Once again, and not for the last time, Israeli leaders face the unsavory question of what is to be done with Gaza. As usual, none of the answers are good; most are terrible. Worse still, the dilemma comes amid the month of Ramadan, one day after the brutal killing of a Muslim teenager from East Jerusalem — allegedly by Jewish extremists — and several days after Israeli forces located the bodies of three murdered Jewish teens.
Finally, matters are further complicated by the fact that the Israel Police and the Shin Bet, at least publicly, have not arrested the suspected perpetrators in either of the still-festering cases.
The army, in response, is sending out uncharacteristically and explicitly soothing messages, on the one hand, and amassing troops on the other.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said in a phone interview that the troop build-up is defensive in nature and that “we want to deescalate the situation and restore calm.”
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz came out of a General Staff meeting and conveyed a similar message, albeit with a warning clause that violence would beget violence.
One reason for the conciliatory language — assuming it is not a trap — is that many in the defense establishment in Israel, amid calls for a large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip from some politicians, are concerned about the repercussions of such a campaign, which could bring about the Somaliazation of the area. “We are not working in an isolated scene,” former head of the IDF Operations Branch, Maj. Gen. (res) Israel Ziv, said during an Israel Project briefing for journalists.
“Today, apparently, Hamas is the less-worse scenario even in Gaza. If we try to harm them and eliminate Hamas in theory, like some voices are saying, we might find ourselves at the end of the day with the Salafists or al-Qaeda or whatever, which is not the scenario that Israel wishes to see.”
Former Mossad commander Efraim Halevy, bemoaning the timing of the discussion, just two days into the mourning period for the slain Israeli teens Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel, said in a phone interview that “the question is not whether Hamas is good or bad, but if the alternative is better or worse.”
He described the answer as unequivocal, saying that Hamas, despite all of its statements about “Israel as a repulsive being in the Middle East,” is both preferable to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and its worst foe.
Calling Hamas “the worst traitors of all” in the eyes of ISIL because of the organization’s ability to keep one foot in the Islamist camp and one in the arena of realpolitik, which has enabled several unpublished and unwritten agreements with Israel, Halevy said that Hamas, “as any IDF commander will tell you,” is an address. It is responsible for the Gaza Strip. The “new apparition in Gaza,” ISIL or its ilk, he said, will not be.
Col. (res) Shaul Shay, a former chief intelligence officer for the army’s Southern Command, confirmed that the Popular Resistance Committees, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the various Salafist organizations — the only realistic heirs to Hamas’s throne — are committed solely to jihad and not to the civilian population in Gaza.
Shay, the director of studies at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center’s Institute for Policy and Strategy, said when weighing a takeover of Gaza, which would include caring for 1.5 million Palestinians in the Strip: “That — how shall I say it — does not sound like such an attractive option.”
That leaves only two alternatives: a continuation of the ceasefire or Operation Pillar of Defense redux.
Hamas, outlawed in Egypt and largely estranged from Iran, is said to not want an escalation at this time. The tunnels into Gaza are mostly shut; the kidnapping failed to win any Palestinians their freedom from prison; and the strategic gains the organization made in the West Bank were diminished by the army’s recent arrests. But, as so often occurs in this bloodthirsty corner of the world, the organization was aided in its hour of need by the murderers of the teen Muhammad Abu Khdeir, abducted — allegedly by Jewish extremists — on his way to prayer in his East Jerusalem neighborhood.
The subsequent unrest in East Jerusalem may simmer down, as has happened after numerous flare-ups over the past several years. But an operation in Gaza, with the inevitable scenes of Palestinian dead, could — in the wake of a failed peace process and amid an already tense month of Ramadan — spread to the West Bank. Such a development would rattle PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s hold on power and pave the path for a Hamas takeover. It is the most fervent of the organization’s desires, and, therefore, should be carefully examined by those with the most to lose: Israel, Abbas, and King Abdullah of Jordan, which already has Islamists at its northeastern gate and would, quite simply, face existential peril were it to meet a similar threat along its western frontier.