The Status Quo in Gaza Is the Least-Bad Option

Guilherme Paula, Oren neu dag, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

To understand the future of the Gaza Strip, it’s necessary to consider the origins of the most recent round of fighting. Hamas’s missile barrage on Jerusalem began during a week fraught with tension. Two events and three significant dates—each of which with potential to raise the temperature—coincided in a very short period of time, creating a perfect storm.

  1. On April 30, the Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas canceled the parliamentary and presidential elections that had been scheduled for May and July, respectively. Hamas, which had expected to do well in these elections—and even hoped it could replace Abbas in the presidency and gain a parliamentary majority—was left frustrated and embittered. Abbas and his supporters called off the elections precisely because they agreed that Hamas was likely to achieve electoral success. While Hamas’s frustration was in no way related to the events in Jerusalem, it became a catalyst and perhaps even a decisive factor in determining the terrorist group’s subsequent behavior in Gaza.
  2. For some time now, property disputes in Jerusalem have contributed to a volatile atmosphere in the city. These disputes involve lawsuits by Jews to evict Palestinian families from homes where they (or their families) have been living since before the 1967 war. The Jews claim that the properties in question were bought by Jews before the 1948 War of Independence. On Thursday May 13, Israel’s Supreme Court was expected to announce its decision about the eviction case against a number of families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. This is a mundane property dispute and ought to be resolved, as appropriate in a country subject to the rule of law, by the courts.
  3. No one in the legal system seemed to notice that May 13 was also the end of the month of Ramadan and the beginning of Eid al-Fitr, a major Muslim holiday. The final week of Ramadan is always a sensitive time throughout the Muslim world, and violent outbursts are not uncommon. In Israel, tension is often highest in places that are already fraught, especially the Temple Mount. The high attendance at public prayers during this week routinely results in violence in the West Bank, and especially in Jerusalem.
  4. Monday, May 10 was Jerusalem Day, which commemorates Jerusalem’s liberation by the IDF. (The convergence of this day with the final week of Ramadan only occurs once in a dozen years). On this day, thousands participate in a colorful procession with flags and songs that passes through both the eastern and western parts of the city, thereby reminding the Palestinian residents and the Arab world in general of their failure in 1967 and of Israel’s continued possession of a united Jerusalem.
  5. To add more fuel to the fire, Saturday May 15 marked “Nakba Day” (the “Day of Calamity”), on which Palestinians mourn the results of the 1948 war. While Ramadan is determined by the Muslim lunar calendar, and Jerusalem by the Jewish one, this date follows the anniversary of Israel’s creation on the Gregorian calendar. This week, therefore, would have been tense even without the Sheikh Jarrah verdict and the Palestinian elections.

The Israeli police’s questionable decisions, especially its moves to limit access to the area near the Damascus Gate and—based on intelligence reports about planned demonstrations—to prevent Israeli Arabs from entering the Temple Mount for prayers, apparently contributed to the tension among the locals and may also have been used by others as an excuse to fan the flames.

Only a few months before these events, Hamas had emerged from a complex internal election in which Yahya Sinwar, who is regarded as a relative moderate willing to reach agreements with Israel in exchange for Gaza’s development and prosperity, won by one vote. Hamas now looked despairingly at Abbas’s cancelation of the elections, through which it had hoped to take control of the PA and thus of the West Bank. Under these circumstances Hamas’s leaders decided to prove to Palestinian society, and perhaps to the entire Arab world, that they are the ones who set the Palestinian agenda. They delivered an ultimatum to the Israeli government, stating that they would respond with rocket fire if Israel would not change its behavior in Jerusalem.

Hamas, in short, tried to leverage its position in Gaza to present itself as “the defender of Jerusalem.”

As expected, the ultimatum was rejected.

True to its word, Hamas broke the understandings with Israel that had been reached in the wake of previous rounds of fighting and fired rockets at Jerusalem. This resulted in Israel launching operation Guardian of the Walls.

Israel faced three areas of conflict:

  1. Jerusalem. Here local unrest was harsher and on a larger scale than in the past.
  2. Gaza. Hamas fired around 4,400 rockets and missiles, along with mortar fire, and Israel responded by destroying the organization’s infrastructure, targeting its commanders, and collaterally damaging civilian structures that served the organization or were adjacent to its facilities.
  3. Within Israel. Israeli Arabs tore apart the fabric of coexistence that had obtained across the country in riots in which Jews were murdered, synagogues burned, Jewish homes vandalized, and a great deal of Jewish property destroyed. In response, there were a few (yet very dangerous to Israeli society) incidents of fringe groups of Jews who viciously attacked Israeli Arabs.

The attempts to incite mass protest marches in the West Bank or to instigate a confrontation in the north by firing a few Katyusha rockets from Lebanon, and the piloting of an (apparently Iranian) drone through Jordan did not achieve their desired outcomes. The West Bank remained relatively calm and no serious confrontation ensued at Israel’s borders.

Nonetheless, the events in Jerusalem and Gaza managed to incite Israeli Arabs to lash out violently against their Jewish neighbors. Even though the degree of Hamas’s involvement remains unclear, there is no doubt that the rocket fire from Gaza and Israel’s response contributed to the unrest. Now that a ceasefire has been reached and the riots and protests in Israel have abated, the relationship between the state and its Arab citizens must be examined anew. It is likely that Israel’s Jews will not rush to return to their previous relationship with the Arab minority, which had appeared to be moving decisively in the direction of economic integration. For example, the health system has many Arab professionals (25 percent of the doctors and 30 percent of the nurses), an Arab runs the country’s oldest and second-largest bank, and many large shopping centers are staffed by Arab saleswomen in traditional dress. In the political arena as well, there is expanded acceptance of Arab involvement. These riots began just as the Israeli political system showed unprecedented willingness to bring an Arab party into the government, even if this was the result of eagerness to escape political deadlock.

Arab society was hit hard during the coronavirus crisis, in part due to relatively limited governmental economic aid, in turn a result of Israeli Arabs’ relatively high proportion of unreported income. At the end of the day, Israel is apparently also paying the price of its failure to rid Arab society of its high rates of crime and violence. The majority of this violence is perpetrated by, and plays into the hands of, organized-crime families who have taken control of Arab neighborhoods; another part of the violence is cultural in the sense that some issues, such as clan disputes or violations of sexual taboos, are still resolved violently—meaning revenge killings as a means of restoring family honor. In this respect, Israeli Arabs are not different from other Arab societies in the Middle East, which are all violent in one way or another.

This does not excuse the failure of Israel’s police to eliminate the crime families’ influence on the Arab street; the police must confiscate the vast number of weapons that have accumulated in the homes of Arab citizens as part of a culture in which possession of arms is viewed as honorable. Unfortunately, the failure to overcome the crime families and gangs stems in part from Arab society’s lack of cooperation with the police and its political leaders’ insistence upon defending violence directed at Jews or the state’s institutions. Arab citizens are correct that the police are not doing enough, but the police’s claim that Arab leaders, in their unwillingness to be part of the solution, are worsening the problem is even more justified.

It appears that the best way forward involves both the investment of resources toward improve the living conditions of Israeli Arabs and the significant bolstering of the police force in order to rein in crime. Without a doubt, this undertaking will increase the friction between the Arab population and the state. However, the dangers of such friction must not deter the police from confiscating weapons, or from eradicating the criminal organizations threatening Arab citizens—and, as it has turned out, Jewish citizens as well. That being said, it is important not to make the common mistake that improving the Arabs’ quality of life and safety will cause them to look favorably upon the existence of a nation-state of the Jewish people. It is best to be modest in our expectations. Achieving these goals may render it easier for them to live in such a state without internal violence and in coexistence with their Jewish surroundings, but in light of the recent events, it is difficult to envision a significant change in the near future regarding the Arabs’ acceptance of the Israel’s existence as an undisputed fact.

The challenge of forming good relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel is difficult and complex, and apparently will be with us for a long time to come. The riots were the biggest surprise of operation Guardian of the Walls, in which Hamas failed in all its attempts to surprise Israel. Rising nationalistic emotions, religious sensitivities over Jerusalem, and Israel’s inability to deal with lawless elements in Arab society have combined to precipitate violence between Jews and Arabs, and will likely do so again in the future. While one might wish it otherwise, many of Israel’s Arab citizens are deeply discomfited by the very existence of a sovereign Jewish state. It is a state that provides them with a higher quality of life than any Arab country, yet it is not theirs and it is difficult for them to identify with it.

While the challenge presented by the actions of Israel’s Arabs is clear, even if the solution to it is complicated, the results of the operation in Gaza are more complicated still and it is difficult to predict where they will lead. It is hard to determine who won the last round of fighting, in part because the two parties can be said to have conducted separate operations, each striving for different goals. Unlike a conventional military operation, where, for instance, one side wants to dislodge the other from a particular hilltop, and the other wants to maintain its position, Hamas and the IDF fought not so much against each other but in parallel.

Hamas fought on the strategic and diplomatic level. Its goal was to take advantage of the tension in Jerusalem to prove itself the city’s defender through indiscriminate fire against Israel. This battle took place in the realm of public relations, unrelated to achievements on the ground. Thus the operational goal was to cause the deaths of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians. It is important to realize that Hamas benefits from the death of Palestinian civilians no less, and perhaps even more so, than from the death of Israeli civilians. After all, each Palestinian death increases sympathy for Gaza both in the Arab world and in the West, and shows, through twisted logic, that only Hamas can defend Palestinians from the Jews’ assaults.

By contrast, Israel focused on more concrete and tangible operational objectives which it hoped would translate into strategic gains. The mission was to weaken Hamas’s military capabilities, while making it hard to rebuild these capabilities afterward—with the aim of incurring enough damage to deter the organization from acting against Israel in the future. In practice, this meant destroying infrastructure and armaments and eliminating Hamas commanders and operatives.

Since the two sides were fighting different wars, it is unsurprising that both sides claimed victory.

As a result of the operation, Palestinians and the Arab world see Hamas as a group that sacrificed a great deal to defend Jerusalem. Israel is seen as a failure because it had no public-relations achievements. After all, Hamas leaders walk freely in Gaza’s streets and large numbers of rockets were still being fired at Israel until the very last moment, making clear that not all of them had been destroyed.

Still, Israel is justifiably satisfied with the operation. Over 90 percent of the rockets were downed by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, minimizing the damage. The IDF also succeeded in foiling all of Hamas’s other attacks, from the attempted sabotage of its oil rigs with miniature submarines to the use of tunnels to send fighters into Israel. Moreover, Israel severely damaged Hamas’s infrastructure and its ability to produce rockets and missiles and killed many of its operatives, including mid-level commanders. It is clear to the Gazans that Hamas may claim to be the defender of Jerusalem, but lacks the ability to protect Gaza.

In light of this strange situation where both parties consider themselves victors and ostensibly are satisfied with the operation’s results, Israel must act to restore its aura of invincibility, on which its stature in the region depends. Israel lost some of that stature as a result of the operation’s visible results. But in the Middle East, it is prudent to distinguish between those results that are immediately evident and unseen results that may come into view in the future. In this case, for example, the Hamas leadership may conclude that it can no longer risk the extensive damage to its abilities that would come with a similar conflict with Israel. After the Second Lebanon War of 2006, Hizballah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah publicly declared a “divine victory,” but ultimately let it be known that, had he been aware of the results in advance, he would not have initiated it. In this respect, Israel has the advantage over Hamas, since Hamas cannot undo the tangible results that the IDF achieved on the ground. By contrast, Israel can (and in my opinion, must) change the attitudes and feelings of Palestinians and the Arab world.

Israel should not wait for the Hamas leadership to realize it made a mistake and admit as much in public, which may never happen. Instead, Jerusalem should make its victory clear on both the diplomatic and the military levels. The following two steps would be a good start:

  1. Israel must demonstrate that Hamas failed to change the status quo in Jerusalem at all. To do so, Israel must reinstate its previous policies on the Temple Mount, including the admittance of Jews (which has already resumed), maintaining a police presence, and even using force on the Temple Mount against any Palestinian aggression. At the same time, it must prepare for difficult scenarios that may arise as a result of court verdicts to evict Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighborhoods. To this end, Israel must significantly strengthen its police force—which must, in turn, avoid antagonizing local residents while remaining ready to respond forcefully to any disturbance of the peace. Experience teaches us that the presence of large forces before trouble begins significantly reduces the risk of a situation deteriorating to the point where live fire becomes necessary, thus also preventing further escalation. Israel can nullify Hamas’s ostensible strategic success through a series of relatively simple actions in Jerusalem, with the understanding that these could potentially lead to a local crisis, but that such a crisis is still better than rewarding Hamas. If it does not become clear very soon that Hamas has achieved nothing in Jerusalem, the terrorist group’s appetite for fighting (next time, no doubt, presenting itself as a “defender” of some other Palestinian interest) will only grow.
  2. Israel must take pains to create and maintain deterrence in Gaza by responding forcefully to any instance of Hamas aggression, even those that it has previously ignored or responded to tepidly. Hamas must not be allowed to harass the Israeli citizens of the area adjacent to Gaza with incendiary balloons and protests that cross the border. If Hamas does carry out such actions, they must be met with significant strikes on its leaders and infrastructure. Israel must abandon its principle of “proportional response,” which usually involves returning fire while avoiding hitting targets, or other similar half-measures. This approach plays into Hamas’s hands by signaling that low-grade attacks are worth the risk of retaliation. Instead the IDF must strike back hard, knowing that Hamas is likely to respond with rocket fire for an extended period. Only then can Israel make clear that it is willing to pay this price to achieve real deterrence, which will be manifest in complete quiet around Gaza. So long as Israel appears unwilling to risk confrontation, Hamas, rather than be deterred, will understand that it has deterred the IDF.

In the negotiations towards an arrangement with Gaza that are taking place with Egypt’s help, Israel must make clear that it will not allow Hamas’s rearmament. Otherwise, Israel will encounter a much stronger enemy in the next operation a few years from now. In a long-term settlement, Israel must also demand the return of the remains of IDF soldiers as well as the two living civilians apparently held by Hamas. These demands will complicate the negotiations and cause them to drag on, but Israel must stand firm so that the humanitarian achievements important to Hamas, in the form of opening up of Gaza to allow rebuilding, will be balanced by a humanitarian achievement that is important in Israel. If Hamas demands in return the release of over 1,000 terrorists imprisoned in Israel, Israel must calculate the advantages and disadvantages, and possibly refrain from a long-term settlement.

It is important to remember: any such arrangement will not solve the basic problems in Gaza. It will remain overpopulated (over two million people in less than 200 square miles), and its inhabitants will still be dominated by a terror organization seeking to rebuild its power to harm Israel rather than focusing on providing a better life for its subjects. The only advantage to a long-term truce will be delaying the next operation, which will take place as soon as Hamas either feels it is strong enough to fight Israel or needs to prove its significance. Quiet on the Gaza front will allow Israel to focus on preparations for the real challenge: the combination of the Iranian nuclear threat along with the ongoing increase of accurate long-range weaponry possessed by Iran and Hizballah. Gaza will remain an open wound that will one day bleed even more profusely than during this recent round of fighting.

If, either after the ceasefire or a negotiated arrangement, Israel has an opportunity to eliminate senior Hamas or Islamic Jihad officials or munitions-manufacturing facilities in Gaza, then the decision-makers will face a difficult choice of whether to be the first to break the ceasefire. Doing so would most likely bring about another long round of violence with the attendant attacks on Israel in the international arena. However, refraining from taking action will enable Hamas’s rearmament and place Israel in a difficult position the next time fighting breaks out. This question of a preventative attack was and will be the most difficult decision for Israeli leadership, because of the negative repercussions both of restraint and of taking initiative.

None of these dilemmas is likely to go away anytime soon, and I would not be surprised if Jerusalem were weighing the same questions ten years from now. There are those who argue that the current situation is untenable, and have proposed dramatic attempts to change the status quo: either through taking harsher military action to achieve “victory,” trying to restore the Palestinian Authority’s control of Gaza, or granting Hamas significant economic concessions. Such proposals are unlikely to succeed in the foreseeable future. Hamas, most likely, will continue to be a terrorist organization that seeks Israel’s total destruction, and Israel will have to continue to use force to contain and deter it.

IDF MG (ret.) Yaakov Amidror is a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, and a Distinguished Fellow at JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy in Washington DC. He served as national security advisor to the prime minister of Israel and the head of the National Security Council from 2011 to 2013.