from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The Gaza War and the Feeble PA

August 01, 2014

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The Gaza war took a new turn today, when Hamas violated a cease-fire in order to kill and capture IDF soldiers. The reasonable conclusion to draw is that Hamas’s agreement to the cease-fire was a ruse, meant to give them this opportunity.

That action has several effects beyond destroying the cease-fire itself and prolonging the war. It certainly solidifies Israeli public backing for the war, which was extremely high anyway. The nature of the enemy is made even clearer. The contemptible nature of so much of the criticism of Israel around the world is also made clearer, coming from voices that appear indifferent to the nature and conduct of Hamas, to Israeli deaths, and to the deaths of Arabs anywhere else—in Syria, for example—as long as Jews are not responsible for those deaths and if there’s no opportunity to criticize Israel.

This war will come to an end, as all wars do. It is part of what has been and will be a long war against Hamas and other Islamic terrorist groups, and I wrote about that at length in The Weekly Standard this week. But how does this war end?

It will end with pledges from many parties to help the people of Gaza and rebuild Gaza, but not allow Hamas to rebuild. That will be a neat trick. The problem of course is that Hamas will still be ruling Gaza, so how will it be possible to assure that money and materials do not get diverted to rebuilding Hamas militarily? And how will it be possible to prevent Hamas from rebuilding politically, especially if the economic situation in Gaza is improving?

People have lots of ideas about this and some are even useful. Israel and Egypt will be manning border posts and will be able to inspect the people and goods that are moving. The Palestinian Authority will perhaps man the Palestinian side of those posts. There are suggestions of an international force inside Gaza to prevent diversion of cement to building more tunnels. One can bet on a few things: that lots of aid will reach Gaza, that Hamas will steal or divert a good piece of it, and that no outside force will push back against Hamas very hard. That would be dangerous, after all, and no Swedish policeman or Dutch customs agent is going to risk his life to stop a bit of cement from going off course.

So why doesn’t Israel just conquer Gaza and take it back from Hamas, as some Israeli leaders are urging, and run everything? The prime minister and defense minister have resisted that path, and rightly so in my view. Does Israel really want to run Gaza for years, and station thousands of troops there permanently once again?  Asking that question leads to another: why can’t someone other than Hamas rule Gaza? What happened to the Palestinian Authority, which ruled before the Hamas coup in 2007? Those who favor a complete Israeli takeover say Israel would crush Hamas and then turn the place over to the PA.

It won’t work, due to the feebleness of the PA. In the last few years the PA in the West Bank has been growing weaker, not stronger. The Fatah Party, which is the heart of the PA, is as corrupt and unpopular as ever. The men who ran it when they lost the election to Hamas in 2006 and lost Gaza in 2007 are still in power—just eight years older. The PA security forces, which collapsed in 2007, were built up a bit after that through American efforts, but are again in decline, more and more politicized and inert. Corruption is rife. Some achievements of past years, such as a decent independent court system, are being eroded steadily by Fatah corruption.

So the PA remains too weak to beat Hamas militarily—or politically. That is a huge problem and it’s one of the reasons there will be no good outcome to this war. There’s plenty of blame to go around, to U.S. policy and Israeli policy and above all to the incompetence and corruption of PA officials. But realism requires that we avoid the mirage that the PA will defeat Hamas or “take over Gaza” after an Israeli conquest. Hamas has managed to capture the banner of “resistance” to Israel. Of course its form of resistance is terrorism and the population is its cannon fodder. Briefly a few years ago the PA under Salam Fayyad bid fair to grab the banner back, when Fayyad argued that building a state was the best, and the only real, form of “resistance.” That might have worked as a potent weapon against Hamas’s nihilism. But Fayyad did not get the support he deserved from Israel, the United States, wealthy Arab governments—nor of course from corrupt Fatah, PLO,  and PA officials--to make that project succeed.

So what’s the good solution? There is no good solution, no quick remedy, no magic wand. Israel is in for a long struggle, and at least some of the Arab states in the region recognize this and recognize that they and Israel are on the same side against Sunni and Shia radicalism—against Hamas and other Sunni terrorist groups including ISIS, and against Iran and its proxy Hezbollah. That’s why they were so shocked and angered when Sec. Kerry appeared to enhance the roles of Turkey and Qatar, which are on the other side in those struggles.

There are some steps worth taking, to be sure. Israel should enhance its anti-tunnel technology programs and seek a remedy as good as Iron Dome is against rockets. It should seek the closest security cooperation it can get with the PA, and act to strengthen the West Bank economy. The United States and other Western nations, and responsible Arab states, should do what we can to strengthen the PA security forces and push hard (since we are the aid donors to the PA) against corruption and for decent governance. But these steps are no “solution.” Islamic terrorism is a plague now throughout the region, and Hamas is the localized version of that plague. The struggle against it will be long and hard, with plenty of ugly and difficult scenes on television. It seems clear that Israelis have the stomach for that fight, beause their existsnce is at stake. What they seek from their closest friends and allies is understanding and support, in place of distancing and unfair criticism. The basis for an effective U.S. policy is to think about who is on the other side in this fight, about the Arabs and Israelis on our side against the terrorists, and about the actions that will be needed to win.