Israel's Fatal Game

By Beinart, Peter | Newsweek, December 3, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Israel's Fatal Game

Beinart, Peter, Newsweek

Byline: Peter Beinart

Bombing Hamas won't stop the violence. Why Washington and Jerusalem desperately need

a new strategy.

The first thing to understand about the war that recently broke out in Israel and the Gaza Strip is that Hamas forced Israel's hand.

Almost four years ago in Operation Cast Lead, the Jewish state pummeled Gaza in response to rocket fire into southern Israel. And for a time afterward, the rocket fire diminished. But it has been rising again. There were 365 rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza in 2010, 680 in 2011, 800 so far in 2012--171 in October alone.

It's not entirely clear why the attacks have increased. Hamas may have felt that Israel would not respond aggressively for fear of angering Egypt's new, more assertive Islamist regime. It may have wanted to upstage its rival, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who may boost his stature among Palestinians later this month when he seeks "nonstate" membership at the United Nations. For whatever reason, Hamas provoked Israel. And this week, in what it calls Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel responded with a provocation of its own, assassinating Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jabari and sparking even greater escalation from both sides.

Will Israel's offensive accomplish anything? Yes and no. For a while, it may cow Hamas into submission. And for the long-suffering people of southern Israel, any respite is a welcome thing. But there's a problem. Israel can bomb Gaza from air and sea. It can even invade Gaza by land, as it did four years ago. But Israel cannot expel Hamas and other militant organizations from the tiny strip of land where Samson fought the Philistines, because it cannot hold Gaza. The cost of turning Israeli soldiers into beat cops on a thousand Gazan streets where even the 5-year-olds want them dead is too high. The Jewish mothers of Israel will not allow it.

At best, therefore, whatever quiet Israel's offensive wins its people will be temporary. Once the cameras leave, and the dead bodies on both sides are beneath the ground, Hamas will rebuild its armaments and regain its moxie. And sooner or later Israel will find itself in the same position it is in today--except that Hamas and other militant groups will have better rockets, able to kill more Jews.

So no matter what you think of Israel's military offensive, it's not a long-term strategy. Israel and America desperately need a political offensive aimed at making Hamas less of an obstacle to peace. And for the last six years, their policies have mostly done the opposite.

After Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006 and then beat back an attempted coup in 2007, Israel responded with a partial blockade; the U.S. responded by shunning the group until it met three criteria: recognize Israel, renounce violence, and accept past peace agreements. The idea was that if denied international legitimacy, Hamas would renounce its militant ways.

But instead of suffering from Israel's partial blockade, Hamas has exploited it. By shutting down Gaza's exports to Israel and the West Bank, the blockade has destroyed Gaza's independent business class, which might have been a source of opposition to Hamas. Instead, Hamas has created a new import-export system--through tunnels underneath Gaza's border with Egypt--which it controls. What's more, the blockade has isolated Gaza from the world, and this isolation has strengthened the most conservative elements in Gazan society. As a result, the emerging political opposition to Hamas is coming not from the two-state moderates America hoped to embolden, but from Salafis and jihadists who believe, terrifyingly, that Hamas is too restrained in its use of violence and too lax in its enforcement of Islamic law.

The flip side of America and Israel's policy of isolating and punishing Gaza was, in theory, to strengthen Abbas, Hamas's West Bank rival. But although Israel has removed some West Bank checkpoints and the West Bank has seen some economic growth, Abbas has only grown weaker over the last six years.

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