Policy Paper: Disarmament of Gaza, part II -What is to be done?

Part II of a policy paper: What changes must occur to make a different outcome in Gaza possible? (See Link to part I below)

By Brig. Gen. (Res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, INN

[Part I can be read here.]

What Is to Be Done?
A proactive and decisive strategy must be formulated and implemented to eventually force Hamas to accept a new set of rules that will relieve Israel of this threat. Such a strategy will also make Israel’s strength and resoluteness clear to the Palestinian Arabs, weaken Hamas’s political standing, and send a message of deterrence to Iran, Hezbollah, and their allies. Eventually it may also aid the peace process by demonstrating that armed attacks and jihad against Israel harms Palestinian Arabs, and that their conditions will improve only after they accept Israel as the permanent Jewish state.

What is needed is not only a change in the rules of the game (see Appendix II, to be posted tomorrow, ed.), but a change in both the public discourse and in Israel’s definition of victory. This new definition should include denying Hamas the ability to rearm itself so that it will be less willing to reengage in terror campaigns against Israel.

After years of adhering to the rules outlined above, and after repeatedly conducting operations with limited goals, it will not be easy for an Israeli government to change the rules and the definition of victory. Avoiding these difficult decisions perpetuates the current reality of “mowing the grass,” whereby each round of escalation heavily damages Hamas’s infrastructure, but fails to prevent it from rearming rapidly with more sophisticated and capable weaponry. Meanwhile, Israel keeps improving its defensive and offensive capabilities to counter new threats from Hamas and other terror groups.

Operating under the principle of revealed preference (i.e., judging the interests of entities and individuals by their deeds, preferences, and decisions rather than their declared interests), it appears that Israel prefers the option of “mowing the grass” to any alternative. This choice also reflects Israel’s grasp of its limitations on the diplomatic level, where any change in policy might mean increased tensions with the international community, including the United States, Egypt, and possibly other Arab states, such as Jordan and Morocco, despite their collective dislike of Hamas.

The option of “mowing the grass” seems, therefore, to be the lesser evil under current conditions. Yet it is still problematic since it allows Hamas to strengthen and leaves Israel’s population under constant threat. The question, then, is whether it is possible to create and adopt better options that would make Israeli victory clear, weaken Hamas, and diminish or even eliminate its threat to Israelis. For that to happen, it is necessary to explore what changes must occur to make a different outcome possible. These changes will need to address the military and economic spheres, the diplomatic and legal context, and Israel’s discourse and the rules of the game in Gaza.

In the military context, Israel must achieve the ability to totally suppress the capability of Hamas and the other terror groups to launch terror attacks from the Gaza Strip. Instead of counting on deterrence to achieve that goal, Israel should improve its already quite good intelligence coverage of Gaza so that it achieves continuous intelligence dominance over terror activities there. Israel must, therefore, be able to thwart most terror attempts before they are launched and eliminate Hamas operatives at any level at will.

Today, in spite of the good coverage and the impressive improvement in producing targets in advance and within real time thanks to the implementation of interdisciplinary intelligence, Israel does not have these advanced capabilities.

On the operational side, Israel must gain the self-confidence to operate in a secured manner from the air, sea, and ground against the terror infrastructure inside the Gaza Strip, just as it does in Judea and Samaria or in the Syrian front. Israel has developed in recent years important tools designed to move it closer to achieving this capability. Most important among these is the concept of intelligence intensified warfare (“LOCHAMAM” in its Hebrew acronym) that is designed to mobilize and make available to soldiers on the ground all the capabilities of the intelligence community in a way that is relevant to the battle in which they are engaged.

Another important capability is improved protection provided to ground forces. Israel has made some breakthroughs in this respect since 2014 by deploying more heavily armored personnel carriers in its ground forces (i.e., the Achzarit, Namer) and improving its anti-missile protection. The use of precisely guided munitions from the ground, air, and sea has also been improved considerably, as was demonstrated in Operation Guardian of the Walls in 2021, Breaking Dawn in 2022, and Shield and Arrow in 2023.

What is needed is not only a change in the rules of the game, but a change in both the public discourse and in Israel’s definition of victory that includes denying Hamas the ability to rearm itself.

To convince Hamas that Israel is ready to adopt a new, more proactive and offensive attitude, including ground operations if necessary, and thus enhance the deterrence against Gazan terror groups, Israel should conduct more exercises focused on operations in Gaza involving both standing forces and reservists, and embark on a campaign against Hamas’s military buildup in the same manner it conducts campaigns against Hezbollah’s buildups. It should deploy forces in the area as it does occasionally in times of military escalation, conduct clandestine deniable operations in Gaza, and use influence operations to deliver an unmistakable message.

Diplomatically, Israel can pressure Hamas to reconsider its military build-up ambitions, just as in the past Israel was able to end Sudan’s cooperation with Hamas in delivering arms to Gaza. Today, based on its tight security cooperation with Egypt, improved relations with Turkey, strong security cooperation with some of the Gulf states, and cooperation with Qatar and Jordan, Israel can form a joint effort comprised of all these forces to force Hamas to reassess the benefits from its efforts to arm itself.

This can complement efforts in the economic sphere, where Israel should condition any influx of money and economic assistance that can benefit Hamas, directly or indirectly, on Hamas’s readiness to end all efforts to arm itself. This may be well received by many potential donors to Gaza if it is accompanied by, first, explanations of the severe repercussions of donating without conditions and, second, a plan to improve living conditions in Gaza if Hamas ends all efforts to acquire arms.

The complete dependence of Hamas on foreign sources – and especially on Israel and Egypt – for keeping Gaza’s economy functioning is a key tool at Israel’s disposal. Using it involves conditioning the influx of funds and economic activities and benefits, such as entry of Gazan workers to Israel, on accepting this justified demand, which is a component of the Oslo Accords, and not merely on refraining from using its weapons arsenal, as is the situation today.

These efforts are not only necessary to provide Israelis and Palestinian Arabs with the security they deserve, but legally justified since Israel handed over responsibility for the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Arabs in the context of the Oslo Accords wherein the Palestinian Arabs are committed to not possess weapons beyond those agreed upon. The various weapons that Hamas has amassed today are forbidden by the agreement, and Hamas should relinquish them.

It is worth noting in this respect that the Quartet that oversees international efforts to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs has three conditions for accepting Hamas as a legitimate player, including denouncing terrorism and accepting the agreements between Israel and the PLO, among them the Oslo agreements.

Obviously, Israel has sufficient justification to deny Hamas, a terror organization that boasts of its success in arming itself to kill Israelis indiscriminately, from possessing such weapons to use against Israelis and using them in such a manner to threaten Israel’s security.

Moreover, Hamas is designated a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Japan. Therefore, the Israeli government has the obligation to take harsh steps to force Hamas to disarm and to deny it the capacity to arm itself. Israel should be able to count on the support of every country and organization that recognizes Hamas’s terror status. Some Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, also consider Hamas a terrorist organization and may support decisive action by Israel against it.

As noted above, advancing these demands on Hamas and adopting this new policy regarding threats from the Gaza Strip, though justified and feasible, require Israel to revisit some of the rules of the game and change the discourse about Gaza in Israeli society.

For example, the first rule stipulating that Israel will not take the initiative and will content itself with retaliation needs to be reconsidered. If Israel wants to force Hamas to disarm or to stop arming itself, it should be able to operate on its own initiative and at the time and place it chooses so that, instead of limited military action against arms production facilities, it could hit vital locations as they are discovered. Under current rules, Hamas may learn in advance when its facilities are in danger and make the necessary arrangements to minimize damage, knowing it can expect only a minimal attack against some of them. This severely limits Israel’s ability to punish Hamas for an attack. Moreover, it allows Hamas to maintain weapons procurement and production between terrorist attacks and to store them in hard-to-find locations.

Operation Guardian of the Walls is a notable example of how self-defeating this rule is. For several days before the Operation began, Hamas threatened to launch rockets and made the necessary preparations to attack. Had Israel known about these concrete preparations, it could have prevented the rockets’ launch and made Hamas pay a much heavier price for its intent.

Had Israel taken the initiative and hit Hamas’s infrastructure in advance, its actions would have been well within the confines of the law of armed conflicts, not only because Hamas is a terror organization, but because it was clear Hamas was planning to attack Israel. As Israel interprets Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, it reads: “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.” Such intent is a casus belli and Israel is legally allowed to act preemptively against a planned armed attack on its citizens. Israel used this article to justify the attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, its many attacks against terror groups in Lebanon, and the Six Day War in 1967.

In Operation Breaking Dawn, Israel acted to foil a terror attempt in advance in a perfectly legal manner. In Operation Shield and Arrow in 2023, meanwhile, Israel responded to rocket attacks launched by Palestinian Islamic Jihad from Gaza.

The second rule described above – Israel’s choice to refrain from enforcing long-term sanctions or pressuring the Gazan economy to prevent Hamas from arming itself – should also be reconsidered. Because Hamas’s need to provide for Gaza’s inhabitants is one of its principal burdens, economic restraints have an immediate impact on its behavior. Instead of using them only as retaliation in the aftermath of terror attacks against Israel, they can be leveraged effectively to prevent Hamas from arming itself.

The same is true of the economic measures Israel takes against Hamas to encourage it to refrain from launching rockets and to commit to longer periods of quiet. These measures could and should be conditioned on Hamas’s commitment to stop arming itself and eventually disarm. Obviously, these actions should also depend on Hamas’s readiness to move ahead on the issue of detainees held in

A terror organization that calls publicly for the murder of Israeli citizens and for the destruction of the state of Israel should not be allowed to arm itself as Hamas does.

Regarding the third rule granting immunity to the upper echelon of Hamas’s political leaders, Israel should make clear that as long as Hamas continues to behave as a terrorist organization with no separation between the political and military/terror wings, and as long as it arms itself, its political leadership is a legitimate target, and not merely in the context of a high-intensity confrontation. Hamas may protest, but eventually this new attitude positively affects its decision making.

The fourth rule, which allows Hamas to operate against Israel from other areas without risking its assets in Gaza, must also be reconsidered. This rule makes sense if Israel’s interest is to keep Gaza quiet, but leaves Hamas unrestrained in Judea, Samaria, and Jerusalem. In recent years Israel managed to thwart most of Hamas’s terror plots from areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority or Jerusalem.

There is no guarantee these successes will continue forever, however, so deterring Hamas from operating in other areas while its headquarters are in Gaza is necessary. The ongoing effort to convince Turkey to expel from its territory Hamas’s offices overseeing terror operations in Judea, Samaria, and Jerusalem can serve as an example of what can be done regarding Gaza. If Hamas knows that conducting terror operations from areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority and from Jerusalem is costly, it might take this into consideration.

The same is true for the fifth rule regarding inaction on Hamas’s incitement. Israel should take diplomatic action against Hamas in retaliation for its provocation and expose its deadly messages to justify steps necessary to prevent Hamas from arming and to disarm it. Obviously, a terror organization that calls publicly for the murder of Israeli citizens and for the destruction of the state of Israel should not be allowed to arm itself as Hamas does.

The same thinking applies for the sixth rule concerning UNRWA. Israel treats this organization courteously despite its harmful actions because it believes UNRWA contributes to ensuring calm among Gaza’s population and helps improve living conditions in the Strip. This is understandable as short-term logic, but if Israel wishes to change the situation in Gaza for the long run, it must adopt a policy that recognizes UNRWA as part of the problem and not part of the solution. The refugee question should not be treated in a way that perpetuates the problem, which is exactly what UNRWA is designed to do. At a very minimum,

Israel must insist that UNRWA removes from its textbooks any indoctrination and incitement toward hate and disengages from and condemns all its employees, especially teachers, who are Hamas members or have openly supported terror against Israel. Israel’s broader goal should be UNRWA’s elimination. The treatment of refugees should be remanded to the agency responsible for providing services to all other refugees worldwide, namely, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which defines refugees very differently and focuses on taking care of people in need rather than on political agitation.

Revisiting the seventh rule is key for changing the results of this conflict. As long as Hamas knows that Israel will not attempt to uproot it from Gaza, it can continue arming itself and conducting periodic terror attacks knowing the price it will pay may be heavy – especially if Israel changes the other rules mentioned – but not existential. History teaches us that even though Western powers like the United States and Israel try to avoid overreacting to enemy provocation, an enemy’s own drastic actions may provoke a dramatic and decisive reaction.

Historical examples illustrating this include America’s intervention in the First and Second World Wars and the occupation of Afghanistan, and Israel’s two wars in Lebanon and Operation Defensive Shield (2002). Clarifying this as among Israel’s viable options may not only deter Hamas and make it easier to persuade it to stop arming itself, but may also further commit Egypt to pressure Hamas and tighten its control of arms smuggling routes. Egypt is always eager to avoid any decisive Israeli operation that could undermine its own stability.

A commitment to international law is not an impediment to achieving the goals Israel should set; on the contrary, it confirms that Israel occupies the moral high ground.

Unseating Hamas would not necessarily require a ground operation. Much of the work can be accomplished via stand-off capabilities, but convincing Hamas and Egypt that such an option is feasible requires a willingness to seriously consider and then prepare for a ground operation. Most of that operation could focus on the less populated areas and on the Philadelphi corridor between Egypt and Gaza. Still, some of it may occur in densely populated neighborhoods.

The one rule that should not be revisited – rule number eight – is Israel’s commitment to international law, and its efforts to minimize collateral damage. This is not an impediment to achieving the goals Israel should set; on the contrary, it confirms that Israel occupies the moral high ground. This in itself cannot guarantee any softening of the international criticism such Israeli actions would spark, but it is extremely important for Israelis to know they are doing the right thing.

On top of all of that, achieving the goal of preventing Hamas from arming itself or of convincing it to disarm requires a change in Israel’s dialogue on relations with Gaza. First, its assessment of risking soldiers’ lives in a ground operation must change, as mentioned before, to convince Hamas that a ground operation is a viable threat. Second, there must be an understanding that Hamas’s threat is strategic and thus worth the effort required to remove it. Though Hamas does not pose as great a threat as Iran or Hezbollah, its readiness to use force, and the frequency of its attacks against Israel, are much greater and therefore renders it a strategic problem and not simply a nuisance. As long as many Israelis consider Hamas’s threat as a chronic problem of limited importance because other problems are more demanding, the government will not be able to build the necessary public support for such an operation. The strategy advocating Hamas’s rule over Gaza as an asset for Israel in the wider context of the Palestinian problem must also be reevaluated.

Achieving this requires sustained efforts to persuade the public by making use of the strategies described in this paper. The political class in Israel must deal with the matter, and so must civil society organizations and civilians at large. The Israel Victory Project (IVP) and the Israel Victory lobby in the Knesset, which are bipartisan, are well placed to lead this effort. Civil society organizations like HaBitchonistim can help as well. Yet these groups are not strong enough on their own and must be complemented by popular movements with greater citizen participation from the area around Gaza. Generally, such groups are acknowledged for a brief period after an escalation erupts, yet recede shortly afterwards. But there is no ongoing debate on the matter. Because Israel faces myriad threats and challenges, attention spans for a specific issue are short-lived and fail to permanently alter the conversation.

The Time Factor: Growing Used to the Status Quo

People are also deterred from dealing with this matter because over time they have grown used to the way things are. Despite attendant difficulties and the heavy cost of maintaining the status quo regarding Gaza, one may posit that, after fifteen years of this approach, Israelis have largely become accustomed to it. With Iron Dome operational and other countermeasures being added to active defense capabilities, they are less concerned. They also worry about the consequences should Israel eliminate Hamas’s threat through a ground operation that would leave Gaza under Israeli control because ruling Gaza would prove costly over the long run. It is therefore necessary to devise a way forward that does not leave Gaza under Israeli occupation indefinitely.

Achieving this goal requires convincing people that the alternative future should Israel not force Hamas to stop arming itself and disarm is even worse. Hamas’s determination to harm Israel is not going to disappear, and its ability to terrorize may grow and pose an even greater threat. Time is on the side of those who make the best use of it regarding the ongoing strategic competition between Hamas and Israel.

Summing up the factors of time and habit: Israel is clearly not yet ready – politically, militarily, and most obviously in its public’s opinion – to adopt a different strategy towards Gaza. But the time is ripe to start a public debate about these issues and to develop the strategy and military capabilities and plans that would make such a debate meaningful. The cost of adhering to the current strategy is rising, and the enemy may make better use of the time strategically. Moreover, a change in policy and strategy cannot occur absent the necessary context. This means Israel must reassess its approach and prepare the necessary tools for implementing a different strategy that will remove Hamas’s threat, but it must implement it only after it is ready and once Hamas provides a proper trigger to do so.

Similar reevaluations are in progress regarding Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Iranian nuclear project, and to some extent regarding segments of Arab society in Israel. The threats are growing steadily and Israel’s reluctance to proactively confront the challenges in pursuit of short-lived periods of calm emboldens its enemies to threaten it belligerently and therefore to raise the risk of escalation.
A decision to change strategies cannot be postponed much longer. Israel must not be tempted to imagine that Operations Breaking Dawn and Shield and Arrow were sufficient to restore deterrence in the face of all these challenges. A more thorough-going and comprehensive strategy must be formulated.

Brig. Gen. (Res) Yossi Kuperwasser is an Israeli intelligence and security expert. Formerly, Kuperwasser served as the head of the research division in the Israel Defence Force Military Intelligence division and Director General of the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs. Kuperwasser is currently a Head of the Israeli Intelligence Methodology Research Institute and a Senior Project Manager at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs specializing in the security dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

June 11, 2023 | 1 Comment »

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  1. Israel is still missing a partner for any agreement to achieve a real long term peace with any of its neighbors. Any conceivable step forward is conditioned on unacceptable terms, such as with the Saudis demanding that Israel concede to all Palestinian demands, or US demands to cease operations before a decisive victory is accomplished. Israel’s real problem is its willingness to actually listen to such demands and then act accordingly. This is akin to fighting with one arm tied to one leg behind you back.