From Robert O. Freedman
The recent destruction of part of the wall separating Gaza from Egypt underscores the weakness of Israel’s current strategy toward Hamas-ruled Gaza. With rockets being fired against the Israeli town of Sderot as well as against the city of Ashkelon, Israel has yet to find a means of stopping the attacks. Essentially, Israel has three policy alternatives to deal with the rockets:
- Continuation of the current policy, which involves attacks on those firing the rockets, selected assassinations of Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives, and periodic cutting off of energy and other supplies to Gaza.
- Negotiations with Hamas to end the rocket fire.
- An all-out assault on Gaza, after proper diplomatic preparations, aimed at destroying the political and military infrastructures of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and eliminating their ability to hold Israeli cities hostage to rocket fire.
Continuation of Policy. The government of Ehud Olmert and his Defense Minister, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, has utilized a series of measures to try to stop the rocket fire. It has regularly sent in army troops to hit Hamas and Islamic Jihad forces in Gaza near the Israeli border; it has used the Israeli Air Force to hit Palestinian teams firing rockets (or about to fire rockets, or returning from firing rockets); and it has also undertaken selected assassinations of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists. While these Israeli attacks have gradually escalated, they have not yet succeeded in either stopping the attacks or deterring future attacks.
Another tactic utilized by the Olmert government has been the periodic closure of Israel’s borders with Gaza, with Israel cutting off supplies of energy and other goods. This strategy too has not met with success. Even worse, it has brought down the wrath of anti-Israeli sectors of world public opinion, as pictures of “starving” Palestinians make the headlines.
Thus continuing with the current strategy does not appear to solve Israel’s rocket problem.
Negotiations with Hamas. Some on the left of the Israeli political spectrum have advocated negotiations with Hamas to stop the rocket attacks. They advocate Israel’s agreeing to the Hamas offer of a hudna, or ceasefire. This position rests on a central assumption that once Hamas signs onto the ceasefire it will mellow, if not split into pro-peace and anti-peace factions, and thus become a long-term partner for Israel in the peace process. A benefit of this position, they argue, is that it will lead to a reunification of the West Bank, now led by Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah organization, and Gaza, now run by Hamas. This, they assert, would facilitate the establishment of an Israeli-Palestinian peace, because Israel cannot make peace with the West Bank alone.
There are several weaknesses in this argument. The most important is the assumption that a ceasefire would lead Hamas to make peace with Israel. Given its Islamic-based opposition to Israel’s existence, as noted in its charter, and in the continued calls for Israel’s destruction by the Hamas leadership both in Gaza and in Damascus, such a development would appear unlikely. In addition, Hamas would be likely to use the ceasefire to build up its stockpile of rockets, including long-range katyushas, much as Hezbollah used the period from the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon in May 2000 until the Israeli-Hezbollah war of July-August 2006 to build up its rocket arsenal. The ceasefire would also give Hamas increased diplomatic legitimacy, despite the fact that it had not renounced its stated goal of destroying Israel.
Thus the ceasefire strategy also doesn’t solve Israel’s security dilemma with Hamas.
All-Out Assault. This strategy would utilize Israel’s technological superiority to end, once and for all, the rocket firing from Gaza. After a carefully prepared diplomatic offensive in which Israel would inform the world that it will no longer tolerate rocket attacks on its citizens, Israel would give Hamas an ultimatum that unless all rocket attacks ceased, Israel would use the full range of its military might to attack Gaza. Israel would state that Gaza would be treated just as Germany was after Hitler began World War II. Israel would point out that just as U.S. and British bombers attacked German cities to weaken German military capability and prepare the way for a ground invasion, so too would Israel begin a major artillery and bombing campaign against Gazan cities to pave the way for an Israeli army attack.
Such an ultimatum would pose a strategic dilemma for Hamas, and would be much more likely to split the organization than a long-term ceasefire. If Hamas wished to avoid the destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure, the deaths of thousands of Gazans, and the uprooting of the institutions which Hamas has created in Gaza, it may choose to accept the Israeli ultimatum.
Should it not do so, and the IDF were compelled to invade Gaza, the end result could well be positive as far as the peace process is concerned. First, after the destruction of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad infrastructure, Israel would restore control of Gaza to Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah organization, thus recreating the unity between the West Bank and Gaza that was destroyed when Hamas seized power in Gaza in June 2007. This, in turn, would make the signing of a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement possible, something that cannot be done so long as Hamas controls Gaza. While Hamas would undoubtedly claim that Abbas’s Fatah organization is a group of Quislings—indeed they are already asserting this—it must be emphasized that Fatah is committed to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict while Hamas is not. Israel’s destruction of Hamas would help both Abbas and the peace process.
There are three objections to this strategy.
- First, it would involve the deaths of Israeli soldiers as well as Gazans. Yet for Israel to wait until Tel Aviv comes into the range of Hamas rocket fire is a more dangerous option, for then many unprepared Israeli civilians would be killed as opposed to trained IDF soldiers.
- A second objection is that world opinion would not tolerate such an Israeli attack. To counter this, as noted above, Israel must carefully prepare the diplomatic ground for the ultimatum, especially in the United States and Europe. Olmert could help Israel’s diplomatic position by closing the illegal West Bank settlement outposts prior to the attack on Gaza, and thereby strengthen Abbas as well as Israel’s position in the world. In any case Israel is already being heavily criticized for its limited actions in Gaza.
- Finally, it is argued, such an attack would threaten Israel’s relations with Jordan and Egypt, the two Arab countries that have made peace with Israel. In this context it should be noted that the Egyptian regime of Husni Mubarak, and the Jordanian regime of King Abdullah II detest Hamas, because it is an ideological ally of their main domestic political opposition—the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Islamic Action Front in Jordan. While these groups may lead public demonstrations against Israeli policy—much as they did during the Al-Aqsa intifadah—it is doubtful that either Mubarak or King Abdullah II will change policy as a result of the Israeli attack.
In sum, an Israeli ultimatum followed by a full-scale attack on Gaza would appear to be Israel’s best option for stopping the rocket attacks.