Israel’s Operation Against Hamas in Gaza: The Need for Realistic Goals

By January 1, 2009

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 53

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Israel’s Operation Cast Lead goals should be modest: minimizing the damage that Hamas rockets can inflict on Israel. While a Hamastan in Gaza is not the ideal neighbor for Israel, there are several advantages to continuous Hamas rule, including the fact that it makes the “two-state solution” paradigm irrelevant.

In the Middle East, the use of force is part and parcel of the rules of the game. Governments of the region are not averse to the utilization of violence and they understand that political entities often need to inflict pain on their opponents to attain political goals. In the Middle East, sticks are a more effective political currency than carrots.

In accordance with this understanding, Hamas refused to extend the ceasefire with Israel and significantly increased its missile attacks on Israel’s population centers in the south. Its hope was to gain greater freedom of action against Israel, as well as to remove the partial siege on Gaza. Polls indicate that use of force against Israeli targets is quite popular among Palestinians.

Israel’s government, under growing public pressure and with national elections in sight, finally chose the military path in dissuading Hamas from launching attacks of any kind from Gaza. Israel initiated Operation “Cast Lead” to restore deterrence and force Hamas to cease terrorizing hundreds of thousands of Israeli civilians.

The end to the Israeli operation is in Hamas’ hands. The equation is simple: the sooner Hamas stops firing at Israel, the sooner the IDF will halt its offensive. Hopefully, the learning curve of the leadership in Gaza is flexible enough to minimize the pain Israel is inflicting.

In the military equation, Israel has a disproportionate advantage. Yet, there is also a parallel competition in bearing pain, where it is less clear who maintains superiority. Hamas has shown limited sensitivity to the suffering of the Gazans. Moreover, it cynically used the misfortune of its civilians to score points in the propaganda war against Israel. Nevertheless, it has to demonstrate a minimal responsiveness to the needs of its subjects in order to maintain its rule.

Since “Cast Lead” began, Israel has refrained from announcing far-reaching political goals. Ending the Hamas attacks on Israel is attainable if the Israeli military operation threatens Hamas’ rule in Gaza. After all, the main goal of Hamas is to stay in power. All else, including the cherished goal of destroying the Jewish state, is subordinated to the survival of the Hamas regime. It appears that Israel has gained international understanding, including from certain Arab states, for administering a blow to Hamas and for quieting its southern border. Weakening Hamas is indeed an attainable goal.

Uprooting Hamas rule from Gaza, however, is beyond Israel’s power; Israel cannot install a new government in the Strip. Outsiders have little capacity to dramatically change realities in the Middle East. Change can come only from within. Even the powerful US is failing miserably at political engineering in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With little chance for the emergence of a new Palestinian leadership able to successfully grapple with the challenges of modernity and state building, the Islamic forces within Palestinian society will continue to dominate in the near future. The Islamists are the only group successful in providing a modicum of the services needed for society and this is the main source of their political power. Therefore, Hamas is here to stay and Israel cannot but feel sorry for the Palestinians doomed to ignorance, poverty and fanaticism – the inevitable result of Islamist rule.

While a Hamastan in Gaza is not the ideal neighbor for Israel, there are several advantages to continuous Hamas rule. First, the entrenchment of Hamas makes it crystal-clear who rejects peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel is largely off the hook. Second, the Hamas military coup of June 2007 dealt a death blow to the two-state paradigm that the world is still paying lip service, but is patently not working. A growing realization of the futility of this paradigm might allow the emergence of a more realistic approach to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In light of the depressing reality among Israel’s neighbors, and in particular the Palestinians, the strategy of the Jewish state should be modest. Israel should refrain from trying to influence the societies in its vicinity. Israel is located in a truly dangerous neighborhood and the bitter truth is that the country has little to gain from cultural and economic interactions with its neighbors.

Therefore, what should be of exclusive concern to Jerusalem is the ability of the neighboring Arab states to inflict harm. Israel’s diplomatic and military resources should be directed toward just that objective – minimizing the damage they are capable of inflicting against Israel. This is the only realistic goal of the IDF operation in Gaza.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation

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Prof. Efraim Inbar
Prof. Efraim Inbar

Prof. Efraim Inbar is professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.