Halting Hamas rocket attacks on Israel will ultimately require an authority that holds both the power and the interest to do so. Under the current circumstances, only two such potential authorities exist – Israel and Hamas.
Against the backdrop of continuing violence between Hamas and the Israeli Army, the Israeli Security Cabinet recently convened to discuss the challenge of escalating Palestinian rocket attacks against Israeli southern towns, in particular, Sderot and Ashkelon. The Cabinet’s decision has defined the following strategic objectives for the government of Israel.
- To bring about the cessation of rocket fire and other terrorist actions from Gaza
- To reduce the strengthening of Hamas, including in coordination with – and by – Egypt
- To advance the negotiations process with the Palestinian Authority while maintaining freedom of action in the struggle against terrorism
- To strike at the Hamas regime in Gaza
- To avoid a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, to the extent that the matter depends on Israel
- To maintain the legitimacy of, and freedom of action in, continuing to strike at Hamas; to this end, diplomatic and information efforts vis-à-vis the international community will continue
While each objective might hold its own merit, their integration reflects a palpable inconsistency within Israel’s overall strategic thinking, as the different objectives seem to be in clear contradiction of one another. In many ways, this stems from the fact that Israel’s three main objectives – ending rocket fire attacks, contesting Hamas and advancing peace negotiations with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority – relate to inherently different sets of logic currently emanating from within the Palestinian system. While the complexity of the conflict environment generates multiple challenges to Israel (each requiring a strategic reply), when trying to address these challenges, Israel must not approach them individually and simultaneously, but rather prioritise and develop a ‘systemic logic’ to guide its overall operations. To do otherwise, Israel stands the risk of losing on all fronts.
By their very nature, the ongoing rocket attacks from Gaza have put the Israeli government in an impossible political position, as no democratic government could justifiably withstand the degree of public pressure provoked by dozens of rockets being launched on its towns and cities. While the threat cannot be ignored, it must be remembered that these attacks are a tactical manifestation of a complex array of conditions that must also be addressed. In the least, bringing about their cessation would require the creation of an environment whereby one authority holds both the power and the interest in preventing such attacks. Under the current circumstances, only two such potential authorities exist – Israel and Hamas.
From an Israeli perspective, a long-term reoccupation of the Gaza Strip will carry steep military, political and economic costs, both domestically and internationally – costs that the current government does not seem ready to pay. However, such a conclusion leaves Hamas as the only viable option. Conversely, ongoing efforts to weaken and undermine Hamas, if successful, will prevent it from having the power to control the area and stop attacks, not to mention minimise its interest to do so. Such awareness raises the question: under what circumstances would Hamas have an interest in maintaining stability?
The present Israeli policies of blockades, air strikes and limited ground incursions aimed at forcing Hamas into maintaining a ceasefire might, in fact, provide some limited short-term relief. However, this strategy suffers for its lack of a medium and long-term rationale. A cornered Hamas locked up inside Gaza must constantly strive towards an outlet in the West Bank. Hence, from Hamas’s own perspective, a short-term ceasefire – such as the one brokered by Egypt last week – is not a point of equilibrium, but at best, an opportunity for a short break in order to recuperate its political and military forces.
Unfortunately, within the present system, Israel’s hope for a grass-roots movement from within Gaza capable of overthrowing Hamas – as voiced by several of its leading politicians – is more wishful thinking than an actual strategic consideration, as no other force on the ground possesses the capabilities to organise and lead such a resistance against the ruling Hamas. Promoting such a development may be theoretically possible, but would require first and foremost the creation of alternative sources of power, the emergence of which will entail a greater number of economic generators to be established. Yet, with Gaza closed off, such generators cannot be created. Moreover, as the socio-economic conditions continue to deteriorate, local power will merely continue to concentrate in the hands of Hamas – the only existing material option apart from UNRWA’s limited humanitarian assistance.
Lastly, the advancement of negotiations vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority cannot be artificially differentiated from the Gaza predicament. With more than a third of Gaza’s population under siege, and with the IDF’s continued counter-insurgency efforts running aground in the face of Hamas’ political undermining, President Abbas holds little of the leverage needed for creating the kind of positive dynamic and public buy-in that could legitimise a peace deal. This might change if Hamas had been brought back into the formal political system through some sort of power-sharing arrangement. However, without Israel’s support for such an arrangement, this approach cannot provide the infrastructure necessary for advancing the negotiations.
Ultimately, Israel must make a choice regarding its strategic preferences. If Israel sees Hamas as the leading threat to its long-term national security, then all efforts should be directed towards deconstructing the organisation’s political, military and economic resources – albeit taking into consideration that this would mean more rocket attacks and the likely halt to any peace negotiations for the short and medium term. On the other hand, if a cessation to rocket attacks is its top priority, than some negotiations with Hamas will need to be carried out – an approach which may regrettably result in a strengthening of the movement and a possible weakening of Israel’s current negotiating partner.
Yet a third choice remains, and that is if advancing a Permanent Status Agreement is to be Israel’s top priority, then its ability to absorb attacks must not only continue to grow, but more concerted efforts would need to be placed on defensive rather than offensive measures. Perhaps most challenging of all, this option would require Israeli acceptance of a Hamas-Fatah power sharing arrangement – an outcome that may provide the only viable pathway towards a real window of opportunity for peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Dr Orit Gal
Formerly Senior Researcher, Operational Research Institute of the IDF (OTRI); now a freelance strategic consultant based in London
 Security Cabinet Communique, 5 March 2008.
The views expressed are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI