How to Deal with Hamas: Make Concessions or Fight?
Israel’s leading politicians, Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have been engaged in a fierce debate with Minister of Education Naftali Bennett over how to react to Hamas’ attempt since the March of Return began to change the status quo.
Netanyahu and Lieberman want to reach understandings with Hamas to restore the relative calm that prevailed for nearly four years after the 2014 conflict with the terror group in Gaza. They are willing to make humanitarian concessions and probably acquiesce to a sizable prisoner release of hard-core terrorists in order to restore the calm, even temporarily. Bennett, by contrast, is bitterly opposed to making concessions, and seeks a fourth round of confrontation that will considerably weaken Hamas.
The merits of the debate are difficult to assess because of the wisdom of both approaches on political and military grounds. The question, of course, is which of these strategies would be better for Israel at this particular point in time.
Netanyahu and Lieberman have a strong case in calling for restraint and even concessions towards Hamas. They see Israel’s strategic concerns in hierarchical terms. By far the most important threat to Israel is Iran’s nuclear program. Immediately following that is Iran’s attempts to set up a permanent military infrastructure in Syria, which would include a sizable pro-Iranian militia presence on the Golan front.
The two men believe that nothing should detract from the focus on Iran or the renewal of sanctions against the Islamic Republic, and the Trump administration supports them in this. In fact, according to both Netanyahu and Lieberman, the decision by Hamas to heat up the Gaza front in late March was initiated by Iran, and designed to shift the Israeli focus away from Iran to the Palestinians. Such a change of focus, Iran hoped, would embolden key European states such as France and Germany to take countermeasures against US sanctions on Iran.
Netanyahu and Lieberman reason that time is of the essence in confronting Iran, not only because Trump’s pro-Israel administration has only two more years until its fate is decided by the next presidential election, but because there is a fear, given the legal challenges the president faces at home, that that time might be even shorter.
For his part, Bennett makes a plausible argument against acquiescing to Hamas’ exploitation of Israel’s complicated geo-strategic environment. As far as Bennett is concerned, the focus on Iran is guaranteed by a president resolved to roll back Iran on its nuclear program and aggressive behavior towards its neighbors. A supportive US Congress and the legal framework within which the sanctions operate, which gives them a life of their own, cannot be sidelined by other crises, Bennett says — including a fourth round of fighting between Israel and Gaza.
Based on these assumptions, Bennett argues that buying periods of quiet through concessions comes at considerable cost, especially if this means an increase in imports into Gaza, which would give Hamas the wherewithal to improve its military capabilities. Any form of ceasefire, whatever it is called, gives the organization time to train for the next round, he asserts. This means greater and more lethal firepower.
Bennett is correct that Hamas uses its time wisely to increase its capabilities. For example, in 22 days of Operation Cast Lead in winter 2008-09, the organization, along with others, launched 925 rockets that hit Israel. This increased to 3,852 during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 — an almost 200 percent increase, even taking into account the much longer duration of fighting in 2014 compared to six years earlier (55 days compared to 24). Casualties were also significantly higher: 72 versus 13 Israeli deaths in 2014, as opposed to 2008-2009. The increase was mainly due to effective attacks from tunnels within Gaza and greater use of mortars against Israeli troops encamped in areas adjacent to Gaza.
Though Israel has developed technology to deal with both these problems, Hamas has proved to be an innovative enemy that might come up with further surprises in the next round. The longer the respite, one might safely assume, the greater the probability that it will do so.
Looking at how Israel secured deterrence on the Gaza front lends support to Bennett’s line of thinking. “Understandings” between Israel and Hamas have always been short-lived, if acted upon at all. The 2005 “lull,” marketed as an informal understanding between the Palestinian factions and Israel, translated into a 345 percent increase in missile and mortar attacks compared to 2004. After the 2012 round, the “understandings” brokered by the ousted Egyptian Morsi government lasted little more than a year, until the deadly trickle of missile and mortar launches began anew.
Still less did “humanitarian” gestures buy quiet. From the point of view of Hamas, the greatest humanitarian move was the release of over 1,000 hard-core terrorists in 2011 in return for the release of one Israeli soldier. This did not prevent a second round in October 2012. Over time, only the three large-scale rounds of violence created accumulated deterrence between rounds, in which missile launches after each round appreciably decreased.
The best option, then, is for Israel is to prolong negotiations as long as possible, concede as little as possible, and wait until the sanctions against Iran come into full force — and then prepare for the next big round, not to defeat Hamas, but to tame it and keep the Palestinians divided.
Professor Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. An earlier version of this article was published in The Jerusalem Post. BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.