Since the mid-1990s, Israel has attempted to separate the fate of Gaza from that of the West Bank. The 2005 “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip was the most dramatic step of this policy. There were at least two reasons for the decision to withdraw from Gaza. First, Israel wanted to reduce the “demographic threat” to the Jewish State at a minimum territorial cost. Second, by withdrawing from Gaza, Israel hoped to strengthen its control over the West Bank.
Hamas’s victory in the January 2006 Palestinian elections and its violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in July 2007 turned this region into the main frontline for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Buttressed by its commitment to the armed struggle against Israel, Hamas and other Islamist organizations aggressively sought to demonstrate that Gaza is only one piece of the Palestine puzzle and that they would not allow Israel to achieve its strategic goals.
For the past eight years, Hamas has spent much of its energy building up its military capacities by firing rockets at nearby Israeli towns, digging smuggling and assault tunnels, and infiltrating Israel for guerrilla and terror operations. A vicious cycle of violence ensued. The more Hamas (and other Islamist organizations) sought to hurt Israel, the more Israel retaliated ferociously against Gazans and tightened the siege around the Gaza Strip.
DETER AND DEMORALIZE
Since 2006, there were three major rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas, and in between, numerous border skirmishes. During these cycles of violence, Israel used its military might against Hamas and Gaza with the hope of achieving two objectives.
First, Israeli officials hoped and believed that causing massive devastation to Hamas would deter the organization from firing rockets at Israel. Hamas leadership has been targeted as well, and a chain of assassinations of the organization’s political and military leadership was meant to achieve a similar objective of deterrence and demoralization. Second, by punishing the Gaza Strip as a whole, Israel hoped that Hamas would lose its popular support. Gazans would be disillusioned and understand that it does not reward them to support the armed resistance against Israel.
FAILED USE OF FORCE
Israel’s strategy has clearly failed. With every round of violence, Hamas has only strengthened its power and support among the population, becoming more and more sophisticated in its own use of violence. Israel has operated with the belief that what does not work with force will work with more force. This approach reached its climax in the recent war.
A week before the ceasefire was achieved, Prime Minister Netanyahu said the following in a press conference: “In return for attrition Hamas will be crushed back, crushing its infrastructure, its terrorists, its commanders […] If they shoot they will be beaten, and not just beaten, but beaten seven-fold. And if Hamas does not understand it today, it will understand it tomorrow and if not tomorrow—then the day after tomorrow.”
Has Hamas understood this from the latest round of war? Probably not. Nor have Israeli officials realized that the way to deal with Hamas is by eroding support for the organization’s political agenda while offering hope and an alternative for Palestinians, not by inflicting massive destruction on Gaza. So long as the occupation persists, Gaza remains under a tight siege, Palestinians are barred from basic human rights, and Hamas only strengthens its power and appeal.
Israel’s tactics against Hamas have led to the erosion of its own political and moral strength. Internationally, Israel is losing the battle over the narrative – and Hamas is fully aware of this, seeing it as one of its major achievements. While Israel holds responsibility for the killing of so many civilians in Gaza, the pictures of devastation shown on news channels around the world tend to support Hamas’ agenda.
Domestically, as was manifested in this current cycle of violence, Jewish-Israeli society is slowly losing its moral compass, becoming more and more ultra-nationalistic, intolerant towards voices of dissent, and indifferent (at best) to the suffering of its Palestinian neighbors. Israel will have to find a modus vivendi with the people of Gaza if it ever wishes to end this hundred-year war.
Asher Kaufman is Associate Professor of History and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame.