If Israel and Hamas can agree on one point, it seems, it’s that things have to change.
That’s why cease-fire efforts carried out by Egypt and backed by the West have until now failed, and it’s why Israel decided to roll the dice and launch a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip with a huge potential to turn ugly.
Now comes a pivotal question: With Hamas weakened by a regional realignment, will Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu up the ante by attempting to oust the Islamic militant group from power in the Palestinian territory? The risks would match the temptation — but if it can be done with minimal loss of life, most Israelis, as well as others in the region and around the world, would probably be with him.
Judging by Netanyahu’s words Friday, escalation is on the table, but for now the goal remains the more modest yet frustratingly elusive one of ending the attacks from Gaza.
That’s what Israelis want: after over a decade of intermittent rockets, their range increasing by the year and now covering much of their country, they’re fed up. The Iron Dome air defense system is able to intercept most missiles, but the disruption and humiliation of the threat is simply too much.
For their part, many Gazans support what could be seen as a suicidal policy by Hamas because they are equally as fed up with the 7-year-old land, sea and air blockade of their territory, which began when Hamas seized power from the Palestinian Authority of West Bank-based President Mahmoud Abbas. Provoking Israel has brought ruin, to be sure, but perhaps it will also in the end bring change.
Where things go depends on Israel’s success in destroying Hamas’ offensive capabilities during the current and seemingly limited ground incursion.
As events unfold, here are some factors at play:
IT’S NOT JUST ROCKETS ANYMORE
Until recent days what agitated the Israelis was the rocket fire. But in justifying Thursday night’s invasion officials focused on the tunnels Hamas has burrowed under Gaza’s blockaded border with Israel. According to the military, dozens of highly developed, interconnected tunnels snake through Gaza, linking rocket launching sites to command and control positions and stretching well into Israel. Earlier Thursday, Israel said it thwarted an attack by 13 militants who sneaked in through such a tunnel. The issue harkens back to a 2006 kidnapping of an Israeli soldier via a tunnel; Gilad Schalit was held captive for five years before Israel coughed up over 1,000 prisoners in a swap, an experience the country would prefer to not repeat. Destroying the tunnels could take weeks, but Israel seems determined. “There is a misunderstanding over how severe is the threat of the tunnels,” said retired Gen. Gadi Shamni.
HAMAS WANTS A SEAT AT THE TABLE
Gaza has its own unique predicament: it is a distinct territory, a country in a sense, whose government is considered a terrorist group by much of the world. Violent and unbending even before, Hamas has acquired a martyr complex fueled by rejection and isolation. This was compounded when Israel furiously rejected last month’s establishment, on paper at least, of a Palestinian “unity government” backed by both Hamas and Abbas’ moderate Fatah party. Netanyahu cut Abbas off, even though the Palestinian leader insisted the new government was committed to peace, which could have easily been spun by all sides as a useful moderating of Hamas. Then came the Egyptian cease-fire plan, which felt to Hamas like an imperious diktat. The group wants the respect that only a seat at the table can bestow, and a more genuine negotiation that opens up the vital Rafah border crossing with Egypt could do the trick. Down the pike lies a potentially elegant twist: If Israel accepts the unity government as part of a cease-fire deal, that could enable everyone to save face and for Abbas, now in charge of the border, to quietly reassert himself in the strip.
WILL EGYPT END THE BLOCKADE?
It’s not exactly a “cycle of violence”: Whereas Israel agreed to a straight-forward cease-fire Hamas has not. Why is the side getting pummeled also the one presenting conditions? Because ever since Hamas seized control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in 2007, others have been controlling what and who gets in and out. The blockade has caused much misery, given rise to massive smuggling scams, and lent the whole place the otherworldly aura of a giant prison. Against this Hamas knows it can stand firm, despite the ruination its actions bring on. But contrary to perception, Israel is not the main player in a realistic scenario to ease the problem. Israel controls the sea access west of the rectangular strip as well as the airspace, fearing the import of weapons that could be used against it. Israel also blocks its own borders with Gaza on the strip’s north and east, never forgetting the suicide bombers of years past. All this will remain as long as Hamas, dedicated openly to Israel’s destruction, is in charge. That leaves the southern land border with Egypt and its crossing point at Rafah, which, if opened by Egypt, would effectively end the chokehold of the strip. But Egypt under new President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is no friend of Hamas, even suspecting it of aiding militants in its Sinai region across the Rafah border. So efforts appear to be underway to put that border under the control of the Palestinian Authority instead. That would appeal to many by diluting Hamas’ control of Gaza. The European Union may also be invited to play a role at the crossing, as it did before the Hamas takeover. Egyptian officials suggest they may be willing to go along.
BAD FENCES MAKE BAD MEDIATORS
Will such a deal be worked out? It doesn’t help that the region is so badly divided. The failure of Egypt-led mediation efforts this week touches on a broader schism, over the future of political Islam. El-Sissi’s Egypt has led the charge against the Muslim Brotherhood group that decades ago spawned Hamas as its Palestinian offshoot: authorities are prosecuting the Brotherhood’s leaders including deposed president Mohammed Morsi and have declared the entire organization a terrorist group, to the applause of Saudi Arabia and much of the Gulf as well as others. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri accused Hamas’ regional allies, Turkey and Qatar, of sabotaging its mediation. Turkey has been critical of the mediation so far, saying any cease-fire deal must have guarantees of an end to the closure. Interesting, therefore, that Abbas has just visited Egypt and is headed to Turkey and Qatar next.
THE REGIME CHANGE TEMPTATION
Almost no one in Israel believes Hamas can change its spots, and few expect the group to be toppled by the long-suffering Gazan population or to run away from airstrikes. Yet the group does now seem weaker, key players like Egypt clearly wish it ill, and the world at large seems sympathetic to Israel’s dilemma and appreciative of its acceptance of the Egyptian proposal. So already there are calls to exploit the aligning of the stars, enlarge the mission, push into Gaza City and uproot the militants for good. There are some problems with this scenario. Israel does not want to incur the likely military casualties that would accompany such a project. It also doesn’t want the responsibility of occupying almost 2 million more Palestinians. Abbas would appear like a quisling if he had Israel capture the strip and hand it to him. And the civilian Palestinian casualty count, now above 270, could go through the roof, swiftly ending the world’s uncomfortable, tentative acquiescence.
Associated Press writer Yousur Alhlou contributed to this story from Jerusalem.
Dan Perry has covered the Middle East since the 1990s and currently leads Associated Press’ text coverage in the region. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/perry_dan.
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