Shlomo Brom, INSS
The Hamas takeover in Gaza is a dramatic event that has ramifications for Israeli-Palestinian relations, as well as regional significance. The forceful takeover by an Islamic movement of an Arab political entity generates repercussions and shockwaves in the Arab world. The question that now confronts various players â€“ Israel, the Arab world and the international community â€“ is how to deal with this new situation. Does the situation contain only risks, or are there also opportunities?
Among the characteristics of the new situation:
â€¢ The separation between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank has deepened, and each has become a different political entity. Israel can clearly differentiate between actions against the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank that is ruled by Fatah and actions against Gaza.
â€¢ For the first time the Hamas government is in a situation where it has full control over a geographic area and full responsibility for what transpires there. This situation seems stable and irreversible, at least in the near future.
â€¢ The establishment of a separate Fatah government in the West Bank has already prompted the rescinding of international sanctions in this area.
â€¢ The Hamas takeover of Gaza aroused great concern in Egypt and increased its motivation to take more effective control over the border with the Strip, although doubts remain regarding Egypt’s actual ability to prevent smuggling along this border.
â€¢ On the other hand, Hamas’s control of the Gaza-Egypt border makes weapons smuggling easier on the Palestinian side.
â€¢ To a certain extent, Hamas has trapped itself by creating a situation in which it bears responsibility for what happens in the Gaza Strip, and it faces a Palestinian public that automatically compares it with the Fatah administration in the West Bank. Hamas cannot succeed without quiet and stability in Gaza, and it is in need of Israel in order to manage daily affairs properly.
â€¢ On the other hand, if as a result of this situation the pressure on Hamas intensifies and it is pushed to the wall, it could resort to the easy option of renewing the confrontation with Israel and diverting the attention of the Palestinian public to this confrontation.
â€¢ The newly-created situation is to a certain extent also easier for Israel, because for the first time there is one effective address in Gaza vis-Ã -vis which Israel can operate militarily or in the civil/diplomatic realm.
â€¢ The takeover of Gaza was apparently not a result of a decision by the political leadership, and it reflects dissent within Hamas.
Principal Challenges The central questions facing Israel are:
â€¢ How should Israel relate to the two new political entities, the one in the Gaza Strip and the other in the West Bank? Should the separation between them be encouraged? Should they be considered equally or differentially?
â€¢ On the likely assumption that the Hamas government in Gaza will have an interest in maintaining quiet vis-Ã -vis Israel in order to stabilize its government and illustrate to the Palestinian people that it can provide the population with a better reality than what existed under the Fatah administration, does Israel need to cooperate with this trend, attain a ceasefire in the Strip, and create a more or less normal reality on the border with the Strip (commercial traffic, etc.), or should it oppose this, since it could damage Israel’s more long term interests?
â€¢ Is this the opportunity to create a Palestinian partner for dialogue, since the common interests between the Fatah Palestinian administration in the West Bank and Israel have strengthened? Or, in circumstances where there is no single entity that can purport to represent the Palestinian people, is effective dialogue impossible?
An answer to any of these questions must be examined as to its contribution to achieving Israel’s goals vis-Ã -vis the Palestinians and as to its feasibility. At the same time, the limitations of Israel’s ability to influence developments on the Palestinian side must also be taken into account.
Israel’s long term goal is to reach an agreement with a reliable Palestinian partner that is willing and able to implement a two-states-for-two-nations solution. In the shorter term, the goal is to prevent security threats to Israel that originate from the Palestinian territories. There are five possible courses of action open to Israel that address the questions listed above. They are not all mutually exclusive, and various combinations could be considered. It is also possible to move from one course of action to another over time.
Possible Courses of Action
The first course of action is to encourage the separation between the two areas, to strengthen the Fatah government in the West Bank and at the same time, to punish the Hamas government in Gaza and weaken it. This is the course of action that may seem inevitable since Hamas, the ruling power in Gaza, is a movement that is Islamist, armed, militant, does not recognize Israel, and aims for Israel’s destruction. In the West Bank, the ruling movement has recognized Israel and wants an agreement with it. In that case, what might be warranted is to harm the former organization and support the latter. There are those who claim that in this way, it will be possible to turn the West Bank into a success story, encourage the expansion of economic activity, and raise the standard of living since the sanctions have been removed, and international aid money and tax money that Israel has been holding will be released. Israel will also contribute to this improvement by removing roadblocks and easing the movement of goods and persons, as well as taking other actions that will strengthen the standing of Fatah, such as the release of prisoners. On the other hand, the Gaza Strip, which will continue to be under Israeli and international sanctions with the pressure on it only increasing, will turn into a story of failure. The Palestinian public will see the respective performances of the two governments, and will abandon Hamas and return to Fatah.
There are a number of reasons to doubt the success of this course of action. First, the Fatah government in the West Bank is not a result of popular support but the presence of Israeli bayonets. Fatah is ruling because Israel is consistently damaging the Hamas infrastructure. In the final analysis, Israel cannot help Fatah as long as it doesn’t help itself. In the meantime, Fatah does not show any sign of true reform that will enable it to rehabilitate its standing in the eyes of the Palestinian population and once again become an effective political movement. Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) is not an effective leader. Israel can certainly help to some extent by releasing Marwan Barghouti and encouraging the replacement of the current generation of Fatah leadership, but its ability to influence is very limited and its involvement frequently backfires. To the same extent, an enthusiastic hug of Abu Mazen by Israel can harm his standing. Hamas is already describing him as a traitor who collaborates with Israel. There is also a good chance that the Palestinian public will not interpret the crisis in Gaza as a Hamas failure, but will place the blame on Israel, the US, and their Arab allies, chief among them, Fatah.
Another essential problem with this course of action is the expected reaction of Hamas. If it is pushed against the wall, it will resort to the only recourse available to it, which is the use of violence. If it acts wisely, it will concentrate its terrorist efforts in the West Bank and will try to launch suicide attacks from there. The dramatic reduction in the scope of suicide attacks derives to a large extent from the effective actions of the Israeli security forces in the West Bank, but it is also due in part to the decision by Hamas not to launch suicide attacks from there. Notwithstanding the major successes of the Israeli security forces, there is still a Hamas terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank, and it should be assumed that the movement will succeed in realizing some attacks. In this case, Israel will be forced, despite all good intentions, to renew its network of roadblocks and even to reinforce them. The limitations on travel will become harsher, and economic activity will collapse.
The question also arises as to what extent a renewal of the diplomatic process with Abu Mazen and his government in the West Bank will serve the purposes of this course of action. On the one hand, it is questionable whether in Abu Mazen’s weak condition and in light of his competition with Hamas he can reach an agreement with Israel on essential issues such as the refugee problem, and even if he can reach an agreement, he will not be able to implement it while he represents only a part of the Palestinian public and there is dissent as to his legitimacy. On the other hand, one can claim that the very dialogue with Abu Mazen and the ability to reach agreements with Israel will strengthen his position among the Palestinian public. The conclusion could be that renewing the diplomatic dialogue might be productive, but excessive hope should not be attached to it.
The second course of action is to try to create positive competition between the two governments via preparedness to work with both of them. In this case also there would be preference given to the Fatah government in the West Bank since the governments would be judged by their performance, and it is clear that the government in the West Bank would meet Israeli and international community expectations more readily than its Gazan rival. At the same time, there would be a readiness to work with the Hamas government and allow it to function. It would be judged by its actions on the ground. If it maintains quiet and stability along the border with Israel, it would be rewarded accordingly, and normal economic activity with Israel as well as certain international assistance would be enabled. It can be assumed that in these circumstances, competition will be created between the two governments as to which of them would provide more effective governance and a better life for the population under its control. In this course of action, Israel would cooperate with Hamas in stabilizing and broadening the ceasefire. Those who support this course of action also generally estimate that it will be possible to encourage a process of pragmatization with Hamas that could help it become a Palestinian partner in the more distant future. Intra-Palestinian attempts to once again reach an understanding between Fatah and Hamas do not oppose this course of action.
There are a number of problems that challenge the possible success of this course of action. First it can harm the Fatah government and weaken it further. Second, it can be interpreted as awarding a prize to the Islamic movement that seized power by force. Third, choosing this course of action will enable members of the international community to change their approach to Hamas, and could bring about the erosion of sanctions that will prevent the application of real pressure on Hamas to change its positions, or that will make it impossible to harm Hamas if it doesn’t change its positions. In addition, anyone who thinks that an Islamic movement such as Hamas cannot undergo a true pragmatization process will claim that while this course of action ensures quiet for the short term, it enables Hamas to solidify its control, strengthen its military force, and prepare itself to initiate combat with Israel when it feels it is ready. In light of the dissent within Hamas, the question also arises as to whether the takeover of Gaza does not reflect a takeover of the entire movement by the military arm of Hamas. The priorities of the military arm might differ from those of the political leadership and promote renewing the military confrontation with Israel rather than stabilizing the situation in Gaza and improving the lives of the population.
The third course of action is to take advantage of the new situation to strengthen the disengagement from Gaza. The intention is to aim for a situation in which there would be no contact between Israel and the Gaza Strip, and Gaza would receive all that it needs from Egypt. The assumption is that via this course of action, Israel would sever its responsibility for what happens in Gaza.
The problem is that this course of action provides no answer to the real problems of the security situation vis-Ã -vis Gaza and the need to promote a resolution of the conflict, or at least reasonably manage the conflict with the Palestinians. The assumption that Israel would absolve itself of all responsibility for Gaza is also apparently unrealistic, since as long as Israel maintains a blockade on the Gaza Strip and controls the air and sea space, the international community will not absolve Israel of responsibility. In addition, complete disengagement from the Gaza Strip means forfeiting the leverage and influence that Israel has vis-Ã -vis Gaza.
The fourth course of action is to take advantage of the new situation to conduct a persistent military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, aiming at harming it and weakening its power.
The assumption is that after Hamas took over Gaza by force, there is an international atmosphere more conducive to military action against Hamas. Arab countries and the Fatah government in the West Bank would also likely view this favorably, even if they don’t say so out loud. This course of action is based on the viewpoint that it has fallen to Israel to fight until it destroys Hamas, since this is an extremist Islamic movement that aspires to Israel’s destruction and will never change its approach. Any ceasefire will work to Hamas’s benefit since it will enable the movement to replenish its strength and return to combat more empowered.
The problems with this course of action are the direct price of such military actions, the possibility that Israel would be dragged into a renewed conquest of the Gaza Strip, with all that entails regarding the ability to separate from the Palestinians, and the renewal of the constant friction with the Palestinians. It is also doubtful whether there would be international legitimacy for Israel’s military actions in a situation where Hamas is prepared to maintain quiet and even shows that it is doing so.
The fifth course of action is to do nothing. The assumption is that any Israeli involvement would be more harmful than beneficial. The question is whether there is such an option. The dependency of the Palestinian territories on Israel is so deep that any action or non-action by Israel would affect them. For instance, it is impossible to escape the question of whether or not to enable the import and export of commercial goods to and from or through Gaza to Israel, and any answer will impact on the Palestinians.
Ideas have also been raised as to positioning an international force in Gaza that will “establish order.” The emphasis is mainly on deploying an international force along the Gaza Strip-Egypt border that would prevent weapons smuggling. It seems that there is no real substance to these ideas. The international community can decide to send peacekeeping forces where there is a civil war and the aim is to prevent a humanitarian crisis. But there is no civil war in Gaza. Hamas won, and the situation in Gaza is stable. Another option is to position such forces as a wedge between combating armies, but this would depend on the agreement of the warring forces, Israel and Hamas. Hamas will definitely not agree to the positioning of an international force whose purpose is to obstruct the weapons smuggling pipeline. There is also no chance that there would be countries who would agree to send their forces when Hamas is opposed.
In conclusion, it is possible that in the immediate future the easiest policy is not to make decisions beyond what is necessary, and to monitor developments on the Palestinian side. It is clear that Israel cannot lend its hand to the creation of a humanitarian crisis, and it will be necessary to allow the transfer of humanitarian assistance and essential items to Gaza. However, sooner or later, the government of Israel will have to decide upon a strategy â€“ or a combination of strategies â€“ that will better serve its interests. Here, too, the strategies can be staggered over time. For instance, It may be possible to attempt to create a situation of calm and stability across the Gaza border and then move to another course of action if it becomes clear that this is not possible or that the price is too high.