment addressed to the cabinet. It’s based on the recognition that although the Israel Defense Forces has forged a balance of deterrence against Hamas, such deterrence is effective on condition that the other side has something to lose — and in this it’s very similar to the deterrence formula against Hezbollah.

It’s a formula that’s easy to understand and has been learned and tried in many places around the world. As long as the local regime is worried about its survival and its military weakness so dictates, it won’t start a war. But when its only lifeline is a military attack, because it’s losing control due to its inability to provide for the population it rules, it will attack or try to reach a compromise with the enemy.

The option of compromise doesn’t exist in Gaza, just as it’s absent in Lebanon. The difference between them is that in Lebanon there are still forces that can hold Hezbollah in check, because its political power depends on cooperation with rival parties and is subject to regional and even international considerations dictated by the interests of Iran and Syria. In Gaza there is no local force that can dictate to Hamas, and even its reconciliation with Egypt hasn’t yet produced anything concrete to strengthen its position as long as the Rafah crossing isn’t opened regularly and systematically.

The result is that the strategy of closure, which is designed to bring about the collapse of Hamas, has become bankrupt because Israel has no effective civilian tools left to pressure Gaza with. The IDF and the Shin Bet security service were the first to understand that Hamas can serve as a vital tool to help stop the firing of rockets into Israel, on condition that it can survive.

In the balance between the threat presented by a strong Hamas and the benefit to be gained from its strength, the IDF has concluded that in the current diplomatic situation, Hamas’ ability to govern should be preferred. This isn’t a strategic betrayal of the deterrence formula but actually supports it. The more the Gaza economy improves, the more Hamas will have to lose. This is an entirely military perspective that doesn’t require negotiating with the organization over peace or withdrawing from the territories.

Such a perspective gives meaning to Israel’s threats, because in the absence of civilian infrastructure and a flourishing economy, there is nothing to threaten. But to implement this perspective, the chief of staff can’t suffice with warnings or situation assessments. He must decide that the current policy is a threat and likely to become a casus belli for a war against Israel.

And if he feels unable to breach the cabinet’s wall of folly that’s endangering the country, he must draw conclusions. An honest, decent and wise chief of staff can’t be a partner to the foolish plot that the cabinet is preparing against the country.