The Israeli-Hamas War–An Interim Assessment


Israel is now at a crossroads in its war with Hamas. If there is no cease-fire by the time that the IDF finishes demolishing the tunnels that it has found leading into Israel (expected to take about five more days unless new tunnels are found), the government will have to take one of three decisions. None is appealing to the eight member defence cabinet that has been charged with running the war.


However, pressure is building for the government to make a decision soon. A very senior military officer on Tuesday openly demanded that the government, within the next few hours, provide the IDF with clear orders on what to do next.


As the Israelis view things, the first option would be to remain in place and hope that a cease-fire can be negotiated soon. This, however, would leave the soldiers vulnerable to incessant, hit-and-run sniper and rocket propelled grenade fire. It is openly opposed by the military.


Alternatively, Israel could declare victory and withdraw back behind the border. However, the Israelis fear that Hamas would then be provided with a critical propaganda victory because it could then claim that the withdrawal was the product of Hamas’s violent resistance. This might then lead to a rise in stature for Hamas in the West Bank and an undermining of the rule of moderate Mahmoud Abbas.


The only other choice would be an increased push into Gaza, which might not only lead to the deaths of many more Israeli soldiers but also to a loss in international tolerance for Israel’s operations as the number of deaths of Gaza civilians also grows. Furthermore, any significant new ground action would involve house-to-house and inside-tunnel fighting. The Israelis have so far found that every second house has been booby trapped, and they now estimate that there are 1000 kilometers of tunnels running under the 360 square kilometers that constitute the Gaza Strip. For that reason, they now reckon that it might take as long as a year and a half of continuous warfare to finally subdue Gaza and crush Hamas.


The Israeli Defence Cabinet decided on Wednesdy not to decide which option to adopt, arguing that the situation is still too fluid. It did authorize the army to make minor advances on the ground, to significantly increase the level of air and artillery bombardment, and to mobilize another 16,000 army reservists (bringing the total number of reservists who have been called up for service to 86,000.



The process that led to the fighting was totally unplanned by either side. As too often happens in the Middle East, one event led to another until neither side felt that it could stop the escalation.


The drama began with the breakdown in the peace talks. That led the PA to attempt a reconciliation deal with Hamas. Such a deal would have enabled PA President Mahmoud Abbas to launch his latest campaign for international recognition at the UN and elsewhere by being able to claim that he had become the leader of both the West Bank and Gaza.


Hamas saw the unity deal as an opportunity to escape from its bankruptcy and its political isolation. The leaders of Hamas lost Iranian financial and military aid after they had reluctantly sided with the Sunni rebels in Syria. Then, later, they lost their primary source of political and diplomatic support when the Moslem Brotherhood’s rule of Egypt was overthrown. The Brotherhood had not only allowed Hamas to import vast quantities of arms via the Sinai, it had also supported the Gaza economy by, among other things, supplying subsidized fuel.


The final and most recent blow to Hamas was the halt in the flow of financial aid from the Gulf States. First, Palestinian banks, fearful of international sanctions for having assisted a certified “terrorist” organization, this year began to refuse to transfer funds from Qatar to Hamas in Gaza. And, following the coup in Egypt, couriers could no longer bring cash to the Strip via the Sinai because Egypt had closed the tunnels leading to Gaza and had sealed the only land crossing at Rafah to everyone except special humanitarian cases. Egypt announced this week that, all told, it had found and destroyed 1643 tunnels—including 13 found in recent days.


Once the Egyptian border closure was in place, Hamas also lost one of its primary sources of income because it could no longer levy taxes on goods brought in through the tunnels.


Hamas tried to extricate itself from the fix it was in by signing the reconciliation agreement with the Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. However, PA President Mahmoud Abbas then refused to pay the salaries of the 40,000 civil servants, including 17,000 members of the various security forces in Gaza, who had been put on the public payroll by Hamas after its bloody takeover of the Strip in 2007.


Just as the tension between the PA and Hamas was rising, a group of Hamas fighters based in the Hebron region of the West Bank kidnapped and killed three Israeli teenagers. The killers have still not been caught.


Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had viewed the Hamas-PA reconciliation as an attempt by Hamas not only to gain funding, but also to rebuild and strengthen its voter base in the West Bank in the run-up to elections scheduled for January. He therefore used the opportunity provided by the search for the missing teenagers to also try to break the organizational back of Hamas in the West Bank. Among other things, he ordered that Hamas supporters, who had been released under the deal to free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas imprisonment, be rearrested. Three battalions of soldiers were assigned to the search for the kidnapped boys and 7 battalions to the Hamas project.


Hamas responded by allowing some of the small jihadist groups in Gaza to lob rockets into Israel. However, Hamas soon joined in the shelling.


Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, and Chief of Staff Benny Ganz were very reluctant to get sucked into a huge firefight. Nonetheless, after the number of daily rocketings passed the 25 mark, the Israeli government decided to bomb targets in Gaza. Its decision, though, did not include specific orders to the military on what it should do. The government’s official announcement was worded in the most general terms possible. It only declared that Israel would “trade quiet for quiet” and the primary military aim would be to weaken Hamas.


Nonetheless, after a group of Hamas commandos emerged from a tunnel dug from Gaza into Israel and tried to carry out an attack, and after Hamas had twice rejected a cease-fire proposal, the government decided to send in ground troops to destroy the other tunnels that had been dug from Gaza to Israel.


Significantly, destroying the tunnels was the first and only clear military aim that the government set since the fighting began. It has yet to delineate any political objectives that the army can use in planning its activities, and the troops were sent into battle without an exit strategy having been agreed to in advance.


Netanyahu’s Domestic Dilemmas:


Netanyahu was reluctant to order a large-scale military campaign because of the possibility that such an operation would lead to a large number of dead Israeli soldiers, and because, if he set a major goal for the military that it could not achieve, his political enemies would pounce on him the moment the fighting ended.


However, his two main competitors for voters from the extreme neo-nationalist camp, Foreign Minister Yvette Liberman and Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, and one of his greatest nemeses in the Likud, Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon, did the unprecedented thing of criticizing the prime minister’s decisions in public while the fighting was going on. Danon was fired from his job, but Netanyahu could not fire the other two because they are the heads of leading coalition parties, and their departure from the cabinet would bring down the government. Polls currently show that 70 percent of the public approves of Netanyahu’s restrained and cautious approach to the fighting. However, more than eighty percent also agree with the hardliners that Israel should finally launch a major offensive to conquer the Gaza Strip and crush Hamas. Both numbers are even higher among Likud voters.


Hamas’s Objectives:


Hamas’s political doctrine is based on “muqawama,” or permanent resistance to Israel. So long as resistance continues, it can always claim victory. Any other benefit that emerges from the fighting, whether it was the temporary shutdown of international flights to Ben Gurion Airport or ongoing media depictions of rubble and wailing women that lead to anti-Israeli feelings outside the region, is icing on the cake.


To date, despite the bombing and Israel’s incursions, Hamas’s leadership structures have remained intact, as have its primary command and control bunkers. According to Israeli figures, fewer than a thousand out of an estimated 20,000 armed fighters, have been killed. Hamas also knows that the tunnels Israel is blowing up can be reconstructed; and the supply of rockets rebuilt because, now that Egypt is destroying the tunnels leading from Gaza into the Sinai, there are more experienced tunnel-diggers than can be employed; and aluminum irrigation pipes, whose renewed import will certainly be allowed once a cease-fire is agreed to, make excellent rocket casings.


Not only that, Hamas’s leadership remains convinced that it can outlast Israel because, it believes, Israelis are too sensitive to their soldiers’ deaths. It is also confident that the international community, horrified at the sight of wounded and dead civilians, will prevent Israel from lunching an attempt to retake Gaza in its entirety.


Therefore, Hamas is demanding the fruits of victory, especially the reopening of the border crossing to Egypt and a renewed flow of funding from Qatar and other sources.


Despite all the damage caused by Israel, there are no signs that a popular revolt against Hamas’s rule is imminent. Conversations that many Israelis have had with ordinary Gazans indicate that the Gazans fear summary Hamas executions, are simply too exhausted to try to unseat Hamas, and do not see el Fatah as an alternative. They also insistently remind Israelis who suggest that the el-Fatah-run Palestinian Authority should once again take over the running of Gaza that they had voted against el Fatah and brought Hamas to power in the first place because of el Fatah’s endemic corruption.


The Abbas Factor:


Netanyahu’s relations with PA President Mahmoud Abbas were at their nadir when the crisis began. However, as soon as the fighting began, Abbas openly criticized Hamas, in Arabic and before a meeting of the Arab League, for having started the fighting.


Abbas has long opposed violent resistance to Israel. However another major factor leading to his decision to level such open criticism of Hamas may have been that the publicity being given to Hamas’s actions, and Europe’s condemnation of Hamas’s shelling, were forcing him to postpone his strategic push to have the PA accepted in all international fora.


His open opposition did have one immediate effect. It led many Israelis to suggest that he had thus proven himself to be a true partner in the peace process, and therefore the process should be renewed once the fighting ends.


However, Abbas later felt obliged to react to the mood of the street in the West Bank, which supports Hamas. Therefore, the moment that widespread protests broke out in West Bank towns and cities, he reversed his position. He has now come out in support of all of Hamas’s demands, and he led the appeal to the UN Human Rights Council to set up a commission to investigate Israel for war crimes.


Despite these actions, Netanyahu appears to have come to the conclusion that he cannot arrange a cease-fire without Abbas.


He therefore hopes that, after the fighting ends, the PA will be given a far bigger role in the management of affairs in Gaza. In particular, he supports Egypt’s demands that, henceforth, PA security officials guard and monitor the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing into Sinai (which would bring PA policemen back into Gaza for the first time since the Hamas coup there).


Moreover, he is demanding that any money for the rehabilitation of Gaza be funneled through the PA and not Hamas. His close aides now say that he may even approve the establishment of a joint PA-Hamas delegation to the cease-fire talks in Cairo in order to halt American efforts to bring in Turkey and Qatar to act as mediators.


US-Israeli Strains:


Israeli-American relations are now extremely strained. Netanyahu, like Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President el-Sisi took great umbrage at the fact that, when the US met with representatives of the EU last week to plan what to do next to further a cease-fire, they invited Hamas’s supporters (Qatar and Turkey) to the parlay, but not the other three participants in the cease-fire negotiations.


Israel subsequently also rejected, out of hand, a cease-fire proposal, drafted by Turkey and presented by Secretary of State Kerry. The “non-paper” detailed many of the benefits that would accrue to Hamas when the fighting stopped, but failed to mention any of Israel’s concerns.


Israel’s primary concern at the moment is that any cease-fire proposal should provide a mechanism for preventing Hamas’s rearmament, and that the import into Gaza of any so-called “dual use” goods that can be employed both for housing reconstruction and tunnel construction (such as cement and reinforcing steel) be carefully monitored.


In addition, the White House, the State Department and Netanyahu’s office have all issued totally contradictory accounts of telephone conversations between the American and Israeli leaders.


The Outsiders Made Insiders:


Turkey and Qatar are not normally on speaking terms with either Egypt or Israel. However, the US, despite Israeli and Egyptian anger at it having done so, felt obliged to bring them into the process because they are the only two countries still willing to talk directly to Hamas; and the US feared that they could also act as spoilers.


Certainly Qatari money will be needed to help reconstruct Gaza.


However, the Israelis suspect that the fact that Qatar has just signed an 11 billion dollar arms deal with the US and is determined to be a party to the process in order to heighten its national prestige, may also have affected Washington’s decision.


The Israelis have taken particular note of the fact that, in the past couple of days, Turkish President Erdogan has toned down his otherwise constant, virulent attacks on Israel; and on Wednesday they revealed that a Turkish official had been visiting Israel in the past few days.


The European Connection:


The EU’s leaders are in a peculiar position. They have formally and clearly condemned Hamas for beginning the carnage. However, they are also acutely sensitive to domestic problems that have arisen, such as the growing number of pro-Palestinian demonstrations and riots in Europe, as well as the upswell in popular anger at Israel for having killed so many civilians. This is now leading some of them to demand that Israel unilaterally cease fire.


Egypt as an Ally:


Israel’s relations with Egypt have tightened since the fighting began. Israeli officials now talk openly about their country being part of a de facto alliance that includes Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in opposition to Hamas, ISIS and al Qaeda.


Netanyahu views Egypt as the only country capable of mediating a cease-fire; and he has thrown all his weight behind Egypt’s proposal for an immediate cease-fire, (which would only then be followed by diplomatic talks).


The problem that has arisen is that Hamas knows that el-Sisi despises Hamas and treats it as the beloved son of the Moslem Brotherhood that he is trying to destroy. As well, his relations with Washington are near absolute zero. Washington has still not accepted el-Sisi’s overthrow of the elected Moslem Brotherhood. More importantly to el-Sisi, Obama has still not authorized the shipment of Apache helicopters and night vision equipment, which Egypt needs in its battle with Sinai Bedouin al Qaeda supporters, but whose delivery was cancelled after the el-Sisi coup.


One major problem with Egypt acting as a mediator is that el-Sisi has his own interests at stake in the cease-fire talks.


Nonetheless, in Israel’s view, Egypt holds the most important bargaining cards. It is clear that there can be no cease-fire without an Egyptian agreement to open the Rafah border crossing.


The biggest problem that both Israel and the US face because Egypt has such a prominent position in the negotiations is that, while they both are seeking an urgent cease-fire, el-Sisi has quite obviously chosen, as a negotiating tactic, to try to outwait Hamas. No Egyptian troops are involved in the fighting, and so he, personally has nothing to lose by any delay in reaching a cease-fire agreement. Moreover, just by doing nothing, he believes that he has made himself into the man everyone must go to and treat with honor.


Officially, he has so far refused to offer any concessions before a cease-fire is declared. Hamas fears that, if Egypt’s proposal is accepted, el-Sisi will then be in a position to refuse any or all of Hamas’s demands after the fighting stops. It is therefore demanding that Egypt agree to a whole set of concessions before a cease-fire is declared.




At the moment the negotiations to arrange a cease-fire are stalled.


As I keep repeating over and over again, anyone’s capacity to understand and to cope with political events in the Middle East is directly proportional to his or her understanding of the political culture that has evolved there.


In the past, even if it didn’t understand what was motivating Middle Eastern actors to behave as they do, the United States, because of its overwhelming economic and military power was able to enforce its norms for dispute resolution on Middle Eastern nations. Israel, for example, because of its dependency on and need for friendship with the United States invariably accepted and acted in accordance with those norms—even if it didn’t like them.


However, America’s capacity for influence in the region has waned in recent years. As a result, the use of traditional Arab political norms for dealing with both domestic and inter-state tensions has grown. The Gaza crisis has now highlighted the fact that both Israel and the United States appear to have been totally unprepared for this development.


Unlike the US and Israel, as a result of his years as one of Egypt’s senior military officers in Bedouin Sinai and his subsequent service as the head of military intelligence, Egyptian President el-Sisi, appears to have become a master in the use of and management of Arab political culture. Not only that, as his decisions to force the Moslem Brotherhood underground and to raise the price of fuel in Egypt show, he appears to be a brave, nationalist, rationalist who is determined to reverse Egypt’s decline into failing state status.


Complicating matters further, he also carries big time grudges against the Brotherhood, its Hamas offshoot, Turkey, Qatar and the US…grudges which he takes no effort to hide.


For all these reasons, it is he, not John Kerry, who has now taken control of the diplomatic effort to resolve the situation in Gaza. And he is using techniques and approaches that are totally foreign to both the US and Israel.


He began to use his insights and to exert control over Hamas the moment that the fighting between Israel and Hamas broke out. Israel’s propaganda machine may have been putting out a series of claims that the IDF had weakened Hamas severely, but el-Sisi knew better than to believe that bunk.


He understood that Hamas and the people in Gaza were using different criteria to judge whether Hamas was succeeding or failing in its conflict with Israel. If he needed to, all he had to do in order to figure out what those criteria were…and even more importantly what the implications of those criteria were when viewed through the prism of Arab political culture…was to peruse the social media postings by Hamas and individuals in Gaza over time.


The conclusions he has apparently come to have left the Israelis and the US dumbstruck. In particular, he appears to have decided that while Israel and the Western countries feel pressed to get an early cessation of the violence in order to prevent the further deaths of civilians and Israeli soldiers, he can wait—seemingly indefinitely.


Certainly, while the Israelis count the number of bombs dropped and the number of buildings destroyed, and the US public wails about the number of Palestinian civilian lives lost, el-Sisi appears to have come to the conclusion that these issues are of little or no concern to Hamas’s leadership.


So, when John Kerry first appeared on the scene and it appeared that he was again about to make one mistake after another, el-Sisi initially tried cool Kerry down and head off a confrontation by three times telling Kerry not to come to Cairo. Nonetheless, Kerry carried on, oblivious to what he was doing.


Now, because of Kerry’s and Obamas actions, the attempts to arrange a cease fire between Israel and Hamas have become unimaginably complicated. Apparently on orders from his boss to avoid American unilateralism and make the cease-fire an international project Kerry has included dozens of states in the negotiating process. Egypt then sought support from another batch of countries. As a result, at least twelve different parties, some of them multi-state groupings, are now involved in the project—Israel, Hamas, Egypt, The Palestinian Authority, the US, The EU, the UN, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and the international media.


What makes things worse is that each has its own interests and stakes in the matter. It would take volumes to explain all the competing concerns. However, in brief, the current situation is as follows:


Egypt continues to demand that a cease-fire be agreed to before any other negotiations take place. Hamas has responded that it will no cease fire until Israel withdraws from Gaza. Israel has announced that it will not withdraw from Gaza until it has finished destroying the tunnels leading into Israel.


The most important signal that real negotiations are underway will come when and if the PA (including a Hamas component in its delegation) and Israel both end up finally sending official delegations to Cairo.






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