The war in Gaza continues while the outcome remains uncertain. But from the Israeli perspective, the conflict must appear increasingly worrisome, despite the successes of the Iron Dome system. The reason is that few conflicts have better illustrated the void and contradictions at the heart of Israel’s approach to the Palestinians.
The contradictions first. The Israelis have portrayed the war as an effort to weaken Hamas, but everything they have done has strengthened the movement, after a period in which its popularity had dived domestically and its lucrative, vital tunnel system was closed by a hostile Egyptian government.
Hamas was also seeking to revive its financial and military relationship with Iran, severed because of their disagreement over Syria. That relationship appears to have been restored, even though it will be tougher to smuggle new weapons into Gaza given Israel’s and Egypt’s controlling access to the territory. However, a complete cutoff of arms to Gaza will be difficult.
From a political perspective, Hamas has gained more from the Gaza war than Israel
Hamas has benefited in other ways. It has underlined how inconsequential is Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, advancing its agenda to ultimately remove him and his Fatah movement as the dominant actors in the Palestine Liberation Organization. This does not necessarily displease Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister has time and again discredited his Palestinian interlocutors, in order to avoid giving up occupied land. But the broader consequences of having Hamas lead the Palestinians are serious.
And Hamas has also gained by showing it can target Israeli cities, regardless of the Iron Dome’s effectiveness. The attacks have altered daily life in Israel, most recently by pushing foreign airlines to suspend their flights to Ben Gurion Airport. Technology is not stationary. If Hamas’ rockets are relatively primitive today, in the future they can, and likely will, be improved. Israel’s ability to conduct wars entirely in the lands of its neighbors is becoming less possible by the day.
Then there are the tunnels. Hamas has taken a considerable risk by digging passages into Israel. Like Hezbollah, which has promised to send combatants into Galilee in any future war with Israel, Hamas sees going on the offensive as a way of shifting the military ground rules to its advantage and show Israelis that they are vulnerable even inside their borders. The only problem is that it will make the Israelis even more reluctant to give up land in the future, and will only strengthen the Israeli hard-liners’ self-serving claim that Israel is under perpetual threat.
Perhaps that helps show how Hamas and the Israeli government have parallel interests. Both gain from an intractable adversary, because it allows them to sidestep difficult choices: Israel avoids surrendering land, while Hamas evades the contentious matter of talking to Israel. Each side accentuates dangers the other exploits in its own favor.
But from a political perspective, Hamas has gained more from the Gaza war than Israel. Yes, Palestinian civilians have been killed, but this is not of great concern to Hamas. If it can emerge from the war still firing, it will declare its own “divine victory,” helping to absorb any popular anger for what happened.
More questionable is how Hamas will rebuild Gaza. With Egypt and Israel controlling the borders, the movement will find it very difficult to organize a costly reconstruction effort, which could exacerbate popular dissatisfaction. But Hamas must feel it can survive that eventuality, otherwise it would not have so readily rejected Egypt’s cease-fire proposal last week.
Hamas is looking beyond that at the benefits of the conflict. It is now much more difficult for Abbas to continue giving Hamas a secondary role in a Palestinian unity government. As for Netanyahu, his efforts to undermine such a government may have been damaged, since any resolution to the Gaza crisis may have to include the Palestinian government as a party.
Worse, for the Israelis everything about Gaza has served to highlight the extent to which they have no strategic framework in which to deal with the Palestinians. Netanyahu will justify his actions in the name of self-defense or fighting terrorism or what have you, but many Israelis, once the fighting stops, will ask a more fundamental question: Where is Israel going in its relations with the Palestinians, at a time when the country’s image in the world is more negative than it has ever been?
The reality is that what many people in the world see today is a government that has no serious intention of giving up land, that finds excuses to freeze progress in negotiations and that never hesitates to make the life of its Palestinian victims more intolerable than it already is. It is no longer rare to hear Israel mentioned in the same breath as apartheid South Africa, let alone to hear officials publicly imply that hundreds of civilian casualties in Gaza is an outrage.
One consequence of this is that we will hear an increasing number of voices calling for engagement of Hamas. Whatever the serious problems of doing so, after this latest violence it may seem absurd not to include Hamas in negotiations. These are not dynamics Israel can welcome, not when it has found no solution to Palestinian demographics and the fact that the Palestinian population under Israeli control is rising inexorably.
Israel may occupy all of Gaza and remain there for months while trying to dismantle Hamas. But at what price? Such a scenario is improbable, yet short of that Israel has no victorious endgame in Gaza. It can kill, but unless it moves toward giving the Palestinians independence, its problem will become increasingly unmanageable. Israel will continue to flounder in explaining how open-ended repression can be sustainable.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.