Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas find themselves at an impasse as hostilities intensify, says CFR senior fellow Robert Danin. Israel seeks to degrade Hamas’ military capabilities and compel an end to rocket fire emanating from the Gaza Strip, but decimating it would cause a breakdown of order in the Palestinian enclave, empowering more radical groups. Hamas, meanwhile, must ensure its immediate survival, but is loath to be seen by its supporters as accommodating Israel. "Both sides are hostage to events rather than being led by clear strategies," says Danin, so "the situation is just going to intensify of its own accord."
We’re now witnessing conflict between Israel and Hamas that neither party seems to have intended. How did we get here?
A number of factors came together to produce this meltdown. One proximate factor was the killing of the three yeshiva students who were abducted and then killed near Hebron, leading to a subsequent brutal immolation and killing of a Palestinian in Jerusalem by Israeli extremists, which then set off strong Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank and in Israel.
Hamas denied having an operational role in the abduction and killing of the three Israelis in the West Bank; Israel has categorically accused the Hamas leadership of having a role in that, and U.S. secretary of state John Kerry also pointed to Hamas.
"Both sides are hostage to events rather than being led by clear strategies with identifiable steps for achieving their goals."
But this drama in the West Bank came against a longer-term backdrop of rocket fire from other militant groups in Gaza into Israel. We have since learned that Hamas has been significantly re-arming and planning another round of violence. Though the rocket fire was not coming from Hamas, Israel has held Hamas responsible since it is the de facto ruler in Gaza. Then, last weekend, when Israel discovered Hamas’ intention to launch an incursion into Israel, it destroyed from the air a tunnel that led inside Israel from Gaza, in which a half dozen militants were killed and explosives destroyed. What Israel saw was Hamas building up militarily for a big operation. At that point, Hamas began launching its own rockets.
Were those initial rockets fired with Hamas’ tacit consent, or was the problem that Hamas doesn’t have a monopoly of authority in the Gaza Strip?
When rockets are fired from Gaza by groups such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas is put in a real bind. Hamas is sympathetic to the notion of fighting Israel and of armed resistance. It is ideologically simpatico with this. But politically, these acts are a challenge to Hamas’ authority within Gaza. Meanwhile, Israel holds Hamas accountable and will strike it to try to compel it to enforce its authority in Gaza. Hamas doesn’t want to be seen as Israel’s enforcer in Gaza, so violence from the other groups puts Hamas squarely between Israel and groups more extreme than Hamas that are vying for political advantage.
On the Israeli side, have domestic politics driven Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s reactions to recent developments?
No. While this is considered to be a somewhat hard-line, right-wing government, by nearly all international and Israeli accounts, it is one that has exercised tremendous restraint since the explosion of violence out of the West Bank and Gaza. There are calls on Prime Minister Netanyahu—and these aren’t ideological, these are operationally minded—to ramp up its use of force in Gaza, deploy the army on the ground, and achieve a quick and decisive military victory, or at least a major blow against Hamas.
Instead, Israel to date has employed a strategy of gradual escalation to try to compel Hamas to stop the rocket fire. But some military analysts in Israel question whether it is going to work. They would rather see a quick and heavy blow dealt against Hamas. Such an approach, however, lends itself to accidents, greater civilian causalities, and a loss of international support—all of which could harm Israel’s efforts.
What’s been particularly notable about this current round of fighting has been the degree to which Hamas was economically and politically very weak, yet militarily relatively strong. This round could end with Hamas in a much stronger place politically, even if Israel succeeds in dealing a significant blow to Hamas’ arsenal in Gaza.
What has been evident to date has been the extent to which Hamas, since its last round of fighting ended in November 2012, successfully rebuilt and even improved its military capabilities, particularly its importation of long-range rockets. Israel’s saving grace has been the deployment of Iron Dome defenses that have so far prevented large-scale damage or casualties. Should that change—and it’s a very small margin of error—then the level of force will escalate considerably.
What does this latest round mean for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority’s standing?
This violence puts further strain on President Abbas politically. Look at where the balance of power was within Palestinian politics prior to this latest round: Abbas had signed a unity agreement with Hamas in which most of the benefits accrued to Fatah. Hamas relinquished its ministries in Gaza and was looking to the Palestinian Authority to help pay salaries in Gaza and to help lift the blockade on its border with Egypt. Its popularity was sagging.
Now, in fighting Israel, Hamas has asserted its primacy in Gaza and has put Abbas on the defensive for being the one who cooperates with Israel on security and in negotiations. Abbas’ tactics are seen as having produced little, if anything, for the Palestinian people. Abbas has felt the need to assert himself, and has just announced that he is going to resume his previous efforts to gain greater recognition for Palestine in international organizations. This is his only card left, having tried the unity card, which seems to be withering on the vine, and having sought negotiations, which produced nothing for the Palestinians politically. Abbas now sees such international diplomacy and the internationalization of the conflict with Israel as the only way to achieve any kind of political benefits for him and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Could the PA’s security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank be jeopardized?
Security cooperation has been put under strain. The Palestinian public has taken to protesting against, and at times even throwing rocks at, Palestinian security forces, accusing them of being Israel’s policemen. If the situation deteriorates, it will be increasingly hard for Abbas to justify ongoing security cooperation, though he wants it to continue. This is one important reason it is in his interest to see the fighting come to an end as soon as possible.
During the last round of major hostilities between Hamas and Israel, in November 2012, Egypt mediated a truce. Now, with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in power, is Egypt or any other regional player in a position to mediate?
Egypt is still probably best positioned to mediate from a regional standpoint, and it appears that the Egyptians are trying to temper the violence somewhat, though not with the enthusiasm that would have been seen under the Morsi government. Egypt has criticized the Israelis, and has called for the fighting to end. But Egypt is not in a big hurry to put much effort behind those words.
Look at Hamas’ demands: one has been that Israel releases some of the prisoners that had been released in the Gilad Shalit trade and then subsequently captured. But the other has been an end to the blockade of Rafah, on the border between Egypt and Gaza. That is not something Egypt is keen to do. It doesn’t want to see Hamas emerge with improved capabilities, greater access to Egypt, or enhanced political standing.
That said, if the situation deteriorates further or there are significant casualties in Gaza, it will get harder and harder for Egypt to appear to be standing by.
The White House seems to have stood back from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the collapse of Secretary Kerry’s diplomatic efforts. Is there a crisis-management role that the United States could and should be playing?
Yes. The administration can help try to put out the flames through diplomacy. People tend to talk in terms of whether or not Secretary of State John Kerry should go back to the region. But the U.S. has a much broader menu of options, other than having Kerry go to the region, to try to help bring about calm. The State Department could send other senior officials to help talk to regional parties that share our interest in seeing an end to the fighting. While there are no final-status negotiations taking place, there is a real need for high-level diplomatic engagement from Washington.
One constraining factor for the United States when dealing with any conflict in Gaza is that we do not have contact with Hamas. But the U.S. can work with other parties, such as Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, or Jordan. The real issue has been that the U.S. has not sought to actively mediate this conflict. At a certain point, however, the pressure may become too great for the administration.
We’re locked in a difficult situation: Hamas wants to emerge from this conflict with some sort of political gain it can point to. Israel wants to emerge having dealt a military blow to Hamas and an end to Hamas-led rocket fire. It’s not clear how this will happen. So for the time being the situation is just going to intensify of its own accord. Both sides are hostage to events rather than being led by clear strategies with identifiable steps for achieving their goals.
Once this current crisis has passed, what’s the best way forward with Gaza?
One of the many reasons that recent negotiations did not succeed was that Abbas was constrained by the fact that he does not control Gaza. Hamas, in control there but outside the negotiations, would have criticized him for any concession he made.
Meanwhile, there is a real absence of political legitimacy for Palestinians leaders and their institutions. There haven’t been presidential elections since 2008, or parliamentary elections since 2006. The divide between the West Bank and Gaza—politically and geographically—is the most demonstrable manifestation of this. So it is hard to see how a return to negotiations without first addressing these legitimacy issues would produce a better result.
It also depends on how this current fighting ends, and who is perceived to have emerged with a better hand. If we straight-line from where we are, and there is just a reaffirmation of previous Israel-Hamas understandings, which is an effective cease-fire, we are just buying time. Calm could be reconstituted. But we should not expect that it will be stable or enduring.
Israel is in a real bind when it comes Gaza. On the one hand, Hamas is implacably opposed to Israel; the two are locked in an existential conflict. At the same time, Israel understands without Hamas, there could be a breakdown in order in Gaza that leads to greater violence. It hasn’t found an effective means to calibrate that.