At some point, it might be worth internalizing what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been saying since the start of Operation Protective Edge six weeks ago: that Israel should be prepared for a long conflict.
As rocket fire on Beersheba Tuesday afternoon marked the latest in a string of Hamas truce violations, the notion that some kind of lasting arrangement was soon to emerge from the indirect negotiations in Cairo (a notion much hyped in some quarters in recent days) was again rudely shattered.
Netanyahu is not about to approve a deal that gives Hamas any remotely significant diplomatic reward for firing 3,500 rockets at Israel, building an elaborate cross-border attack tunnel network under the border, and holding the citizens of Gaza — and to an extent those of Israel as well — hostage to its elaborate war machine.
The prime minister’s problem — and Israel’s — is that Hamas is still far too strong, and that Hamas will always be far too cynical, to be deterred by Israel’s ongoing response to the attacks from Gaza, the counter-strikes that follow its rocket fire. Hamas lost dozens of its tunnels, and perhaps 1,000 of its gunmen, and pleaded for a ceasefire, apparently believing it could negotiate a diplomatic resolution more satisfactory than the military face-off had yielded.
But most of its elite fighters are still alive. It still has thousands of rockets, and is capable of manufacturing more in mid-conflict. Its local political leadership is safe and sound in the Gaza underground. Its overseas leadership is in still better shape, cosseted in Qatari luxury. And it cares not a whit about the suffering that its violent Islamist extremism is bringing down upon Gazans (a very substantial proportion of whom voted for Hamas in the relatively democratic parliamentary elections of 2006). Thus Israel’s firm negotiating posture has sent Hamas back into conflict.
As Hamas keeps telling anybody who asks, it is bent on “ending the occupation of Palestine” — i.e. ending the existence of Israel. Unfortunately, too few people are asking. Understandably appalled by the death and devastation in Gaza, much of the watching world, including its leadership, are confusing cause and effect.
Hamas is not seeking freedom for the people of Gaza when it demands the “lifting of the siege,” a seaport and an airport, and when it fires rockets because its demands are not being met. It is, rather, seeking the capacity to further its goal of wiping Israel out by getting all those irritating restrictions lifted on its capacity to build a still nastier war machine. The Israeli-Egyptian security blockade did not predate Hamas’s violent seizure of Gaza in 2007; it was imposed after the Islamists took control, and would be removed if Israel’s security was no longer threatened by Hamas and its fellow Islamist terror groups. Want to ease the suffering of ordinary Gazans and ordinary Israelis? Remove Hamas. The “siege” would instantly disappear, and there’d be no impediment to open border crossings, a seaport and an airport. Want to ensure increased suffering for ordinary Gazans and ordinary Israelis? Lift the blockade with Hamas still in control. Ongoing bloodshed would be guaranteed.
As of this writing, Netanyahu has called home his negotiators from Cairo — because Israel will not negotiate under fire — and the IDF is responding to the Hamas rocket fire with strikes on targets in Gaza. If the rocket fire continues, Israel will keep hitting back.
But only if Hamas believes its survival is in danger, its capacity to live to fight Israel another day in doubt, will it call a long-term halt to the fire — the kind of halt that would constitute the attainment of Netanyahu’s sought-after sustained calm. And that would require a far more significant military operation than the Israeli government, mindful of the likely consequent losses, has been prepared to authorize. It would also require a more astute assessment of the conflict from the international community than we have seen to date, providing more dependable support for Israel.
Israel has been seeking to attain a similar result via the indirect talks in Cairo in recent days — pushing, in quiet alliance with Egypt, for an arrangement that would give Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority an oversight role in the rehabilitation of Gaza, and leave Hamas hard-pressed to rearm and exposed as the destroyer. Unsurprisingly, as Tuesday’s resumed rocket fire underlined, Hamas is disinclined to play the part. It signed a unity government with Abbas this spring not out of partnership, but as a step toward its intended takeover of the PA. Simultaneously, as the Shin Bet revealed on Monday, it was gearing up for a series of terrorist attacks on Israeli targets, in an elaborate plot aiming to foster a third intifada and topple Abbas. It is not about to meekly defer to Abbas in Gaza.
Indeed, to the ongoing cost of Gazans and Israelis, it is not about to meekly defer to anybody. Hamas is not in the business of governing Gaza; it’s in the terrorism business, and terrorist groups are not easily deterred.
As Netanyahu said six weeks ago, Israel should be prepared for a protracted conflict. More protracted, one fears, than even Netanyahu envisaged.