Mow­ing the lawn in Gaza

The Jerusalem Post - - OBSERVATIO­NS - • BY CARO­LINE B. GLICK

Wed­nes­day night, the se­cu­rity cabi­net con­vened to dis­cuss the Ha­mas regime in Gaza’s es­ca­lat­ing war against Is­rael. The cur­rent round of war be­gan seven months ago when Ha­mas ter­ror bosses or­dered Gaza res­i­dents to the bor­der with Is­rael. The de­clared pur­pose of the mass gath­er­ings was to de­stroy Is­rael in what Ha­mas re­ferred to as “the march of re­turn.” Ha­mas lead­ers Yahya Sin­war and Is­mail Haniyeh promised they would hold a press con­fer­ence on the em­bers of de­stroyed Is­raeli bor­der com­mu­ni­ties in short or­der.

The “march,” of course, never hap­pened. What came in­stead has been seven months of un­remit­ting ter­ror. Tens of thou­sands of acres of farm­land and na­ture pre­serves have been scorched and de­stroyed by ar­son kites and bal­loons sent over the bor­der from Gaza. Kib­butzim and town­ships have been sub­jected to in­ter­mit­tent rocket and mis­sile at­tacks in­ter­spersed with in­cen­di­ary kites and bal­loons that have fallen in school yards, on pri­vate homes and in the mid­dle of play­grounds filled with chil­dren.

And then, in the early morn­ing hours on Wed­nes­day, Ha­mas shot a mis­sile into Beer­sheba and an­other to­ward Tel Aviv. The mis­sile in Beer­sheba de­stroyed a fam­ily home. A fam­ily of four avoided death through the heroic ef­forts of the mother, who dragged her sleep­ing chil­dren into their bomb shel­ter mo­ments be­fore the mis­sile de­stroyed their house.

The mis­sile shot to­ward cen­tral Is­rael landed in the Mediter­ranean Sea.

For seven months, the govern­ment has been sub­jected to con­tin­u­ous crit­i­cism for avoid­ing any ma­jor re­sponse to Ha­mas’s un­re­lent­ing ag­gres­sion. And for seven months, Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu and De­fense Min­is­ter Avig­dor Liber­man have promised to hit Ha­mas hard while ac­ced­ing to the IDF Gen­eral Staff’s po­si­tion that Is­rael should do as lit­tle as pos­si­ble mil­i­tar­ily and try to bribe Ha­mas into stand­ing down by in­creas­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian aid to Gaza.

Why has the govern­ment re­sponded so weakly to Ha­mas’s as­saults and what can we ex­pect to hap­pen, go­ing for­ward in the wake of the se­cu­rity cabi­net’s meeting Wed­nes­day night? What does the sit­u­a­tion in Gaza tell us about the fu­ture of the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity in Judea and Sa­maria, and about Is­rael’s op­tions mov­ing for­ward in re­la­tion to both groups of Pales­tini­ans?

To un­der­stand the govern­ment’s dilemma, we need to first un­der­stand what we’re deal­ing with in Gaza and what Is­rael’s op­tions are, re­al­is­ti­cally, for shap­ing the sit­u­a­tion on the ground in a man­ner that will im­prove the safety and se­cu­rity of Is­rael.

For the past 13 years, since Is­rael aban­doned Gaza and de­stroyed its com­mu­ni­ties in the area, Gaza has been a quasi-in­de­pen­dent state. Since Jan­uary 2006, when Ha­mas won the elec­tions to the Pales­tinian leg­is­la­ture, the ter­ror group has been the most pow­er­ful and most pop­u­lar force in Gaza – and ar­guably in Judea and Sa­maria as well.

More­over, if Ha­mas were top­pled to­mor­row, it wouldn’t be re­placed by a peace­ful regime. It has no mod­er­ate op­po­nents. As The Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh has re­ported, the sec­ond most pow­er­ful force in Gaza is the Is­lamic Ji­had ter­ror group. Ha­mas is con­trolled by Qatar, Turkey and Iran. Since it was es­tab­lished in 1988 by Iran’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps, Is­lamic Ji­had has been a wholly owned proxy of Tehran. Pick your poi­son.

THERE IS a long-term way to top­ple Ha­mas or at least to gut its power. Were Egypt to open its bor­der with Gaza, hun­dreds of thou­sands of Gazans would em­i­grate out of the re­gion. Hun­dreds of thou­sands more would work in the un­der­pop­u­lated north­ern Si­nai. Such a sit­u­a­tion would leave Ha­mas with no eco­nomic lever­age over the pop­u­la­tion and con­se­quently with much re­duced mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties to pur­sue its eter­nal war against the Jewish state.

Un­for­tu­nately, as things stand, Egypt re­mains adamant in its op­po­si­tion to any sug­ges­tion that it per­mit the Gaza Strip to merge eco­nom­i­cally – let alone po­lit­i­cally – with the Si­nai. Per­haps the US can con­vince Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Ab­del Fat­tah al-Sisi to change his mind and in­te­grate Gaza’s econ­omy into Egypt’s econ­omy. But Is­rael is in no po­si­tion to do so.

Which brings us back to the se­cu­rity cabi­net. Frus­trated by the harsh crit­i­cism he has re­ceived as a con­se­quence of his fee­ble re­sponse to Ha­mas’s new round of ag­gres­sion over the past seven months, and fear­ful of the elec­toral con­se­quences of his ap­pear­ance as weak and flac­cid, this week Liber­man said the time has come to hit Ha­mas hard. He re­port­edly of­fered a plan to achieve his goal Wed­nes­day night. His col­leagues re­port­edly re­jected Liber­man’s plan in fa­vor of other op­tions of­fered by the IDF.

The cabi­net min­is­ters’ re­ported re­jec­tion of Liber­man’s plan makes sense. Be­cause the fact is that Is­rael’s op­tions in re­la­tion to Gaza are very lim­ited.

If Is­rael tried to re­take con­trol over Gaza, as ex­as­per­ated politi­cians some­times rec­om­mend, it would never stop pay­ing the price for the move. Even if Is­rael had the ground forces to un­der­take such an op­er­a­tion with­out leav­ing north­ern Is­rael vul­ner­a­ble to ag­gres­sion from Iran and its prox­ies in Le­banon and Syria, the cost of con­quer­ing Gaza in blood and trea­sure would be pro­hib­i­tive, and in the ab­sence of any mod­er­ate force on the ground that could even­tu­ally take over, Is­rael would be stuck rul­ing over a hate­ful pop­u­la­tion un­til it fi­nally aban­doned Gaza again and an­other ter­ror group took over.

Is­rael’s Left, along with its pro­tean cho­rus of part­ners in the West, in­sist that the only way to “solve” the sit­u­a­tion in Gaza is to re­place the Ha­mas regime with a regime led by the PLO-con­trolled Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity in Judea and Sa­maria. That would be the regime that Ha­mas ousted in a bloody and swift rout in June 2007.

There are two prob­lems with this claim, and they point to Is­rael’s larger quandary with re­gard to the PA regime in Judea and Sa­maria.

The first prob­lem is that the PA would never be able to take over be­cause it has no power base in Gaza. If Is­rael or Egypt tried to in­stall them, at best the PA of­fi­cials would be noth­ing more than front men for Ha­mas.

The sec­ond prob­lem with bring­ing the PA into Gaza is that there is no ev­i­dence it would be any less ex­treme than Ha­mas.

Dur­ing the two years the PA con­trolled in­de­pen­dent Gaza, fol­low­ing Is­rael’s aban­don­ment of the area in Au­gust 2005, it mil­i­ta­rized the Gaza Strip in an un­prece­dented way. Rocket, mor­tar and mis­sile at­tacks against Is­rael be­came a daily event. Most of the mis­siles were shot by Fatah cells loyal to the PA.

In Judea and Sa­maria, the PA runs an au­tonomous regime in the Pales­tinian pop­u­la­tion cen­ters. Like Ha­mas, the PA regime has done noth­ing to de­velop its econ­omy. It has squan­dered hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in in­ter­na­tional as­sis­tance to line the pock­ets of its cor­rupt lead­ers and pay off their cronies.

AS IT DID in Gaza be­tween 1996 and 2002, the PA mil­i­ta­rized the ar­eas of Judea and Sa­maria that it con­trolled. Is­rael only de­mil­i­ta­rized the Pales­tinian ar­eas in re­sponse to the PA-di­rected ter­ror war that was launched in Septem­ber 2000.

The only rea­son Is­rael is not fac­ing the same sit­u­a­tion in Judea and Sa­maria as it faces in Gaza is be­cause its mil­i­tary forces have con­trolled the ar­eas since 2004.

Which brings us back to Wed­nes­day night’s se­cu­rity cabi­net meeting.

In their meeting Wed­nes­day night, as in all their meet­ings re­gard­ing Gaza, the min­is­ters had very lim­ited op­tions. All they can re­ally de­cide is what level of mil­i­tary force to or­der the IDF to use against Ha­mas and what level of hu­man­i­tar­ian aid to or­der the IDF to per­mit to en­ter into Gaza.

Ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports, the cabi­net de­cided Wed­nes­day night to “change the rules of the game” in re­la­tion to Ha­mas, and par­tic­u­larly in re­la­tion to its ri­ots along the bor­der ev­ery Fri­day af­ter­noon. What this means re­mains to be seen.

Per­haps the IDF will as­sert con­trol over the se­cu­rity perime­ter it con­trolled on the Gaza side of the bor­der un­til the end of 2012. Is­rael aban­doned its se­cu­rity perime­ter, which was 300 me­ters wide, and per­mit­ted Gazans to farm along the bor­der fence, (and so set the con­di­tions for Ha­mas’s cur­rent bor­der ag­gres­sion) in the frame­work of cease-fire talks at the end of Op­er­a­tion Pil­lar of De­fense – the mini-war it fought against Ha­mas in 2012. Such a move would cer­tainly con­sti­tute a sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment over the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion.

Per­haps Is­rael will carry out ma­jor air as­saults that could de­stroy a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Ha­mas’s mis­sile and mor­tar stocks. Per­haps Is­rael could re­tal­i­ate for Wed­nes­day’s mis­sile strike by de­stroy­ing the homes of Ha­mas lead­ers.

What­ever it does, and what­ever mil­i­tary moves Is­rael makes, the fact is that Is­rael can­not end the menace it faces from Ha­mas. It can and should weaken Ha­mas’s war-fight­ing ca­pa­bil­ity and per­haps in­tim­i­date Ha­mas lead­ers into cool­ing their jets for a few months or a year or two. But the next round will come when­ever Ha­mas de­cides to open one and Is­rael will be forced to re­spond again.

As for Judea and Sa­maria, Is­rael has no rea­son to be con­cerned about who is in charge and to what de­gree they are in charge in the Pales­tinian pop­u­la­tion cen­ters so long as Is­rael re­tains over­all se­cu­rity con­trol of the area. We don’t have a dog in the fight. None of the pos­si­ble suc­ces­sors to Mah­moud Ab­bas or to his klep­to­cratic PA are any bet­ter than he is. And none of them are sig­nif­i­cantly worse.

The main strate­gic take­away from Gaza and from Judea and Sa­maria is that there is no so­lu­tion, mil­i­tary or oth­er­wise to the Pales­tini­ans’ never-end­ing war against the Jewish state.

All Is­rael can do is se­cure its con­trol over what it al­ready con­trols by, among other things, ap­ply­ing its law to Area C, and use mil­i­tary force to limit the Pales­tini­ans’ abil­ity to at­tack its civil­ians and its ter­ri­tory.

The com­ing days and weeks may and should see a sig­nif­i­cant es­ca­la­tion in IDF of­fen­sive strikes against Ha­mas tar­gets in Gaza. But no mat­ter how suc­cess­ful they may or may not be, they shouldn’t be seen as any­thing more than a mil­i­tary ver­sion of mow­ing the lawn. And just as grass grows back, so Ha­mas will re­build its strength. Is­rael’s chal­lenge is not to up­root the grass, but to main­tain the ca­pa­bil­ity to keep it as short as pos­si­ble.

Who knows? Maybe one day the Pales­tini­ans will get tired of fight­ing and there will be peace.

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