As the Gaza war drags on and the terrible civilian death toll keeps rising, it’s necessary to look to the past to find a way to stop the killing. It’s particularly vital to revisit the moment in 2005 when Israel made a strategic error by unilaterally withdrawing from the Gaza Strip.
I wrote then that Israel should have negotiated its withdrawal with the moderate Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, and let him take the credit. The failure to do so undercut Abbas: Hamas claimed that violence, not negotiations, forced Israel to exit.
In 2006, Gazans voted Hamas into power, less for its ideology than out of frustration at the failure of Abbas’ Fatah movement to deliver. In 2007, Hamas seized full control of the strip and kicked Fatah out.
I raise this history not to prove that I was prescient, but because Israel has a chance to rectify the error. Strengthening Abbas now offers the best hope for ending the wrenching cycle of Gaza wars.
In the current battle, Hamas is trying to boost its sagging popularity in Gaza by standing up to Israel. (Never mind that hundreds of Gazans are being killed as Israel responds to Hamas’ rocket attacks.) The group’s leaders rejected a cease-fire proposal by Egypt because it didn’t require Israel to lift its economic blockade of Gaza. Hamas needs that sweetener to convince Gazans that their suffering hasn’t been in vain.
Israeli officials, meantime, are wary of ending their war before destroying Hamas’ tunnel network and rocket supplies. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he wants to bring about a “demilitarization of Gaza” — a position echoed last week by President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken.
But Israel can’t destroy Hamas or its arsenal without reoccupying Gaza and being sucked into an endless guerrilla war that would cause major casualties on both sides. As Palestinian children die in homes and shelters, Israeli soldiers fall, and Hamas rockets threaten Ben Gurion Airport, the costs of this war are already too high.
Yet both sides remain locked in a bloody stalemate, and prospects for a durable cease-fire look slim. “There is no party to date that is willing or even able to bring a cease-fire soon,” said the Carnegie Endowment’s Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian ambassador to Israel and the United States. No superpower or regional player has enough clout with Israel and Hamas to end things swiftly. (Secretary of State John Kerry has found a sour welcome in Jerusalem and Cairo.)
If a cease-fire finally does come into effect, Muasher added, “It is not going to solve much.”
There is one possible scenario, however, that could undermine Hamas’ control of Gaza, although it is a long shot. It would require Israel to belatedly strengthen Abbas’ hand.
Specifically, Israel would need to reverse its previous opposition to the unity government formed in April by Fatah and its rival Hamas according to terms set by Abbas. This “consensus government,” which contained no Hamas ministers, reflected Hamas’ increasing weakness. Egypt’s new military leaders had crushed Hamas’ Muslim Brotherhood sponsors in Cairo, and the group had angered its patron Iran by backing Sunni rebels in Syria.
Credible polls last month showed that large majorities in Gaza are unhappy with Hamas: An astonishing 88 percent of respondents agreed that the Palestinian Authority should take over governing the strip. And 70 percent wanted Hamas to maintain a cease-fire with Israel.
The unity pact would have given Abbas’ PA — dominated by the mainstream Fatah movement, which recognizes the state of Israel — a solid foothold in Gaza for the first time since 2007. Yet Israel strongly opposed the unity government, and Washington was wary. However, the idea still offers the best chance to undercut Hamas by political means.
This concept has gained surprising support among top Israeli security experts, including retired Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief who now heads the Institute for National Security Studies, a top Israeli think tank. “This is the way to bring back Abu Mazen (Abbas) and the PA to Gaza,” he told me by phone from Tel Aviv. “In the long run, this is the way to make Gaza a different place.”
Yadlin’s best-case scenario would go as follows: A unity government under Abbas would take over administration of Gaza from Hamas as part of a cease-fire agreement. Abbas would be bolstered by Israel’s lifting of the economic siege on Gaza (except for materiel that might help terrorist groups). If the Gaza Strip’s economy rebounded and long-delayed salaries were paid to government workers there, Abbas’ popularity would soar.
Fatah’s security forces, which help Israel maintain security on the West Bank, would police the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, which would be reopened. At some point, new Palestinian elections would be held, with the hope that Hamas would be defeated due to the suffering it caused.
Of course, this scenario may never see daylight. Israel still strongly opposes a unity government, and Hamas may no longer accept it. If the killing in Gaza continues, Abbas’ reputation will suffer, especially since he is trying to broker a cease-fire.
Then there’s the matter of “demilitarizing” Gaza. Yadlin said any cease-fire accord must “guarantee” that a weakened Hamas can’t rebuild its arsenal and tunnels. “Otherwise, there will be another war in another year or two,” he predicted.
He’s correct that any accord will require better protection of Gaza’s borders from tunnels and weapon smuggling. But there’s no military force that can totally neutralize Hamas — not the Israelis (for reasons above) nor Fatah nor any outside actor. Hamas can’t be contained solely by military means.
So Israel faces three choices: It can reoccupy Gaza. It can keep “mowing the grass” — the grim Israeli euphemism for periodic Gaza wars. Or it can show Gazans an alternative to Hamas that provides hope for the future and an incentive to oppose any further Hamas military adventures. That would require strengthening the hand of Abbas.