Canberra Times, January 31, 2009
After three weeks of intense fighting, a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas has partially held since January 18. How can we prevent the violence from flaring up again?
The obstacles to changing the conditions that led to the fighting are numerous. And even before discussing what might change, we must consider what won’t.
1. Hamas is implacable. Its charter proclaims, “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time.” Its rockets and suicide bombs have long matched this rhetoric.
2. Israel will absorb terrorist attacks for a while (with pin-prick counter- attacks), but will eventually respond with major operations.
The most important measure preventing a return of mass violence is stopping Hamas rocket attacks on Israel. Unfortunately, Hamas has shown it cannot be deterred. Thus, it must be forced to stop.
For Israel to do so would require reoccupying Gaza. Neither Israel nor Palestinians want this to happen.
Unfortunately, Fatah, Hamas’s chief rival, is not yet capable of overcoming the Islamist group. Fatah was thrown out of Gaza by Hamas in a violent 2007 coup, and is today only marginally less corrupt, fractured or militarily capable than it was back then. For it to enter Gaza now would require Israeli military assistance or a Fatah-Hamas deal. The first would undermine Fatah’s credibility; the second would allow Hamas’s rocket activities to continue.
Another option is the introduction of international peacekeepers into Gaza. Once in place, they would have two options: to ignore terrorist activities or forcibly prevent terrorists from firing rockets. Choosing the second option would see the foreign troops labelled occupiers, and attacked. Since peacekeepers don’t want to die protecting Israel, they’d quickly start ignoring terrorist activities (as United Nations peacekeepers in southern Lebanon do).
Some of Hamas’s rockets are built from supplies smuggled through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border. Others are smuggled in already built. The key to preventing Hamas from firing these rockets (and other munitions) is to prevent it from gaining them. Unfortunately, there are no simple ways to do this, either.
Israeli or international troops could deploy on the Palestinian side of the border, but they would be seen as occupiers, and viciously fought.
Egypt says it will take responsibility for detecting the tunnels but it has said that before. In reality, Egypt doesn’t mind the tunnels; they allow Hamas to keep Israel busy. Besides, if Egypt cracked down on the smuggling, Islamists would denounce the regime for helping Israel never a good look in an Arab country. Egypt will only tackle the issue when it believes the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. Unfortunately, Cairo hasn’t yet come to that conclusion, and likely won’t in the near future.
Many have misrepresented the tunnels as a lifeline for the Palestinians in face of the international embargo of Gaza. But the tunnels existed before the embargo began. As long as weapons can’t go through the border, they’ll go under it.
So why does the embargo exist? Israel and the West, including the Barack Obama administration, have made it clear they will end it as soon as Hamas recognises Israel’s right to exist and renounces terrorism.
That doesn’t mean Gazans go hungry in the meantime. As the director of the UN’s Development Program said of Gaza recently, “This is not a humanitarian crisis. It’s an economic crisis, a political crisis, but it’s not a humanitarian crisis. People aren’t starving.”
Some ask why Israel and the West don’t engage with Hamas and end the embargo. That way, Hamas would be free to fail on its own (that is, being isolated by the West gives Hamas credibility it might not otherwise have).
The problem is this option’s unintended consequences. Engaging with an unreconstructed Hamas would undermine more moderate Palestinians. For instance, Fatah is cooperating with Israel and the West. Together, they’re reducing the violence, crime and corruption on West Bank streets. Thus, Fatah is rewarded for not terrorising Israelis. Engaging an unreconstructed Hamas would be seen as rewarding violence. Every terrorist organisation in the world would be encouraged by the example.
There are other unintended consequences. Appeasing an intransigent Hamas would make Iran more intransigent in its desire for nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iran would spark an arms race involving the Saudis, Turks, Egyptians and Israel, chronically destabilising the Middle East.
Besides, talking with Hamas wouldn’t actually achieve anything positive. The group has repeatedly said it is not interested in a negotiated resolution with Israel. All talking with Hamas would do is legitimise a terrorist organisation.
A peaceful Gaza is a prerequisite for resolving the wider Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Unfortunately, it cannot be wished into existence by ignoring complexities, and as the international community works to resolve this most intractable of conflicts, it must be wary of taking short cuts.