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Ending the War in Gaza

International Crisis Group

A war neither Israel nor Hamas truly wanted turned into a war both are willing to wage. The six-month ceasefire that expired on 19 December was far from ideal. Israel suffered through periodic rocket fire and the knowledge that its foe was amassing lethal firepower. Hamas endured a punishing economic blockade, undermining its hopes of ruling Gaza. A sensible compromise, entailing an end to rocket launches and an opening of the crossings should have been available. But without bilateral engagement, effective third party mediation or mutual trust, it inexorably came to this: a brutal military operation in which both feel they have something to gain.

As each day goes by, Israel hopes to further degrade Hamas’s military capacity and reduce the rocket risk; Hamas banks on boosting its domestic and regional prestige. Only urgent international action by parties viewed as credible and trustworthy by both sides can end this before the human and political toll escalates or before Israel’s land incursion – which was launched as this briefing went to press – turns into a venture of uncertain scope, undetermined consequence and all-too-familiar human cost.

From Hamas’s perspective, prolonging the ceasefire was appealing but only if that arrangement was modified. Relative calm had enabled it to consolidate power and cripple potential foes. But the siege never was lifted. Increasingly, Hamas leaders were in the uncomfortable position of appearing to want the truce for personal safety at the price of collective hardship. As the expiration date approached, rocket fire intensified, an unsubtle message that Hamas would use violence to force Israel to open the crossings. In the first days, Israel’s retaliatory air campaign shook Hamas’s Qassam fighters by its timing, intensity and scale. But it did not catch them unprepared.

Instead, the Islamist movement hopes to reap political benefit from material losses. It knows it is no military match for Israel, but it can claim victory by withstanding the unprecedented onslaught; for a movement that thrives on martyrdom and the image of steadfastness, that would be enough. Its domestic and regional standings, somewhat bruised by its harsh tactics in taking over Gaza and seeming indifference to national unity, would grow far beyond its actual military capability, while those of its domestic foes – President Mahmoud Abbas, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah – are in peril. A ground invasion was expected and, in some Hamas quarters, hoped for. House-to-house guerrilla warfare, they surmise, is more favourable terrain. Should their rule be toppled, some claim to look forward to a return to pure armed struggle, untainted by the stain of governance.

From Israel’s perspective, six months of overall quiet had been welcome, if not without perpetual qualms. Hamas used it to amass a more powerful and longer-range arsenal; Corporal Gilad Shalit, captured in 2006, remained imprisoned; and sporadic rocket fire continued. All this it could withstand, but not the intensification of attacks immediately preceding and following the end of the truce. Then, even those most reluctant to escalate felt compelled to act massively.

Goals remain hazy. Military success could not be achieved through airpower alone; an end to the operation then, despite massive destruction, would have handed Hamas a political victory. So, while the land incursion might not have been inevitable, once the operation was launched it was virtually preordained. Unlike in Lebanon in 2006, Israel can carry it far: in contrast to Hizbollah, Hamas has neither strategic depth nor resupply ability. It has few allies. Israel can take Gaza and kill or capture most of the military and political leaders. Yet, with such expansive possibilities come risks of equal magnitude for there is no logical exit or end point. Israel might start by occupying areas in Gaza’s north to deal with the short-range rockets, but that would leave longer-range ones. Intensive ground operations can remove many rockets and launchers, but without profound, durable incursion into densely populated areas cannot prevent Hamas from firing.

A massive intervention that in effect topples Hamas is looking increasingly possible. But who will take over on the back of Israel’s occupation? How could a then discredited PA assume power? Even crushing military victory ultimately might not be that much, or that lasting, of a political win.

Fighting that began as a tug-of-war over terms of a new ceasefire has become a battle over terms of deterrence and the balance of power – with no easy way out. Israel in principle wants a ceasefire, but only after it brings Hamas to its knees, strips it of long-range capabilities and dispels any illusion of a fight among equals in which rocket fire has the same deterrent effect as airforce raids, all of which could take a long time. Hamas, too, has an interest in a ceasefire, but only in return for opening the crossings. In the meantime, it sees every day of conflict as testimony to its resistance credentials. Both inexorably will see more benefit in persevering with violent confrontation than in appearing to give in.

That leaves the international community. The impetus to conclude such an asymmetrical war can come one of two ways: for the parties to bloody each other sufficiently, or for the international community to assertively step in. In this, some world actors appear to have learned a useful lesson from the Lebanon war. There is more activism now, from the EU, individual European countries like France, which is seeking to renew its central Middle Eastern role and important regional actors, like Turkey – a nation whose involvement has become all the more critical given the breakdown of trust between Hamas and the traditional mediator, Egypt. Even Cairo, on 5 January, had invited Hamas for talks.

Still, as was the case two years ago, a swift, unconditional end to fighting is bumping up against the argument that this would leave in place ingredients that prompted the conflagration. True enough. The blanks in the defunct ceasefire must be filled. But, Washington’s unhelpful and perilous efforts to slow things down notwithstanding, the most urgent task must be stopping the fighting; already, the absence of effective mediation has contributed to the climb from unreliable ceasefire to long-range rocket fire and massive aerial bombardment to ground offensive. To protect civilians, limit political damage (regional polarisation and radicalisation, further discrediting of any “moderates” or “peace process”) and avoid a further catastrophe (massive loss of life in urban warfare in Gaza, a Hamas rocket hit on a vital Israeli installation), third parties should pressure both sides to immediately halt military action. In short, what is required is a Lebanon-type diplomatic outcome but without the Lebanon-type prolonged timetable.

To be sustainable, cessation of hostilities must be directly followed by steps addressing both sides’ core concerns:

  • an indefinite ceasefire pursuant to which:

  • Hamas would halt all rocket launches, keep armed militants at 500 metres from Israel’s border and make other armed organisations comply; and

  • Israel would halt all military attacks on and withdraw all troops from Gaza;

  • real efforts to end arms smuggling into Gaza, led by Egypt in coordination with regional and international actors;

  • dispatch of a multinational monitoring presence to verify adherence to the ceasefire, serve as liaison between the two sides and defuse potential crises; countries like France, Turkey and Qatar, as well as organisations such as the UN, could play an important part in this; and

  • opening of Gaza’s crossings with Israel and Egypt, together with:

  • return of an EU presence at the Rafah crossing and its extension to Gaza’s crossings with Israel; and

  • coordination between Hamas authorities and the (Ramallah-based) PA at the crossings.

That last point – Hamas’s role – is, of course, the rub, the unresolved dilemma that largely explains why the tragedy unfolded as it did. Gaza’s two-year story has been one of collective failure: by Hamas, which missed the opportunity to act as a responsible political actor; of Israel, which stuck to a shortsighted policy of isolating Gaza and seeking to undermine Hamas that neither helped it nor hurt them; of the PA leadership, which refused to accept the consequences of the Islamists’ electoral victory, sought to undo it and ended up looking like the leader of one segment of the Palestinian community against the other; and of the international community, many regional actors included, which demanded Hamas turn from militant to political organisation without giving it sufficient incentives to do so and only recognised the utility of Palestinian unity after spending years obstructing it.

This should change. Sustainable calm can be achieved neither by ignoring Hamas and its constituents nor by harbouring the illusion that, pummelled into submission, it will accept what it heretofore has rejected. Palestinian reconciliation is a priority, more urgent but also harder than ever before; so, too, is the Islamists’ acceptance of basic international obligations. In the meantime, Hamas – if Israel does not take the perilous step of toppling it – will have to play a political and security role in Gaza and at the crossings. This might mean a “victory” for Hamas, but that is the inevitable cost for a wrongheaded embargo, and by helping end rocket fire and producing a more stable border regime, it would just as importantly be a victory for Israel – and, crucially, both peoples – as well.

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