From Robert O. Freedman
The Israeli-Hamas ceasefire, signed on June 9, 2008, had long been a porous one. While Hamas, for the most part, until November 2008 did not fire its own rockets at Israel, it permitted other groups, such as the Iranian-supported Islamic Jihad, to do so. These limited rocket attacks, while clear violations of the ceasefire agreement, did not precipitate major Israeli responses, other than periodic limited closures of the border crossings into Gaza, through which Israel supplied food, fuel and other humanitarian aid to Gaza. Whether Israel should have allowed any humanitarian aid into Gaza in the face of the rocket fire is a very open question: Israel was in fact in a state of war with Hamas, an organization pledged to destroy it, and the rockets fired at Israel simply underlined Hamas’ long term objective by demonstrating its “resistance” to the Jewish State. Under these circumstances, a full border closure might have brought home to the people of Gaza, the majority of whom voted for Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, the costs of supporting Hamas.
In any case, fighting between Israel and Hamas intensified in November when Israel found and destroyed a tunnel between Gaza and Israel which the Israeli military thought would be used to kidnap another Israeli soldier, much as Gilad Shalit had been kidnapped in 2006. Ironically, the kidnap attempt was not aimed primarily at Israel, but at the Palestinian rival of Hamas, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority on the West Bank headed by Mahmoud Abbas. The kidnap attempt appeared timed to occur as Hamas and Fatah were jockeying for position before the start of what proved to be abortive Palestinian unity talks in Cairo. Had Hamas been successful in capturing another Israeli soldier, it would have shown that Hamas was demonstrating greater “resistance” against Israel than Fatah, which had been engaged in fruitless peace talks with Israel.
Following the Israeli attack on the tunnel, the number of rockets fired at Israel from Gaza escalated, reaching a new high after Hamas announced it would not extend the ceasefire unless Israel fully opened the border crossings and stopped arresting members of Hamas living on the West Bank—the latter demand not included in the original ceasefire agreement. When Israel refused to agree to the new Hamas demands, Hamas further escalated its firing of rockets, hoping, apparently, to force Israel to accept the new ceasefire terms in return for restoring quiet to southern Israel. Hamas may have also believed that Israel’s ruling Kadima party desperately needed a ceasefire so as to remove the issue of the rocket firing from the ongoing Israeli election campaign. It had been Kadima that had undertaken the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, and presumably it did not want to remind the Israeli electorate that the withdrawal had resulted in the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel.
If this was indeed the thinking of Hamas, it was gravely mistaken. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, as early as November, had called for strong military action against Hamas because of the rocket firing, and she also stated at the time that she was prepared to eliminate the Hamas threat against Israel once and for all. Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, of the Labor party, was taking a more dovish position, resisting the use of force. In initially opposing an attack on Gaza, Barak may have hoped to win votes from the dovish spectrum of the Israeli electorate consisting of the Meretz party and the parties that had broken away from Labor because they were dissatisfied with his leadership. On the other end of the Israeli political spectrum, the right of center Likud party, led by Binyamin Netanyahu, was attacking Barak for his judgement in unilaterally withdrawing from Lebanon in May 2000—a step which had led not to peace, as Barak had hoped, but to rocket fire into Israel from Lebanon, the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, and finally the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006 from which Israel did not emerge victorious. In addition, of course, Netanyahu berated the Kadima party for its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, which, as in the case of Lebanon, did not bring peace, but rather rocket firing into Israel in its wake.
Given these circumstances, with Netanyahu’s Likud party leading in the pre-election polls, Livni’s calls for more action against Hamas grew more difficult for Kadima’s lame-duck leader, Ehud Olmert, to resist. For his part, Barak saw his Labor party dropping precipitously in the polls, as his dovish position was not resonating among Israeli voters. The end result of the Israeli deliberations—a major air assault against Hamas bases, missile factories, and arms smuggling tunnels in Gaza—was a compromise between those who wanted a full-scale military assault on Gaza and those, most likely including Olmert, who had been badly burned politically by the 2006 war, and who continued to counsel restraint. The Israeli military action was an effort to show Hamas that not only would the Israeli political leadership not be intimidated by the Hamas rocket attacks into weakening its position on the ceasefire terms, but that Israel too could use force—considerably more force than Hamas was using—and that if Hamas had hoped to use rocket fire to get better ceasefire terms, it was badly mistaken. The military action was also a signal to Hamas that if it still wanted a truce—a very big if—then all rocket fire would have to be halted.
Prior to examining the alternatives available to Hamas after the Israeli military operation, I will now turn to an analysis of the possible repercussions of the Israeli military action in the Middle East, because this will affect how Hamas will respond.
In analyzing the possible effects of the Israeli military operation throughout the Middle East, one has to consider several different Arab and Middle Eastern states which are players in the Arab-Israeli conflict. These include: Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah organization which currently controls the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank; Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab states that have peace treaties with Israel; Syria; Iran; and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states.
• Mahmoud Abbas. With Palestinians being killed by the Israeli attacks, Abbas has no choice but to publicly condemn them, although he has also been critical of Hamas for not agreeing to extend the ceasefire. It should also be noted that many members of Abbas’ Fatah organization have bitter memories of their colleagues in Gaza being murdered by Hamas thugs—some tossed off the rooftops of multi-storied buildings in Gaza—during the Hamas seizure of power in Gaza in June 2006. Consequently, many will greet the Israeli drubbing of Hamas in Gaza with great satisfaction. While there are likely to be riots by Hamas sympathizers on the West Bank, the test of Abbas’ newly strengthened security forces will be how successful they are in containing the rioters. Since Abbas has been systematically cracking down on Hamas operatives in the West Bank since June 2007 (as has Israel) it is not clear how much strength Hamas retains in the region, and the ability of Abbas’ forces to quell the rioters will go a long way toward answering this question.
While Abbas has broken off peace talks with Israel in the name of Palestinian solidarity—he has to be concerned about a sympathy vote for Hamas in the forthcoming Palestinian Legislative Council elections (if they are held,as tentatively scheduled,in April 2009)—-nonetheless if Hamas is badly weakened politically as well as militarily in Gaza by the Israeli attacks (a very big if), then Abbas will gain politically in what has become a zero-sum-game struggle between Hamas and Fatah for leadership of the Palestinian movement.
• Egypt and Jordan. As the two countries which have signed peace treaties with Israel, both Egypt and Jordan face similar problems in responding to the Israeli military operations in Gaza.
The main opposition force, which is represented in parliament in both countries, is the Moslem Brotherhood (in Jordan it takes the name “The Islamic Action Front”), and Hamas itself is an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Thus the Palestinian issue has been used by Muslim Brotherhood organizations in both countries to accuse both Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah II of Jordan of not being tough enough against Israel.
Yet while both Mubarak and King Abdullah II must be sensitive to the public opinion in their countries, which the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to stir up against them, they are also aware that the United States, their main supplier of economic aid ($2.2 billion for Egypt and $500 million for Jordan on an annual basis), has been strongly backing Israel during the crisis. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has gone so far as to say: “The United States strongly condemns the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israel and holds Hamas responsible for breaking the ceasefire and for the renewal of violence in Gaza. The ceasefire should be restored immediately.” Consequently, assuming the Israeli military operations are concluded in a relatively short amount of time, it is doubtful whether either Egypt or Jordan would break diplomatic relations with Israel or even recall their ambassadors as they did during the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Indeed, a defeat for Hamas would politically benefit both Arab leaders.
• Syria. The first response of Syria to the Israeli attack on Gaza was to freeze the current low-level peace talks which Syria has been carrying on with Israel under the mediation of Turkey. As the home of one of the most militant branches of Hamas, led by Khalid Mash’al who has just called for a new Palestinian intifada against Israel, Syria has long championed the organization as Damascus has sought to exercise influence over the Palestinian movement. Yet the Syrians have to be careful how they behave during the crisis if they want to preserve the possibility of a peace process with Israel—and the link to improved relations with the United States which they hope to emerge from it. It should be remembered in this context that the initial post-Madrid conference talks between Israel and Syria collapsed in 1996 when Syria not only did not condemn the Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel that took place in February-March 1996, but Syrian state radio actually justified them. If Syria chooses to support Hamas during the current conflict in a major way, it may well jeopardize peace talks with the next Israeli leader, be it Livni or Netanyahu. While Syrian leader Bashar Assad may assume that neither Livni nor Netanyahu puts peace with Syria high on their priority lists, strong Syrian support for Hamas may also call into question Syria’s relations with the incoming Obama administration.
• Iran. Iran, like Syria, faces a choice in responding to the Israeli airstrikes. It could urge its ally, the Lebanese–based Hezbollah, to fire rockets into Israel in support of Hamas. Such an action might be problematic, however, for three reasons.
- There is the question as to whether Hezbollah would wish to jeopardize its rapidly improving political position in Lebanon by launching rocket attacks against Israel, since Israel has threatened to retaliate against all of Lebanon if Hezbollah launches rocket attacks, not just the southern part as it did in 2006, because Hezbollah is now part of the Lebanese government.
- Such a call by Iran might hasten an Israeli airstrike against Iran’s nuclear installations, a development which Iranian leaders, despite their bluster, have sought to avoid.
- An action of this type would make it far more difficult for Iran to have an improved relationship with the incoming Obama administration, assuming, of course, the Iranian leadership wants such a rapprochement. Consequently, Iran may limit itself to spinning the Israeli attack, much as it has done with the Israeli siege on Gaza, by claiming that the Arab world has not done enough to aid the besieged Palestinians because the leaders of the Sunni Arab world are the lackeys of the United States.
• Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. In the minds of the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Kuwait,The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman), the main threat in their region is not Israel but Iran. Consequently, if Iranian-allied Hamas suffers a military defeat at the hands of Israel, particularly in a brief conflict before the passions of the so-called “Arab street” are fully ignited, the leaders of the GCC states will not be unhappy. Indeed, for similar reasons they gave tacit support to Israel at first in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, turning against Israel only when the war was prolonged and heavy civilian casualties occurred. If the Israeli military action is relatively limited in time, it is unlikely that the Saudis and the other Gulf states will take strong diplomatic action against Israel, such as removing the Arab Peace Plan from the diplomatic negotiating table.
In looking to the aftermath of the Israeli military action, there are several possibilities and they both depend on how Hamas reacts to the Israeli attacks. First, if Hamas follows through on its threat to restart suicide bombings and continues to launch rocket attacks of Israel, then additional airstrikes against Hamas can be expected, along with additional “targeted assassinations” of Hamas leaders, and possibly a full-scale military invasion as well. If, on the other hand, the Hamas leadership decides that the airstrikes and the real threat of an Israeli ground invasion may jeopardize its hold on Gaza before it has consolidated its power there, then it may agree, if only tacitly, to another ceasefire by stopping its rocket attacks on the expectation that Israel would reciprocate by stopping its attacks, in an agreement possibly mediated by Turkey. Were this to occur, Israel would certainly emerge as the victor in the conflict with Hamas, Iran and Syria the losers.
Consequently, one might expect that Iran, and possibly Syria, will urge Hamas to continue its “resistance” against Israel, much as Hezbollah did in 2006, and wait for pressure from the “Arab street,” Europe, Russia, the United Nations, and possibly (if the fighting last sufficiently long) the United States to salvage the situation. Whether Hamas will be in a position to do so, however, remains to be seen, and its fate may resemble more the PLO which was besieged in Beirut in 1982 and forced into exile, than Hezbollah in 2006.
In looking at the impact of the Israeli military action on the February 10 Israeli elections, there are also several possibilities. Since Livni had openly been calling for strong military action against Hamas, and that action was in fact taken, it is likely that Livni’s Kadima party will have an improved position in the polls and in the election, now little more than a month away. This will be the case especially if Hamas agrees to the tacit truce, as mentioned above. Similarly, if the military action proves successful, Barak may cement his position as the indispensable Defense Minister, no matter who wins the election.
On the other hand, if rockets continue to fly into Israel from Gaza, Livni may be blamed, along with Barak, for their inability to stop the missiles. Under these circumstances, Livni and Barak may well urge a full-scale invasion of Gaza. Assuming that the Israeli Army is now better prepared for ground combat than it was in the 2006 war with Hezbollah, and Hamas does not have the weaponry possessed by Hezbollah in 2006, and the invasion is preceded by heavy artillery barrages as well as continued air strikes, a softened-up Hamas may not be a major threat to the IDF, no matter how many tunnels it may have dug. Once Gaza is recaptured, and any surviving Hamas cadres imprisoned, the Gaza Strip can be turned over to Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah organization, and then genuine peace talks, now covering both the West Bank and Gaza, can take place. Whether such an optimistic scenario will actually take place, however, remains an open question.