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The Real Choice: Ceasefire or Reoccupation of Gaza

The Real Choice: Ceasefire or Reoccupation of Gaza


by Shlomo Brom

The recent escalation of the military confrontation in the Gaza Strip dramatizes the need to consider alternative strategies in the face of the Gaza challenge, and to choose a strategy that can offer the best chance of achieving the desired objectives.

Israel’s specific aim regarding the Gaza Strip is to stop the rocket fire from Gaza on Israeli populated areas. However, achieving the goal in the short term does not necessarily guarantee maintaining the achievement in the long term. Therefore, a better definition of the goal is to generate a long term stable situation in which rockets are not launched and there are no other threats from the Gaza Strip.

An analysis of the possibility of achieving this objective must take into account that after the Hamas takeover, the Israeli government made a strategic decision to try to weaken the Hamas government in Gaza and thereby attempt to effect its replacement, hoping to strengthen the Palestinian partner represented in the West Bank by Mahmoud Abbas and the Fayyad government. The two objectives are liable to clash with one another.

The Current Strategy

For now, Israel is not trying to stop the rocket fire with a military strategy that strips Hamas of its ability to fire rockets, rather with a strategy that demands a steady cost from Hamas. This entails Israel's escalating the situation every time Hamas escalates it, with the goal of conveying to Hamas that at each stage, the price it pays is greater than the benefit it reaps. The assumption is that in so doing, a positive deterrent balance will be created for Israel that will cause Hamas to stop the attacks.

The chances of this strategy achieving the desired goal are limited, as deterrence exists when the alternative of inaction is preferred by the party that one seeks to deter from acting. The problem is that from Hamas' point of view, the alternative to inaction offered by Israel is worse than the continued confrontation with Israel, despite the cost. Israel’s fundamental policy is to weaken Hamas as much as possible with the help of its Western allies, and to strengthen the opposition to Hamas within the Palestinian political arena – i.e., Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah – in the hope that this allows the Palestinian partner preferred by Israel to retake control of the Palestinian territories. Israel has offered Hamas the option of surrendering quietly – to stop the violence and impose this ceasefire on the other organizations operating in Gaza, and to allow the coalition opposing Hamas to maintain its siege until it is destroyed as an effective political force in the Palestinian arena. Alternatively, Hamas can surrender its ideology and its political positions overnight, and then it will be allowed to survive as a political element. Hamas, as an extant political movement, cannot accept these proposals. These alternatives are worse for it than maintaining the current military situation in which it suffers blows and losses and is under siege, yet in accordance with the Hizbollah model demonstrates vitality and survivability by proving its ability to continue attacking Israeli population centers with rockets and thereby ensuring its political survival.

Israel’s inability to achieve its objectives in the present course compels Israel to choose between two other strategies that constitute the only alternatives given the current situation in the Gaza Strip. The first alternative is to physically prevent Hamas from launching rockets by taking over the areas from which the rockets are being launched, dismantling the infrastructures of Hamas and the other organizations, and occupying the areas over the long term. The second alternative is to try to reach understandings with Hamas over a ceasefire, and to create a stable situation that is acceptable to both sides.

The First Alternative: Taking Over the Launch Sites

The main problem with the first alternative is that it entails reoccupying the Gaza Strip and remaining there for a long time. The Gaza Strip is a small area. The current rocket ranges already necessitate controlling most of the Strip in order to prevent entirely the launching of rockets against Israeli targets. For example, Grad rockets can reach Ashkelon when fired from the southern part of Gaza City. If Israel wants to prevent the launch of rockets against Ashkelon it has to occupy nearly the entire northern third of the Strip, and even that would provide only a temporary solution as at some stage, longer range rockets will be smuggled into Gaza. This situation can be prevented only by taking over the south of the Strip as well and finding a way to prevent arms smuggling through tunnels. If assurances are also sought for the settlements in the areas closer to Gaza, which can be attacked with self-manufactured short range rockets, almost the whole of the Strip must be occupied.

One of the proposals for an exit strategy should Israel reoccupy all or most of the Gaza Strip is transferring control to an international/Arab party that would maintain a trusteeship in the Strip. The aim of this trusteeship would be to ensure that calm is maintained in the Strip, establish Palestinian institutions, and prepare these institutions for the reality of an independent state. This proposal ignores the fact that after the reoccupation of the Gaza Strip, the area will still be saturated both with weapons and members of the various organizations who are motivated to maintain the struggle against the occupying army. It will be similar to the situation in Iraq after the rapid occupation by the US military. In other words, this would entail intensive counter-insurgency operations until the Strip could be calmed and reach a state similar to that which exists in the West Bank. It is hard to believe that any international party would be willing to enter the Gaza Strip and relieve Israel of this role. Even in the optimistic scenario in which Israel achieves relative calm after a number of years, there is no guarantee that an international/Arab party will be found that will agree to assume responsibility for the Gaza Strip.

The Second Alternative: Ceasefire

The second alternative is based on the assumption that both sides share a basic interest in stability, though for different reasons. It appeals to Israel because there is no attractive military way of guaranteeing an end to the rocket fire, and the current situation both denies part of its population a normal life and prevents implementation of the preferred policy with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Hamas is interested in stability as the current state of affairs prevents the consolidation of its control of Gaza, exacerbates the siege it is under, and causes it severe damage. Each of the two sides also has concerns over a ceasefire. Israel is anxious that a ceasefire would allow Hamas to recover from the attacks it has sustained; build up its military capability; increase its stock of rockets and enhance their performance; and renew the fighting when it is convenient for Hamas. Israel is also concerned that a ceasefire with Hamas violates its basic policy, as it would confer legitimacy on Hamas, weaken the standing of Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, allow Hamas to bolster its political standing, and in time enable it to take over the West Bank as well. For its part, Hamas is concerned that despite the calm, sanctions against it and the siege on the Gaza Strip would be maintained while it does not have the means to cope with them. In such a situation Abbas could advance negotiations with Israel and improve his political status, with Hamas looking on helplessly. It seems that Hamas clearly understands that a situation that is perceived as waiving the weapon of resistance to Israel can harm its image as an organization that takes responsibility for most of the struggle against Israel for the benefit of the Palestinian cause, an image that is one of its main assets in the internal Palestinian struggle with Fatah. Such a situation can also be interpreted as the start of a process of recognition of Israel, without Israel providing a commensurate reward.

A relatively stable ceasefire is achievable if the terms of the ceasefire provide a solution to some of the basic concerns of each side. From Israel’s point of view a ceasefire should have several key elements. First, it must apply to all the parties in the Gaza Strip and not be binding on only one of the active organizations in Gaza, as this understanding is reached with the government that controls Gaza and seeks to achieve total dominance. Hamas will have to commit itself to enforcing the ceasefire and imposing it on the other armed groups in Gaza, if necessary by force. The second important element for Israel is the separation between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. For Israel a ceasefire should only apply to the Gaza Strip, while the day to day preventive measures of the security forces in the West Bank continue. Israel cannot relax this demand as long as there is no other responsible party with the ability to prevent the rebuilding of the terror infrastructure in the West Bank. The third important element is an arrangement that will prevent exploitation of the calm for massive smuggling of arms into the Gaza Strip. It is hard to believe that Hamas will voluntarily agree to stop the smuggling as it contradicts a very basic interest – readiness to renew fighting if the ceasefire is revoked. The answer to this concern should be found in arrangements that involve Egypt and international parties. Talks about a ceasefire offer an opportunity to reexamine the arrangements along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, and to achieve more reliable and effective arrangements, including the possibility of stationing an international force along this line and reinforcing the Egyptian forces deployed near the border. Finally, Israel also has an interest that the arrangements connected to the ceasefire will not lead to full normalization with Hamas and the Gaza Strip as long as Israel upholds its decision to weaken Hamas and strengthen its rivals.

Hamas’ principal interest is to create a situation in which it can consolidate its rule in Gaza, maintain order there, and show the Palestinian public that it performs better than the Fatah governments that preceded it. Therefore it cannot accept a stable and full ceasefire without arrangements in place that will allow the resumption of normal life in Gaza, including regular economic activity. This requires effective arrangements relating to the operation of transit points to Egypt and Israel. This does not mean that Israel and the Quartet have to waive all the sanctions imposed on Hamas; it means that the absolute minimum requirement for normal living conditions and regular economic activity should be defined. Anything beyond that should be contingent on a change in Hamas' positions so that the arrangements do not strengthen Hamas too much, and they create an incentive to change its stances. It is worthwhile examining whether Hamas is willing to accept ceasefire conditions that Israel can accept, in return for the proposed situation that would allow it, from its point of view, to finally realize its political success and exercise control. At the same time, steps designed to improve life in the West Bank and reinforce the standing of Abbas and the Fayyad government should be bolstered, so as not to tip the balance between Fatah and Hamas in Hamas’ favor.

An answer to some of the respective reservations can also be found in the way that understandings on a ceasefire are reached. In public discourse in Israel the issue is framed as whether or not to talk to Hamas, which makes the main question one of mutual recognition. However, this is not the main issue in the present situation, where both sides, for their own internal political dynamics, are not interested in mutual recognition. Past experience shows that it is possible to reach understandings of the kind in question through mediators and without direct contact between the sides, while bypassing the question and appearance of mutual recognition.

Another idea raised recently is not to reach understandings about a ceasefire, rather to generate a ceasefire per se by Israel's stopping its military operations in Gaza. The assumption is that given Hamas’ basic interest in a ceasefire, it too will stop its operations. This idea has a number of shortcomings. First, in such a situation it is likely that Hamas itself will stop its activities, but it is doubtful whether it will enforce this among the other organizations. The result is that low intensity firing will continue, creating a situation that while best for Hamas is of questionable value for Israel. Second, such a ceasefire is more fragile as the rules of the game are not clear, and ultimately such a ceasefire cannot be used to reinforce the border guard along the Egyptian border. The only advantage it seemingly offers is that the relative calm is achieved without dialogue – even indirect – with Hamas, and could not be construed as recognition of Hamas.

Conclusion

Israel and Hamas could reach understandings on a ceasefire with the mediating efforts of third parties if it includes conditions that satisfy the basic needs of both sides, and it is worthwhile examining this possibility. However, one must realize that any ceasefire, if it is not used to forge a different political reality, will not endure. A decision to consider seriously the possibility of achieving a ceasefire with Hamas must be complemented by a thorough examination of Israel’s political strategy. This means questioning whether the current strategy can be implemented, and whether a ceasefire is an opportunity to start a process of dialogue with Hamas designed to bring about a change in Hamas’ positions, which will bring it closer to the Palestinian consensus regarding a two state solution.

Such a process will require deliberation of other questions. A major issue is whether it is possible to carry out the process without the creation of a Palestinian national dialogue between Fatah and Hamas, as Israel cannot engage in a dialogue with Hamas without its partners in Fatah. Other issues are how to calibrate the sanctions against Hamas to allow rewards for partial and gradual changes in positions, and how to allow for the inclusion of the concept of the hudna – a long term ceasefire – in this process.

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