Israel's operation in Gaza is meant to compel Hamas to stop shooting rockets into Israel and to better police its territory. But with Hamas unable to bend to Israeli pressure, and Israel unable to escalate or back off, it will be up to outside states to end the fighting.
Calm has been restored to Gaza and southern Israel, but if the cease-fire is to last, Israel and the international community need to engage Hamas diplomatically. Fortunately, the organization has shown a willingness to move beyond its hardline ideology and act practically.
The biggest obstacle to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is not the Palestinians' demand that Jewish settlements in the West Bank be dismantled, the barrier separating much of the West Bank from Israel, or the recent rightward shift of the Israeli body politic. It is the emergence of Hamas as the de facto government of the Gaza Strip, where 1.5 million Palestinians reside.
Hamas has regularly attacked Israel with rockets from Gaza or allowed others to do so. It poses a strong and growing political threat to the more moderate Palestinian Authority, which is led by President Mahmoud Abbas and his technocratic prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and which governs the West Bank and used to run Gaza, too. Whereas PA leaders see negotiations with Israel and institution building as the best way to ultimately gain statehood, Hamas seeks to undermine the peace process. Many Hamas members have not reconciled themselves to the Jewish state's existence. Hamas' leaders also fear that Hamas would reap none of the benefits of a peace deal and that in the event of one, the PA would score political points at their expense. Hamas has shown repeatedly that it can bring talks to a painful end by castigating moderate Palestinians and turning to violence.
Despite Hamas' centrality to Israeli security and Palestinian politics, Washington still clings to the policy that the Bush administration established after Hamas beat more moderate Fatah candidates in elections in Gaza in 2006. The United States and other members of the international community withdrew development aid from Gaza, tacitly supporting Israel's shutdown of the Gaza Strip, and refused to work directly with Hamas. Their hope was to force Hamas' collapse and bring Fatah back to power. But isolation has failed, and today Hamas is far stronger than when it first took power. The Obama administration, more by default than by design, has continued these efforts to isolate and weaken Hamas, opposing talks with the group and condoning Israeli military raids.
Israeli policy also remains stuck in the past. Regular rocket barrages from Gaza mean that Israel cannot simply forget about the area or Hamas. Israel has kept Gaza under siege and has sometimes used considerable force. Although the Gaza war of December 2008 and January 2009 (which Israelis call Operation Cast Lead) did damage Hamas' credibility, and even though Hamas has since reduced its rocket attacks, the long-term sustainability of such an aggressive approach is questionable. Still, Israel and the international community have not developed a new strategy in response to Hamas' consolidation of power.
Some prominent Israelis, such as Efraim Halevy, the former director of Mossad, the Israeli secret service, and Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel's National Security Council, have called for negotiating with Hamas. Other Israelis, who fear that the group will never abandon its goal of destroying Israel, think the Israeli military should retake Gaza before Hamas gets any stronger; they argue that postponing the day of reckoning will cost Israel dearly in the future. But with neither option being palatable at this time, Israel continues to rely on economic pressure and military operations to preempt terrorist attacks from Gaza, kill the people there who launch rockets into Israel, and retaliate for Hamas' provocations.
Although shunning Hamas may seem morally appropriate and politically safe, that policy will undermine Israel's peace talks with Abbas and other Palestinian moderates. An alternative approach is necessary. Hamas could, perhaps, be convinced not to undermine progress on a peace deal. To accomplish this, Israel and the international community would have to exploit Hamas' vulnerabilities, particularly its performance in governing Gaza, with a mix of coercion and concessions, including a further easing of the siege of Gaza. At the same time, they should support the state-building efforts of Fayyad and restart the peace process with Abbas in order to reduce the risk that Hamas will win the struggle for power among the Palestinians. Moreover, because the effort to transform Hamas into a responsible government could fail, the international community must be prepared to support a more aggressive military response by Israel if Hamas does not change.
THE EVE OF DISRUPTION
Peace talks can begin with Hamas on the sidelines, but they cannot finish if Hamas refuses to play ball. Hamas has proved that it has the means to threaten Israel and disrupt peace talks. Rocket and mortar strikes are the most obvious method. According to Israeli government statistics, in 2005, Hamas and other Palestinian groups launched around 850 rockets and mortars at Israel from Gaza. By 2008, the figure had climbed past 2,000. The death toll from these attacks was low, but the psychological effect has been considerable. Hamas uses Qassam rockets, which have unpredictable trajectories and so fall on soldiers and civilians alike. One 2007 study found that 28 percent of the adults and between 72 percent and 94 percent of the children in Sderot, the Israeli town most frequently hit by rockets, suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder.
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