How to break the cycle
Op-ed: What Israel needs is not a military victory over Hamas but to quickly turn its non-state Palestinian rival into a stable state
Avraham Sela, Oren Barak
Israel's latest military operation, known by the code name Pillar of Defense, is in many ways a repetition of Operation Cast Lead that Israel launched four years ago in order to "deal a heavy blow to the Hamas terror organization, to strengthen Israel's deterrence, and to create a better security situation for those living around the Gaza Strip that will be maintained for the long term."
But, as we know, these goals were never attained.
In the meantime, Israel's prime minister, its army's chief of staff, and members of its security cabinet (except its defense minister) were replaced by others. But when observing Israel's behavior in the current operation, it becomes clear that despite these changes of personnel, the same erroneous patterns of thinking and action in Israel's political and military elite persist.
An op-ed that we wrote in Hebrew almost four years ago, which we translate below, emphasizes the futility of pursuing Israel's current policy regarding Hamas. It is our hope that Israeli leaders will find the courage to break the vicious cycle of attacks and reprisals so that we will not have to reproduce it again in the future.
The military operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, during which IDF attacks not only the squads that are firing Qassam and Grad rockets at Israel's territory but also local government institutions, is indicative of a basic flaw in the thinking of Israel's political and military leaders.
This failure, which manifested itself during the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, and before that during the second Palestinian Intifada, is due to the fact that policymakers in Israel do not distinguish between those on the other side who perpetrate acts of violence against Israel, on the one hand, and those who might, sooner or later, lead to the establishment of a stable government even if not necessarily sympathetic to Israel on the other hand.
If anything, Israel's experience since its independence in 1948 shows that the political instability of its Arab neighbors, which was manifested in internal fragmentation and weakness of the central government, was a destabilizing factor in Israeli-Arab relations, whereas political stability in the Arab side usually brought stability in its relationship with Israel.
Thus, for example, Israel has formal peace treaties with relatively stable countries like Egypt and Jordan, and between Israel and Syria there is an ongoing (and relatively stable) situation of non-belligerency. In contrast, Israel's relations with the Palestinians and Lebanon are characterized by frequent military clashes, despite the relative weakness of these two players in relation to Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
What follows is that if Israel would like to reduce violence by non-state actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah, Israel should strive for the establishment of a stable government on the other side of its borders. A necessary condition for this is the emergence of recognized leadership and effective institutions.
The logic here is simple: Sovereign states have something to lose material assets and domestic and international support whereas non-state actors, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, have few assets and do not feel internationally responsible.
Only when the Palestinians and Lebanese have stable states as in Egypt, Jordan and Syria Israel will be able to make effective use of its superior military power to achieve a stable relationship with these neighbors, even if these states themselves would not be interested.
Million and a half Palestinians won't disappear
In the Gaza Strip today, as in Lebanon in 2006, Israel struggles against a non-state actor, Hamas, and uses considerable military force to subdue it. However, even when the Israeli side enjoys a decisive advantage in the air, land and sea, the Israeli army fails to reach a decisive outcome, and the ongoing use of massive military force eventually leads to the erosion of international support for Israel and to the decline of its deterrence, which, according to its leaders, it is interested in strengthening.
Without ignoring the military-terrorist threat that it poses to Israel, Hamas is, first and foremost, a social and political movement which won broad support from the Palestinian public in the most democratic elections held in any Arab society. The social and political institutions that Hamas built in the Gaza Strip since its establishment, moreover, gave its residents a minimum of services, and since June 2007, Hamas also manages to impose a public order, even if it is one that Israel finds unsatisfactory. Destruction of these institutions now will leave the Gaza Strip in governmental and social chaos which, in the long run, may exacerbate the risks to Israel.
A million and a half Palestinians living today in the Gaza Strip will not disappear even if Hamas will be defeated militarily by Israel, an outcome which in any case is questionable in light of the unsuccessful attempt to defeat Hezbollah in Lebanon. In fact, Israel has a clear interest in the consolidation of a stable Palestinian state that has authority over the Gaza Strip, even if this state itself is not friendly with Israel.
Indeed, only if Israel will calculate its steps wisely and the Palestinians will be permitted to establish such a state, then one can expect that, in the long run, non-state actors like Hamas will cease to be a threat to Israel, as is the case with similar non-state actors operating in Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
What Israel needs now is not a military victory over Hamas but to quickly turn its non-state Palestinian rival into a stable state.
Dr. Oren Barak is a lecturer at the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is an expert on contemporary Middle East
Prof. Avraham Sela is a senior lecturer in the Department of International Relations and a research fellow of the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem