Three years on from the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead, the setting is once again Gaza, the justification is once again the barrage of rockets from the Hamas-controlled area, and Israel is once more two months away from general elections. Yet this time Israel is not interested in destroying Hamas. Rather, it is struggling to fight an even bigger perceived strategic battle – at the United Nations. Consider this: In 2009, the rationale for the war in Gaza – to destroy Hamas – was unrealistic, but logical. The aim was two-fold: to bolster Fatah, the West Bank-based more moderate part of the Palestinian Authority, and to stop rocket attacks from Gaza. Supporting Fatah was advantageous to Israel – at the time, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni were engaged in negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as part of the post-Annapolis peace process. Weakening the violent extremists in Gaza meant strengthening the moderates in the West Bank.
Yet three years later, the tables have reversed. Israel perceives the larger strategic threat as coming from Fatah rather than Hamas. The collapse of the Annapolis process has left a hostile silence in the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, while a financial crisis has affected the fledgling Palestinian economy in the West Bank. Yet perhaps the biggest factor in the change of relations between Israel and Fatah is the latter’s pursuit of nonmember state recognition at the U.N., which Israel regards as a greater strategic threat than the rockets from Gaza.
For the Israelis, the Palestinian bid for statehood is a menace for a number of reasons:
First, winning the vote at the U.N. General Assembly on Nov. 29 could serve the Palestinians a public relations victory. For the first time in history, a majority of the world’s states are expected to recognize the existence of Palestine in the largest international forum in the world.
Second, such recognition is set to render obsolete many of the previous agreements that have been painfully hammered out over the course of the past 19 years, above all the 1993 Oslo accords. This will have significant ramifications for both Israel and the Palestinians – particularly with respect to the delicate Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation in the West Bank.
And third, the Palestinian entry as a nonmember state to the U.N. opens up the possibilities to join certain U.N. bodies and a host of international organizations, such as the International Criminal Court. The latter in particular could make Israel the subject of ICC scrutiny. In 2009, the Palestinian Authority asked the ICC to extend its jurisdiction to the Palestinian territories and investigate crimes allegedly committed by Israel, but this request was denied because Palestine was not a member of the court.
All this is set to shake up the existing status quo irreversibly for Israel. Compared to the threat of short-range rocket fire in the south of the country prior to the launch of Operation Pillar of Defense, the ramifications of Fatah’s move are arguably more significant.
It is not in Israel’s interests to destroy Hamas. For one thing, preserving Hamas preserves the division between the movement and Fatah necessary to keep Palestinians from acting in a unified way, a necessary condition for a state under the Montevideo International Convention. If Hamas is decisively weakened, Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah will be able to reassert full control over the Gaza Strip and present themselves as an entity with all the qualities of a state. In this way they would strongly boost Palestine’s chances of joining committees at the U.N., paving the way for full membership later.
Furthermore, if Hamas is weakened, its control over the growing number of Salafists and jihadists in Gaza will disappear. Abu Abdul-Muhajir, a leading Salafist-jihadist in Gaza, told the Saudi daily As-Sharq al-Awsat in October 2012 that Salafist-jihadists in Gaza were determined to establish an Islamic emirate in the coastal enclave.
And finally, fighting with Hamas paradoxically renders the Palestinian Authority irrelevant to the conflict in Gaza and, therefore, to its resolution. For the Arab states and others further afield, it is Hamas in Gaza which is effectively challenging and threatening Israel, whilst Fatah has been sidelined and made irrelevant. This can already be seen – as Arab states reduce funding for the West Bank, Gaza is being plied with cash. This was visible most recently when the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, visited Gaza and pledged $400 million in assistance to the territory.
Israel is currently targeting Hamas’ military infrastructure, which has grown substantially thanks to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard over the past few years via an active cross-tunnel trade through Egypt. But prior to the assassination last week of Hamas’ Ahmad al-Jaabari, while there were hundreds rockets fired at southern Israel, none had reached Tel Aviv and no air raid alarms were heard in Jerusalem. Nor were there threats of suicide bombings to worry Israeli commuters.
If Israel continues on its path, it threatens to humiliate Abbas and, potentially, to destroy Fatah. As demonstrated during Operation Cast Lead, regardless of when and how a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas is reached, the Islamist movement will be portrayed as the one force that can challenge Israel. As such, Israel stands to lose the best negotiating partner it has ever had in its existence.
Inna Lazareva is a British journalist and political analyst. She specializes on the Middle East and North Africa, having spent a number of years researching the region. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.