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May 20, 2021 12:05 pm
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It’s Time to Change the Rules of the Game with Hamas

avatar by David Hacham

Opinion

Israeli firefighters work around burnt bus and car, after they were hit by a rocket fired by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas from Gaza towards Israel amid the escalating flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Operation Guardian of the Walls reached its 10th day on Wednesday, and pressure on Israel to enter into a truce in the near future is growing.

Past operations have shown that it takes days for ceasefire agreements to be implemented.

The IDF is firm in its position that the operation will continue for a few more days at least, in order to complete its objectives, unlike Hamas, which appears keen to reach a truce. Hamas has sustained major strikes on its infrastructure and combat capabilities, as has Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The broad range of precise Israeli Air Force (IAF) strikes and eliminations of senior terrorists is pushing Hamas to become highly interested in a truce at this stage. Hamas is suffering from low morale, symbolic blows, and the elimination of expert knowledge on military terrorist experience.

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Meanwhile, commentary in Israel from senior representatives of the government and a number of former military officers have promoted the idea that the IDF’s objective is to create “a few years of quiet.”

This fits into the longer-term trend that has seen Israel end operations and enable Hamas to threaten it again in a short amount of time, which usually amounts to months or a few years.

But now is the time for Israel to consider new options that will prevent another military campaign, and can break the cycle of escalations that we are trapped in.

The formula in place between Israel and Hamas for the past 15 years has followed the same pattern — Operation Cast Lead in 2008, Pillar of Defense 2012, Protective Edge in 2014, and other smaller flare ups in recent years. After the rounds are over, Hamas and other terror organizations rehabilitate themselves, and prepare for the next round.

Then, after a while, it all begins anew.

Israel also frequently avoided escalations in Gaza due its desire to retain optimal levels of readiness for its more threatening fronts with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and to focus on its disruption of Iranian military entrenchment in Syria.

Israel must disrupt this repetitive Gaza cycle.

First, preventing Hamas from re-arming and rebuilding must be part of any post-conflict arrangement. This can be done by recruiting the international community, with an emphasis on the US.

Second, neutralizing Hamas’ military capabilities should be followed up by an internationally-backed arrangement to promote a civilian effort to rehabilitate Gaza and economically develop it.

Israel must not be intoxicated by its military achievements, but rather focus on the mission of preventing Hamas from rebuilding civil society, and instead repositioning Hamas as a terror organization.

This requires a new Israeli policy for the Palestinian arena.

Since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007, Israel has worked to keep Gaza calm as much as possible, and learned to accept the Hamas regime. It has allowed the continuous flow of goods and trade to Gaza, as well as ongoing Qatari financial aid that now amounts to billions of dollars for the Hamas regime.

Some of those funds clearly leaked to the military wing of Hamas.

The arrangement described above never held up for very long, collapsing each time after a round of fighting, and then resuming. To return to this failed model would be a major mistake by Israel, and highly dangerous.

After the guns go quiet, and mediators obtain a new ceasefire, Israel should invest maximum effort to reach a situation in which the rules of the game will change.

In addition to setting up mechanisms to prevent Hamas from re-arming, it is time for Jerusalem to stop its acceptance of Hamas’ existence as the ruling regime in Gaza, at the cost of a major weakening of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

This pattern has led the PA to be pushed into the corner, and it has led to the blocking of every initiative designed to restart diplomatic talks between Israel and the PA.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas represents only one part of the Palestinian system, and he cannot negotiate with Israel as a lame duck, partial representative. His current weakness makes Abbas look like a puppet, and Fatah, which runs the PA, is seeing serious internal cracks in the stability of its rule in the West Bank.

Reversing this trend will certainly serve Israel’s security interests.

In addition, Israel must make it clear that it will not tolerate any attempt by Hamas to connect Gaza to future events in Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. And vitally, Israel cannot forget its obligation to secure the release of two of its civilians and the bodies of two of its soldiers being held by Hamas as bargaining chips. Basic Israeli and IDF moral codes mean that no one must be left behind.

When the dust settles, Israel will need to hold itself to account over the question of how such a terrorist monster was allowed to rear its head in Gaza.

Part of the answer lies in the blind eye that Israeli authorities turned, for decades, to Palestinian Islamist forces, including the 1979 Israeli recognition of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Al Mujama al-Islami group. This group fought Fatah and other secular PLO organizations in the 1980s, setting the foundation for the establishment of Hamas in 1987, a few days after the eruption of the First Intifada.

Subsequent mistakes led to Hamas getting stronger in the Palestinian territories, particularly in Gaza, such as the decision in 1992 to expel 415 Hamas and other terrorist operatives to Lebanon following the kidnap and murder of a border policeman — only for Israel to allow them to return to the territories a year later, equipped with training, radical ideology, and new political clout.

In 2005, the disengagement from Gaza was conducted in a unilateral manner, without an agreement with the PA, which then ruled the Strip, exhibiting Israel’s short sightedness. This set the stage for Hamas’ takeover in 2007. The decision to allow Hamas to compete in the 2006 elections, under US and international pressure, was another strategic error that benefited Hamas. Hamas went on to win a majority in those elections, paving the way for its 2007 coup.

Looking ahead, it is vital for Israel to finally learn the appropriate lessons from the past, and act differently in the present and the future.

David Hacham is a publishing Expert at The MirYam Institute. David served for 30 years in various intelligence and political-strategic positions in the IDF, including eight years in the Gaza Strip as advisor for Arab affairs to successive commanders of the Southern Command and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.

The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.

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