AP Analysis: The third major round of Israel-Hamas fighting highlights a strategic stalemate
If the Israel-Hamas fighting feels like a rerun, that’s because it is.
This is the third round of Hamas rockets and Israel airstrikes since the Islamic militant group seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. And issues each time seem much the same: How can Hamas be compelled to stop firing rockets? Does Israel really have the will to reconquer a Hamas-ruled Gaza and oust the militants? Can the world tolerate Israel reacting with far deadlier force than the rockets themselves, as evidenced in the hugely lopsided casualty count that each time appears anew?
This round of violence came after peace talks collapsed, Israel tried to scuttle a Palestinian unity government and violence ratcheted up. With the Gazans now suffering more, one might expect internal pressure on Hamas to end the rocket fire, which would likely bring the airstrikes to a stop. But in a region where honor is key, and with the two sides not talking, outside mediation is badly needed for a mutually face-saving cease-fire.
In a strategic stalemate where neither side seems able to accept or defeat the other, here are some key issues at play:
FOR ISRAEL, IT’S ALL ABOUT THE ROCKETS
The Israeli point of view is that Hamas has grown accustomed to firing rockets and no country would tolerate such attacks. Doing nothing is not an option, and pounding Hamas hard enough seems to eventually win some quiet. It views civilian deaths in airstrikes as regrettable but blames Hamas for locating launchers and weapons at civilian sites. Israel’s makes efforts to minimize “collateral damage,” like warning calls to residents and preceding big attacks on buildings with smaller bombs, a practice dubbed “roof-knocking.” Beyond this, Israelis see Hamas as a ruthless mortal enemy that cannot be accommodated and, due to its radical Islamic tenets, can barely be reasoned with.
PALESTINIANS ARE ANGRY AND FRUSTRATED
Palestinians cast a wider net. For them the very situation in Gaza is unacceptable: since the Hamas takeover Israel has blockaded it by land from the north and the east, and by sea from the west, preventing air travel as well. Egypt completes the siege by keeping a tight leash on its border with Gaza to the south. The strip’s 1.7 million people are crammed into low-rise shanty towns in a territory no more than 20 miles (35 kilometers) long and just a few miles (kilometers) wide. And even though Israel pulled out all soldiers and settlers in 2005, claiming this ended its occupation, Gazans depend on the Jewish state for electricity, water, communication networks and even the currency.
For many Palestinians, even those who do not support Hamas, non-conventional means like rocket fire against their perceived tormentors are an acceptable response. At least, some reason, the world will take notice. Some 20 years of peace talks failed to yield an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza, and with the collapse two months ago of the latest round led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, some fear the occupation of the West Bank may be permanent. Coupled with the dire situation in Gaza, the other part of the would-be Palestinian state, it is a situation that breeds despondency and despair.
RARE CONSENSUS FOR NETANYAHU
Israel is a society so divided that normally it’s hard to describe the Israeli point of view — but not so when it comes to Hamas and its rockets. That’s a rare opportunity for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Many Israelis dislike his policies toward the Palestinians in general, and some truly abhor the Jewish settlement of the West Bank which Netanyahu continues to promote. But the vast majority of Israelis distrust and despise Hamas — perpetrators of countless suicide bombings targeting civilians and plainly aimed, over the years, at derailing peace efforts by more moderate Palestinians. For Netanyahu, each round with Hamas offers him a genuine popularity that’s otherwise elusive.
HAMAS HAS FEW ALLIES
Arab politicians will heap condemnation on Israel but few genuinely shed tears for Hamas. The Palestinian group is the local chapter of a wider political Islam that in the wake of the Arab Spring is under siege in much of the region, firstly in Egypt but also in much of the Gulf and beyond. Even one-time ally Iran has backed away, funding sources have dried up, and the West largely views it as a terrorist group. The Palestinian Authority recently set up a joint government with Hamas, but its animosity with the secular Fatah group of President Mahmoud Abbas runs deep. Hamas also has not accepted the conditions set by the world community to become a legitimate player: recognize Israel, abide by past agreements and renounce violence.
In the battle for global public opinion, Israel may be a victim of its own success in preventing domestic casualties. Its Iron Dome missile defense system has shot down incoming Hamas rockets, leaving many in Tel Aviv with the conflicting sensation of fear and the desire to post videos of the interceptions online. No Israelis have been killed in the past week, while more than 160 Gazans have died, many of them civilians. Similar ratios were posted during the last round, in late 2012, and also during the largest mini-war, that began in late December 2008. That buys Netanyahu time with domestic opinion — but international pressure can soon be expected for Israel to find a way to stop. And in the end Hamas may get renewed relevance and even some of its prisoners released. After all, part of its motivation currently is gaining the release of supporters who were recently rearrested in a West Bank sweep that followed the kidnap-killing of three Israeli youths that Hamas did not claim but was blamed on the group.
Many believe Hamas is therefore not entirely averse to provoking Israel into its attacks. Public opinion matters somewhat less in the strip, which is hardly a democracy, than in Israel. And it is hard to see a scenario in which the populace rises up and topples the militants: Gaza is small enough to control and the alternatives have essentially been stamped out.
ISRAEL PREFERS TO RULE THE SKIES
Israel could probably change the game quickly by invading Gaza and rooting out its Hamas rulers, and Sunday already saw a small version of it with a first land skirmish inside the strip. But a true invasion would probably be a bloody affair and Israel has little stomach for great numbers of casualties. If it does go that route, a ground incursion likely would repeat the strategy of 2008-9, in which there was some ground fighting but the heart of Gaza City was not retaken and the Hamas leadership essentially left intact. And from the perspective of the longer term, Israel has no desire to again occupy the strip, as it did from 1967 to 2005. That leaves Israel with few attractive choices, which might explain why Hamas continues to fire the rockets: to poke Israel in the eye, and live to tell the tale.
Dan Perry has covered the Middle East since the 1990s and currently leads Associated Press’ text coverage in the region. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/perry_dan.