Hamas is a brutal, radical terrorist organization whose ideals are contrary to both mainstream Islam and almost all rational conceptions of human rights. That Israel (as well as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan) wants to elminate Hamas is understandable. A Palestine without Hamas would have a better chance at peace and the risk of a Mideast war spiraling out of control would decrease dramatically.
However, massive attacks that kill over 300 so far, including at least 51 civilians according to the UN, is a very dangerous gamble, likely to fail. Whether it’s more like the long term failure following the Lebanon invasion of 1982, which led to the rise of Hezbollah, or the catastrophe of the summer of 2006, when Israel was humiliated in its failure to destroy Hezbollah or get kidnapped troops back, is still unclear.
It is important to understand why Israel unleashed such an assault, with a ground invasion likely soon. Hamas has proven unwilling to moderate its demands or retreat from its threat to try to destroy Israel. Hamas controls the Gaza strip, and has routinely fired rockets into Israeli territory, killing and wounding some Israeli citizens (though nothing of the magnitude of Palestinians killed in these current attacks). Israel recognizes that it’s long term security requires a Palestinian state that can be dealt with, and which recognizes Israel’s right to exist. Israeli officials know that Fatah moderates in the West Bank are willing to try to make that happen. Moreover, Israel’s experience in the battle against Hezbollah was sobering. It created existential concerns about the future of the Israeli state, especially with Iran moving forward on trying to produce nuclear weapons.
It boils down to this: long term Israeli security requires building a viable Palestine alongside a secure Israel. Palestinian leaders outside Hamas want this too, aPalestinian-Israeli peace is not as unthinkable as it might seem. If they could reach an agreement, they could undercut Hezbollah threats (the Palestinians are not Shi’ites, nor are they religious extremists), and give Arab governments a chance to prop up and help sustain the new Palestinian state. It can be done, and could even happen quickly.
The one thing standing in the way: Hamas. With Hamas controlling Gaza, nothing can move forward. The Israelis are forced to watch Hezbollah strengthen, Iran move forward, and Hamas arm itself, feeling as if the clock is ticking against them. Moreover, Israelis now feel a certain lack of self-confidence since the 2006 war; they know they are indeed vulnerable.
This could not have been an easy decision for Prime Minister Olmert, whose days as leader of Israel are numbered (he resigned due to a scandal, but stays on because no other coalition could be formed, and elections aren’t due until February). It’s a gamble likely to have two parts: a) attempt to crush Hamas and destroy its leadership and organizational core; and b) aggressively promote Palestinian statehood through negotiation with moderate Palestinians.
It won’t work. First of all, the emotion caused on each side by the violence will only embolden the extremists, and Hamas is adept at adapting and surviving. They’ll lose hundreds, maybe thousands of fighters, but the pool of willing and angry young Palestinians will grow, and anger will increase in the West Bank as well. Palestinians can count. They know that the Israeli military is killing far more innocents than Hamas kills, and even if Palestinians don’t like Hamas, their rage will directed at Israel.
One reason this is the case is that these kinds of wars are not traditional military confrontations, or even basic asymmetrical warfare. It’s also a media event, with the Arab world as the primary audience. Arab governments relatively friendly to Israel (many unofficially) have breathed a sigh of relief as the Americans gave up their effort to control Iraq. The pressure on them from below was finally starting to let up. This new round of violence is certain to bring about anger in the Arab worlds, forcing Arab governments like Egypt’s to become more hostile to Israel, and could increase internal instability in states across the regoin.
Israelis (and Americans) often don’t comprehend how profound and counter productive the killing of large numbers of civilians can be. Their logic is that Hamas started the attack, Israel must defend its citizens, and the Israeli military is (unlike Hamas) trying to avoid civilian casualties. But Gaza is densely populated, and people die in war. Since they started the attacks, Hamas is responsible for those deaths. That logic is, however, irrelevant. Whether or not Israel’s response is justified in philosophical or legal terms is also irrelevant. The emotional response of Palestinians (and many Israelis, to be sure) is one of outrage over the killing of innocents. Images of bloody and dead children and civilians will be beamed around the world and throughout the Arab world, creating a powerful backlash. The likely result will be that Hamas will survive, Israel’s internal divisions will increase, and the country will be in a more precarious situation than before.
Obviously, that likelihood must be painfully clear to the Israeli military and Prime Minister Olmert — they aren’t dummies. No doubt they decided that there is no alternative. They won’t speak with Hamas until Hamas moderates its demands, and Hamas says it will meet no preconditions before talking with Israel. And, though Egypt is renewing efforts to try to reconcile Fatah and Hamas, there is no love lost between the two Palestinian organizations either. The only alternative left seemed to be to use the awesome power of the Israeli military to eliminate the main obstacle to stability in the Mideast.
However, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be exacerbated by continuing the cycle of violence. Hamas will survive and strike back, peace negotiations with Fatah will be jeopardized, and as the cycle continues, Israel’s very existence could be in question. Ultimately, Israel needs to find a political way out of this, attacking Gaza plays into the hands of the extremists who find the idea of peace with the other side abhorrent. Direct or indirect talks with Hamas, starting with a cease fire are necessary. Hamas can’t be wished away, nor can it simply be crushed. The PLO and Egypt went from wanting Israel’s destruction to accepting its existence; Hamas either has to be brought to that same place, or be gradually weakened by waning support.
Many don’t like that kind of approach. It sounds more concrete to say “destroy Hamas and the main obstacle to peace is gone.” But while one likes to imagine problems can simply be destroyed with violence, it rarely works that way. And given the nature of this battle — a powerful military machine fighting an adaptable popular militia in a media age where photos are as powerful as bullets — Israel is likely to end up in a worse situation than before. True, there is a possibility the gamble will pay off. But there is the possibility that it will start a spiral into all out, devastating, Mideast war.