Gaza Endgame: Whom Will Israel Crown Victor?

To prevent an ongoing war of attrition, Israel will have to make concessions during the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire negotiations. But to whom: Hamas or Mahmoud Abbas?

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, July 16, 2014.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, July 16, 2014. Credit: AP
Daniel Nisman
Daniel Nisman

One of the most destructive periods in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears to be nearing its end. Israeli ground forces have unilaterally disengaged from all but two fronts inside Gaza, Egyptian mediation efforts are back underway, and both leaderships have begun cautiously presenting their case for victory.

But despite the tragic toll on human life and physical destruction, hugely disproportionate to the Palestinian side, the conditions aren’t ripe for calm in Gaza. Hamas’ tangible goals for this conflict have not yet been met, and Israel has thus far failed in deterring Palestinian factions from continuing to fire rockets. Most importantly, the two main roots for conflict over the past six years are still deeply entrenched in the sand of Gaza: The blockade and Palestinian militarization.

Consider the original objectives of each side at the outset of the conflict. Israel’s goals are primarily security-oriented. Taking a lesson from the Second Lebanon War, Netanyahu was careful not to raise expectations of ousting Hamas. From the beginning, his goals were to vaguely “deliver a blow” to the group that would “restore calm to the south,” or in other words, reset the deterrence clock. As the conflict progressed however, Israel’s goals evolved to destroying Hamas’ attack tunnel network. The Israeli government had also begun to demand from the international community that Palestinian groups be disarmed in exchange for lifting the blockade.

Hamas’ goals were primarily political and economic, seeking tangible concessions from Israel and Egypt regarding an easing of the blockade and prisoner releases, while demanding the Palestinian Authority pay the salaries of 42,000 unpaid civil servants in Gaza. As the conflict intensified, Hamas floated other demands, such as the building of an international seaport and airport, international assurances for rebuilding Gaza, and guarantees from Israel that targeted assassination bids on their leaders would stop.

But the past 48 hours have witnessed a notably shift in Hamas’ strategy. Meeting in Cairo, Hamas shelved its demands from Egypt and the Palestinian Authority. Together, Hamas, Fatah and the Islamic Jihad formulated a list of eight demands which are aimed entirely at Israel. Egypt is set to present a proposal to Israel in the coming days that includes four of these demands. With Israel unable to say no to its most important regional ally, serious truce negotiations will then begin for the first time in the conflict.

From here, three scenarios could transpire which will determine whether or not Operation Protective Edge is the last of its kind or another just another round in the cycle of violence:

War of Attrition

Israel’s decision to disengage unilaterally had initially delivered a blow to Hamas’ strategy, and quite possibly forced them to throw in their lot with Fatah and Egypt in order to corner Jerusalem and force its negotiators back to Cairo.

The gaps, however, between Israel and Hamas are still wide. Negotiations risk hitting a snag on nearly every issue regarding the blockade – particularly with regard to de-militarization and which Palestinian faction controls Gaza’s border crossings. Netanyahu is also knows that acquiescing to demands by both Fatah and Hamas to release prisoners would amount to political suicide.

It is clear that fighting will continue during these negotiations, with Egypt suddenly backing down from its initial plan which called for both sides to stop shooting first and then start talking. With its thousands of remaining rockets and command-and-control structure still intact, Hamas can continue fighting for several weeks in the hopes forcing Israeli concessions at the negotiating table. This fighting would involve a “drizzle” of rocket fire, including to Tel Aviv over the coming weeks, in an effort to divide Israeli public opinion and provoke Israel into internationally costly disproportionate retaliation.

Hamas wins

Israel has already begun to downplay concerns that it will be dragged into a war of attrition, warning that it will not hesitate to enter Gaza once again to stop the rocket fire. But behind the scenes, it is well understood that no military option will stop the rocket fire without a huge toll on human life and Israel’s political capital. Eventually, concessions will need to be made during these negotiations. The question remains, to whom: Hamas or Mahmoud Abbas.

The more concessions Israel provides directly to Hamas, particularly regarding an easing of the blockade, the more Hamas will be afforded a crucial victory that may reverse its political demise. By matching its perceived military successes, or so-called “victory images” of commando incursions and long-range rocket attacks, with tangible economic concessions, Hamas’ popularity would increase substantially at the expense of its Fatah rivals in the West Bank, setting the stage for the next round of violence.

Abbas returns to Gaza

As Israelis cynically say, “Abbas cannot ride back into Gaza on IDF tanks.” Yet this last scenario is becoming increasingly prevalent in the rhetoric of Israel’s centrist and leftist politicians, and is ultimately the endgame of Egypt’s chokehold on Hamas.

Even with the Palestinian unity government still in place, the Palestinian Authority, with Abbas at its head, will only be able to restore full control in Gaza if Hamas’ militia is unable to re-arm.

To enable these conditions, the international community will need to remain steadfast in demands that Hamas and other Palestinian militants disarm in exchange for a lifting of the blockade, while staking a position that all such concessions go through the Palestinian Authority - granting Abbas the position of sole Palestinian power broker, and empowering him to gradually re-implement the security arrangements of the Oslo accords in Gaza once again.

It is no coincidence that this last scenario is the hardest to achieve. Empowering moderates is the only way to uproot those two main factors of conflict in Gaza, the blockade and militarization. For Netanyahu, accepting Abbas as a partner in Gaza will inevitably mean accepting Abbas as a partner in the West Bank, something which could tear apart his political coalition. But with rocket fire spreading across Israel with each passing round of fighting in Gaza, perhaps the current Israeli government will realize that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can no-longer be ‘managed’: A political solution must be reached while moderates in the Middle East are – still - on Israel’s side.

Daniel Nisman is President of the Levantine Group, a geopolitical risk and research consultancy based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter: @Dannynis 

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