A Strategic Briefing by The Henry Jackson Society
INTRODUCTION AND CURRENT SITUATION
Israel has warned of a prolonged campaign against Hamas tunnels, and Israeli bombardment this week was among the heaviest of the conflict thus far. Hamas rejected Egypt’s initial ceasefire proposal, and US Secretary of State John Kerry’s subsequent truce attempt was declined by Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority as too favourable to Hamas. Hamas still seeks a major achievement with which to demonstrate to its people that the war’s death and destruction were justified. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 31 pledged that Israeli forces would destroy all Hamas tunnels to Israel, either in the framework of a ceasefire or in the absence of one. The same day, Israel called up an additional16,000 reservists. As much as a week of continued fighting is likely.
THE FIRST CEASEFIRE ATTEMPT
The 15 July ceasefire proposal formulated by Egypt would have ended all hostilities, and allowed freer movement of people and goods through Gaza’s crossings. The initiative received the support of Israel, the PA, United Kingdom, United States and United Nations. Hamas, however, rejected the ceasefire, at the apparent urging of its state backers Qatar and Turkey. The international community forcefully condemned Hamas for its perceived intransigence, and Egypt explicitly blamed Hamas for the subsequent civilian deaths the conflict would bring.
SECRETARY KERRY’S MISSION
On July 10, two days after the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, Kerry contacted the Qatari and Turkish foreign ministers – without the knowledge of Israel, the PA or Egypt – to forge a ceasefire. Following the failure of the Egyptian proposal, Kerry again engaged Doha and Ankara, and together they drafted a proposal considerably more favourable to Hamas than the original. Cairo and Jerusalem rejected the plan, which failed to address the security concerns of each, while even the Palestinian Authority dismissed it as too generous to Hamas. Rather than de-escalate the situation, the perceived one-sided nature of Kerry’s initiative alienated Israel, Egypt and the PA, and may have persuaded Hamas that consistent rejectionism yields results. Many observers, including those once supportive of the secretary, argued that his efforts served not to de-escalate the conflict but move it further from resolution.
CHALLENGES ON THE GROUND
Israel’s original objective in launching Operation Protective Edge was to significantly diminish Hamas’s capacity to threaten Israel’s southern communities with rockets. As the operation began, however, and the scope of Hamas’s tunnel infrastructure became apparent, the downgrading of that network became an uppermost priority. While Israel’s aerial and artillery strikes have focused mainly on rocket infrastructure, the ground operation that began July 17 has been aimed primarily at the tunnels. The severity of the tunnel threat was underscored last week as details emerged of a Hamas plan for a large-scale attack in late September on the Jewish New Year. The assault would have seen 200 gunmen seize six Israeli farming villages, with civilian casualties and abductions a near-certainty.
Hamas – which is universally acknowledged as having sparked the current deadly escalation – now has an additional incentive to extend the conflict and increase its ceasefire demands on account of the destruction Gaza has experienced. Given the low support of the Gaza population for a confrontation with Israel, Hamas needs to deliver a major public-relations or military ‘victory.’ In order to retain domestic support, moreover, it needs to deliver tangible change in its people’s living conditions, such as lifting some restrictions on the import of goods. Disrupting flights to and from Israel’s international airport last week was a major tactical accomplishment, but the group’s highest strategic aim is to kidnap an Israeli soldier or civilian for use as a bargaining chip to free its imprisoned operatives.
Israel, by contrast, seeks to deliver a significant setback to Hamas’s military capability, forcing it to conclude that its interest lies in a genuine ceasefire rather than continued confrontation. To that end, Israel sees a precedent in the admission by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah following the 2006 Second Lebanon War, where he would not have provoked the conflict had he known the destruction it would inflict. It is notable that despite its rhetoric in support of Hamas, Hezbollah has done nothing to support the group during the current round of fighting.
REQUIREMENTS FOR A NEW CEASEFIRE
In addition to ending all Israeli operations, Hamas has listed four key demands for a ceasefire: lifting the air, sea and land blockade of Gaza imposed by Israel and Egypt; extending Gaza’s fishing rights to 12 nautical miles and constructing a seaport; releasing operatives freed in a 2011 prisoner exchange and re-arrested last month in response to the murder of three Israeli teenagers; and paying 40,000 public-sector employees whose salaries are withheld by the PA. Since alleging that Israel struck Gaza’s only power plant on July 29, Hamas has added a fifth condition of a full restoration of electricity from Israel.
Israel’s core demand is a complete cessation of rocket and mortar fire from Gaza, and the elimination of tunnels to be utilised in terror attacks into Israel. Demilitarisation of Gaza was not one of Israel’s original goals, but since the ground invasion Netanyahu has increasingly raised that objective as a priority, and the United States has expressed its support. This weekend Netanyahu called for an international mechanism to demilitarise the Hamas-controlled territory, coupled with Arab and Western economic investment while ensuring supplies are not diverted to terror. Netanyahu is aware that Hamas will refuse to relinquish its arms, but believes such a mechanism can prevent the group from rearming and upgrading its capacities from the damage it will have suffered during the war.
Resupplying electricity is the condition Israel can most easily meet. Beyond that, Jerusalem may also consider the partial release of Hamas prisoners re-arrested last month. It may also contemplate Hamas’s demand to extend fishing rights, depending on its own assessments of the security risk such a move would pose. An additional Hamas condition – the payment of 40,000 public-sector workers by the PA – may be met by a third-party such as Qatar, with the proviso that the funds be monitored to ensure they are not put to terrorist aims.
Other Hamas conditions for ending the fighting are currently unacceptable to Egypt and Israel. Egypt remains unamenable to the full opening of the Rafah Crossing, fearing that arms smuggling between its territory and Gaza will help extremist groups in the Sinai Peninsula accumulate funds and arms. Should Netanyahu’s international mechanism be implemented, Israel may be willing to consider lifting some restrictions on goods entering Kerem Shalom Crossing, but is unlikely to reopen its other four crossings to Gaza until that mechanism has proved reliabile. The security concerns of Israel and Egypt mean neither country is currently willing to allow the construction of a seaport in Gaza.
A new ceasefire is most likely to be viable if Egypt maintains its central role as mediator, thereby assuaging its own security concerns as well as those of Israel and the PA. Turkey and Qatar are less credible mediators due to their intimate relations with Hamas, while the parties involved now view the United States as an ineffective broker. It is telling that neither Egypt nor Israel appear to have sought US mediation for a ceasefire, but rather configured its terms bilaterally.
The ceasefire to the current operation could be based, in part, on the agreement that ended Israel’s eight-day Operation Pillar of Defence in November 2012. That truce included a cessation of rocket and other terror attacks by all Gaza-based factions – including the smaller Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees – in return for an equivalent end to all Israeli actions in Gaza by air, land and sea. Another, earlier template for a ceasefire is the one that terminated the 2006 Second Lebanon War. That conflict re-established Israel’s deterrence against Hezbollah through Israel’s overwhelming use of force, and the domestic and regional backlash the group suffered over the war’s destruction. Still, that ceasefire did not include a reliable mechanism for ensuring Hezbollah’s demilitarisation, or sufficiently empower international observers to monitor its rearmament. Moreover, in order to earn Israel’s backing, a new truce agreement would also have to include provisions related to the tunnels.
Hamas is now weaker diplomatically than at any time in recent memory. Public opinion across the Arab world is now arrayed against it for raining suffering upon Gaza. Iran, formerly Hamas’s principal backer, has downgraded its support over the group siding against Tehran’s ally Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In Egypt, Hamas’s former ally, the Muslim Brotherhood, was ousted last year in favour of a military regime diametrically opposed to Islamists. Economically, Cairo’s closing of more than 1,000 tunnels in recent months has denied Hamas the taxes it once collected on smuggled goods. Militarily, the group’s rocket stockpile has been halved – both by its own wanton firing (at least 2,500 rockets in three weeks) and by Israeli strikes. Israel, and Egypt, appear to believe the timing is ripe to exploit Hamas’s weakness to reduce its power further still.
Israeli officials have stated explicitly that the operation’s principal objective is weakening Hamas militarily. Implicitly, however, Israel also appears to be attempting to diminish the group politically in favour of the PA. That effort has support among both Israelis and Gazans: Polls indicate that 7 in 10 Israelis want to see the current operation proceed until Hamas is removed, while just 14% of Gazans wish to see Hamas’s political or military leadership control their territory. Nevertheless, surveys also underline that the fighting has raised the popularity of Hamas among Palestinians in the West Bank.
Western officials, including the Pentagon intelligence director, have warned that unseating Hamas could facilitate the rise of even more extreme movements in Gaza such as the Islamic State militia currently active in Syria and Iraq. Hamas rockets, however, have already covered 80 percent of Israel’s territory, and its tunnels threaten Israeli communities with terror on the ground. No other extremist group could match that operational capability without taking years to build up its terror infrastructure. For the Oslo Accords peace process paradigm to continue, the PA and the Israeli left wing will need to be convinced that the success of Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation in the West Bank can be replicated in Gaza. That prospect is impossible until Hamas is defeated.
Hawkish members of the Israeli cabinet, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, have recommended reoccupying the Gaza Strip. From Jerusalem’s perspective, reoccupation would be the best method of ensuring Gaza no longer serves as a terror hub; during Israeli rule over Gaza between 1967 and 2005, for example, the rocket threat from the territory was relatively small, and the tunnel industry non-existent. Conversely, reoccupation would exact a heavy toll on Israeli troops, both during the operation and in maintaining control. For their part, Palestinian militants in Gaza and the West Bank would seize upon a reoccupation to redouble terror activity. The sum total would be to push both parties further from a negotiated settlement.
At the same time, British Prime Minister David Cameron, US President Barack Obama and the United Nations Security Council have called for an ‘immediate, unconditional’ ceasefire. Hamas, however, has shown it does not abide by ceasefires – it rejected the Egyptian ceasefire to end the fighting, and on three occasions rejected humanitarian ceasefires intended to assist Gazan civilians. An immediate, unconditional ceasefire would offer Israel no assurances that its adversary would not violate the agreement, and is therefore unlikely to accept an unconditional truce. For its part, Hamas is not yet ready to end the fighting – both because a major strategic achievement remains elusive, and because it remains unconvinced that it has more to lose than to gain from continued fighting.
THE DEMILITARISATION/INTERNATIONALISATION DEBATE
President Obama, Secretary Kerry and the European Union have stated in recent days that Gaza and its armed groups should ultimately be demilitarised. One method for cleansing the territory of rockets, heavy weapons and tunnels is the deployment of international inspectors to the Strip, reporting back to a responsible body, such as the UN Security Council, every three to six months. Rockets, mortars and other heavy weapons could be taken to a neutral site and destroyed.
A template for demilitarisation already exists. During the Second Intifada of the last decade, former US Senator George Mitchell and ex-CIA director George Tenet drafted specific plans for demilitarising the Palestinian territories – indeed, current US policy supports the establishment of an explicitly demilitarised Palestinian state. The demilitarisation of Gaza could be a first step in achieving that goal, and could serve as a model for doing the same in the West Bank as a precursor to Palestinian statehood.