Why is the battle of Gaza difficult to stop?
Israel's ground offensive seeks to impose calm militarily. But Hamas, in declining Egypt's ceasefire initiative, wants to use the conflict as a bargaining chip, while gaining popularity over Fatah
Hicham Mourad , Sunday 27 Jul 2014
By taking the decision to launch a ground offensive against the Gaza Strip, Israel chose military escalation. The decision came as a result of the refusal of Hamas, which has controled the Strip since 2007, to accept the Egyptian initiative for a ceasefire. This rejection gave Tel Aviv the pretext and political cover to carry out its aggression against Gaza, with has caused hundreds of deaths and thousands of wounded among the Palestinians.
The Islamist masters of Gaza rejected the Egyptian proposal for a cessation of hostilities because they wanted more. Hamas is no longer satisfied with a simple ceasefire, but also wants an end to the hermetic blockade imposed by Israel since 2007 and the opening of the Egyptian Rafah border crossing. This blockade has turned the Gaza Strip, which contains some 1.7 million Palestinians, into a kind of large open-air prison and has increased the misery of the population.
Israel seized the opportunity to weaken Hamas militarily, seeking to eliminate the threat of rockets launched by the latter on southern and central Israel. The government of Binyamin Netanyahu initially hesitated to launch a ground operation for fear of further tarnishing its image on the international scene, since the attack would inevitably cause significant casualties among Palestinian civilians, notably children and women, which is the case today. Netanyahu also feared casualties in the ranks of his army, inherent to any ground attack against densely populated urban areas, which could turn Israeli public opinion against the government in the case of a protracted invasion.
By its offensive, Israel seeks first to destroy the network of underground tunnels built in the border area between the Gaza Strip and Israel. These interconnected tunnels allow Hamas to move rocket launchers and to conduct military operations inside Israel. The ultimate goal of Tel Aviv is to be able to impose a relatively long period of calm through militarily weakening Hamas. The latter has developed over the years an increasing strike force through rockets with continuously extending ranges. Although these rockets have poor precision, they cause enough panic and disturbance to the Israeli population, particularly in the South, that the Israeli government feels humiliated by not being able to stop them.
However, the recent experience of Israel's ground assaults against the Gaza Strip suggest caution in the assessment of the results of the present one. Hamas has always withstood aggressive Israeli invasions and managed, with varying success, to maintain its popularity. The last major Israeli military invasion of the enclave, in January 2009, resulted in the reduction of military capabilities of the Islamic Resistance Movement. But it has since recovered its strength and developed a more sophisticated military force with the local manufacture of thousands of rockets and a system of underground tunnels and bunkers. The current attack is likely to achieve the same result: a temporary military weakening of Hamas.
A workaround that addresses the symptoms of the problem but ignores its roots — the absence of a genuine peace process that gives the Palestinians hope that they could one day achieve a lasting peace — is unlikely to last.
The Hamas strategy
While the Netanyahu government seeks, through its offensive, a temporary calm, greater or lesser in duration, Hamas, by its defiance and refusal of the ceasefire proposed by Cairo, tries to break the status quo and come out ahead of the asymmetric confrontation with Israel. The position of Hamas is explained by its political and financial difficulties and diplomatic isolation in the region for over a year.
Policy choices made in recent years by the Islamist movement in Gaza proved catastrophic. The internal developments in Arab countries that have witnessed uprisings since 2011 are indeed largely responsible for the current poor posture of Hamas, notably the loss of support of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mother organisation in Egypt now declared a terrorist organisation by Cairo.
But the backing of Hamas for the armed rebellion in Syria has put an end to the multifaceted support brought by the regime of Bashar Al-Assad and its strategic ally, Iran, to the Islamist masters of Gaza Strip. What remains is the support of Qatar and Turkey. Both are struggling in the region, especially after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In addition to the tension with post-Brotherhood Egypt, Qatar is ostracised by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which have recently recalled their ambassadors in Doha, in protest against its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its foreign policy, accused of interferring in the internal affairs of its neighbours.
Turkey, for its part, pays for its regional stature the price of a policy and rhetoric hostile to the changes that occurred in Egypt in July 2013, and in the face of a regional coalition led by Cairo and Riyadh. To get out of its diplomatic isolation, and financial and political difficulties, Hamas concluded last April a national reconciliation agreement with its enemy brother, President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the Palestinian Authority (PA). The agreement resulted in the formation in June of a national unity government composed of technocrats and excluding members of Hamas.
For the latter, the deal was a way to recover its role in the regional game and, especially, benefit from US and European financial assistance received by the PA in order to compensate the loss of vital aid from Iran. But the Islamist movement has been disappointed by the refusal of Abbas to pay the salaries of some 50,000 civil servants belonging to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It deduced that the reconciliation agreement will not last and that it has to find another strategy.
Hamas has found it in military confrontation with Israel, on the occasion of the tragic incidents that have occurred recently. Thus, the Israeli aggression against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip pushed Hamas to exploit the situation. For Hamas, the military escalation allows it to appear in the eyes of the Palestinians as the champion of resistance to Israel, as opposed to a PA that, preaching peace negotiations, never got anything. Hamas knows that the increase in the number of Palestinian casualties and the extension of Israeli aggression, possibly encouraged by the continued firing of rockets, will provoke a wave of international solidarity with the Palestinians, including Western and Arab pressure on Israel to reach a truce, the terms of which may be better than those of the truce of November 2012, the last agreement with Tel Aviv.
On the other hand, Hamas has managed to increase the range of its rockets. Its last shots hit areas that have never been touched before in the south and centre of Israel, including the suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Although these rockets are imprecise and have not so far caused serious damage, their negative psychological effect is important on the Israeli population, that feels the danger of Hamas increase and approach areas never reached before.
Conversely, the impact of firing rockets and the increase in their range is positively perceived by the Palestinians, who hope to impose greater losses on Israelis in the future, seeing an increase in their ability to resist the Israeli occupation. These results, if confirmed, will raise the popularity of Hamas among Palestinians at the expense of its Fatah rivals that dominate the PA. This newfound popularity will be very welcome when organising parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled within six months, according to the Palestinian reconciliation agreement.