Israel’s war against Hamas, now in its third week, is probably closer to its end than to its beginning. Israel has said that the “operation”—there is an official aversion to the term “war”—is close to achieving its stated goal of securing sustained quiet for the south of Israel. Quiet refers to a cessation of rocket fire, and sustainability alludes to an end to weapons smuggling into Gaza from Egypt. These are the two elements that Israel seeks in a cease-fire.
But there is also an unstated goal of the war. It is the humiliation and degradation of Hamas, to such an extent that its continued rule over Gaza will be undermined. As long as Hamas remains in power, it will continue to indoctrinate and prepare for “resistance”—its term for violent jihad-style attacks on Israel. This is the Iran-inspired alternative to acceptance of compromise with Israel, and it is the doctrine that animates Hezbollah as well. Discrediting and delegitmating “resistance” is a prime Israeli objective—one shared by the United States, and presumably by all supporters of any Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” however configured.
There is a present danger concealed in the diplomacy toward achieving Israel’s stated goal, which could damage its unstated goal.
It is the possibility that a cease-fire might include a lifting of Israeli economic sanctions on Gaza. Israel imposed these sanctions after Hamas seized power in a violent coup in June 2007. Since that time, Israel has restricted imports via its crossings to “humanitarian” shipments of food and medicines, as well as fuel. The crossings have been closed to most commercial products and virtually all building materials.
The sanctions regime had a number of demonstrable effects. It made it impossible for Hamas to deliver on its social and welfare promises. As a result, its rule appeared much inferior to Palestinian Authority rule in the West Bank, which lately has enjoyed the economic benefits of increased cooperation with Israel. Reports from Gaza suggested a simmering discontent with isolation and economic hardship. The sanctions also had symbolic value, by branding the Hamas regime as illegitimate.
Contrary to some Palestinian claims, the “lull” agreement did not provide for a lifting of the sanctions. It eased them, but only partially, and some imports, such as much-needed construction materials, continued to be banned altogether. It was in the hope of securing a new cease-fire, ending the sanctions altogether, that Hamas refused to renew the “lull” agreement and began firing rockets in December.
The lifting of sanctions has become the principal Hamas demand in the cease-fire negotiations. If Hamas can lift the sanctions, it will claim victory. It will argue that it broke the “siege” through “resistance”—albeit at a high cost—and that it effectively wrested economic control of Gaza’s frontiers from Israel. It will also claim that the lifting of the “blockade” constitutes de facto acceptance of Hamas rule in Gaza by both Israel and the international community.
Mediators operate by finding formulae that allow each side to claim some achievement. Lifting the “blockade” could well become the concession Israel will be asked to make to Hamas, especially since Israel hasn’t defined the continuation of sanctions as one of its declared goals. The concession will be urged upon Israel as a “humanitarian” measure by much of the international community, which will point to the urgent need for reconstruction.
After the military campaign is over, Israel’s control of Gaza’s economy will be its principal lever for translating its military achievements into political gains—above all, the continued degradation of Hamas control. Gaza will be desperate for all material things. Whoever controls their distribution will effectively control many aspects of daily life in Gaza.
This is a card Israel must be careful not to trade, either for a cease-fire or for international anti-smuggling cooperation on the Egypt-Gaza border. To that end, it must act now to affirm its adhesion to the sanctions. Israel should be willing to ease sanctions only if an international consortium for reconstruction is established, which has the legitimate Palestinian Authority as its sole agent within Gaza. In any cease-fire agreement, Israel should agree to open the crossings only to emergency food and medical aid—as it has during the fighting itself.
Ultimately, Operation Cast Lead will be judged not only by whether it produces an end to rocket fire—which it will—but whether it sets the stage for a shift of power within Gaza, away from Hamas “resistance”—a deceptive misnomer for Palestinian jihadism. This long-term goal should not be sacrificed to achieve short-term objectives.
This post originally appeared in the series On Second Thought, published by the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, Shalem Center, Jerusalem.