The worst bout of Israel-Hamas fighting in five years began more than a week ago after Hamas launched a barrage of rockets at population centers in Israel. This provocation triggered a massive Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) aerial offensive against Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza, breaking a ceasefire between the two sides that had lasted less than two years. U.S. President Barack Obama has already offered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu his help in bringing an end to the crisis. As part of this effort, the Obama administration backed an Egyptian initiative calling for a truce followed by indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas on a long-term ceasefire. While the former accepted the initiative, Hamas responded by firing more rounds of rockets at Israeli cities. This latest retaliation may lead Israel to escalate its military operation in Gaza.
As Washington attempts to pull strings behind the scenes via regional mediators, such as those in Egypt and Qatar, to end the fighting, it should mull over its interests in the region. These interests must play an important role in dictating the terms the international community will set to bring about a ceasefire between the two antagonists. Significantly, these terms will affect not only Israel and Hamas but other regional actors as well. Understanding the relationships between and among Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and Egypt is thus a prerequisite to U.S. involvement. Fundamentally, Hamas cannot be allowed to reap a political victory from the ongoing Gaza crisis. Allowing it to do so would almost inevitably ensure future instability and bloodshed in the region.
The current violence is essentially the result of growing tensions between Hamas and its Israeli and Egyptian neighbors. While Hamas openly pursues the annihilation of the “Zionist entity,” it also collaborates with radical Islamic groups in Egypt that aim to subvert the ruling el-Sisi government. Together, Israel and Egypt have managed to put Gaza under siege and financially stifle Hamas. Cairo’s decision to close the Rafah land-crossing between Egypt and Gaza and seal off smuggling tunnels along their mutual border has economically isolated Hamas. This destitution has prevented Hamas from paying the salaries of its more than 40,000 government employees, undermining its control over Gaza. Painted into a corner, Hamas is now attempting to leverage this latest round of fighting to achieve Israeli and Egyptian concessions that would loosen the economic noose around its neck. For example, Hamas conditions a ceasefire on Egypt opening the Rafah crossing and allowing merchandise and goods to enter Gaza.
Rockets launched from Gaza against Israel can also be viewed as a response to the IDF “Brother’s Keeper” operation against Hamas targets and operatives in the West Bank, which began in the second week of June following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens by West Bank Hamas operatives. As far as Hamas is concerned, the cessation of Israeli military activities against Hamas targets in the West Bank and the release of Palestinian prisoners are conditions to clinching a deal that would stop the barrage of rockets on Israeli cities.
Hamas gambles that, as the IDF military operation advances, media reports of the suffering Palestinian population in Gaza will increase international pressure on Israel and Egypt to cede, at least partially, to its demands. Hamas should not, however, be allowed to force the hand of its regional adversaries. For the sake of a better future for the Palestinian people living both in the West Bank and Gaza, the United States and the international community must ensure that Hamas will find it impossible to present any ceasefire at the end of the crisis as a political victory.
Allowing Hamas to score political points only a few months after the most recent round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority reached a dead end would adversely affect efforts to resume these talks. One of the major stumbling blocks in those negotiations was the issue of releasing Palestinian prisoners from Israeli captivity. If Hamas’ rockets can accomplish this goal through attrition, the Palestinian people may lose their incentive to pursue peaceful negotiation with Jerusalem through the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority. Conceding to Hamas demands would only encourage its use of belligerent tactics to achieve future political objectives, ultimately bringing greater suffering upon the inhabitants of Gaza with the increased likelihood of Israeli retaliation.
History suggests that allowing Hamas to present aggression and terror as efficacious tools in the struggle against Israel in fact increases its appeal amongst the Palestinian public. It does so, however, at the expense of the PLO and moderate Palestinians who are willing to negotiate a political settlement recognizing the right of Israel and a future Palestinian state to peacefully coexist. Palestinians viewed Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in the summer of 2005, for example, as a sign of Israeli weakness and proof that Hamas’ strategy of violent struggle bears fruit. A few months later, Hamas defeated the PLO in the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections. This victory provided Hamas with sufficient self-proclaimed legitimacy to carry out a military coup in Gaza the following year, ousting the PLO administration and instituting a reign of terror over the inhabitants of the strip.
A ceasefire to the ongoing violence with terms that present Hamas as the victorious party would embarrass Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority and the PLO. Abbas implicitly criticized Hamas for firing rockets at Israel and inviting retribution upon the inhabitants of Gaza, emphasizing that the Palestinian Authority and the PLO “prefer to fight [Israel] with wisdom and politics.” A political victory for Hamas in the current crisis could once again lead to an increase in the organization’s power and the weakening of the PLO in the Palestinian legislature in the general elections scheduled to take place by the end of this year. Moreover, such a victory will blow wind in the sails of radical Islamic groups in Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq, encouraging them to continue to terrorize civilians and subvert moderate regimes.
What, then, should be the terms set by the United States-led international community for a ceasefire in Gaza? Essentially, Washington should endorse Israel’s demand that Hamas destroy its rocket arsenal as a condition for lifting the economic siege on Gaza. Hamas should also be required to demolish terror tunnels linking Gaza to Israel and stop building new ones. As in the case of Syria, international inspectors should be deployed to verify that Hamas fulfills these terms. In return, Israel should gradually lift restrictions on allowing cement to enter Gaza—a building material necessary for its rehabilitation. The reopening of the Rafah crossing should be carried out under close Egyptian scrutiny to prevent Hamas from reestablishing links to radical groups operating in the Sinai Peninsula.
If Hamas insists on reaching a ceasefire on its own terms, the IDF should be allowed to escalate its operations in Gaza to bring Hamas to its knees. So far, Prime Minister Netanyahu has staved off pressure from within the ruling Likud party and other right-wing members of his coalition to order the full-scale IDF occupation of Gaza. Netanyahu is well aware of the economic costs and political burden such an effort would entail. Moreover, outright Israeli occupation could result in a high number of casualties as IDF soldiers attempt to minimize the further victimization and displacement of Gaza’s civilian population, a task complicated by Hamas operatives’ use of hospitals, mosques, and schools as shelter.
Netanyahu thus prefers to deliver a strong message to Hamas by pursuing a limited escalation—he has already instructed the IDF to enter a few kilometers deep into the Gaza Strip to eradicate terror tunnels. If Hamas still refuses to yield, Netanyahu could gradually escalate this encroachment strategy until Hamas agrees to a solution that would remove the threat of rocket attacks against Israeli cities. Washington and the international community should allow Israel to incrementally increase this military pressure on Hamas. Endorsing a deal that does not include a commitment by Hamas to dismantle its rocket arsenal, like that which ended the last round of fighting in November 2012, would be a mistake. If the lessons of the past are not heeded, a new crisis will invariably erupt in the region—sooner rather than later.