Mowing the lawn in Gaza
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.