AFTER nearly three weeks of fighting — notwithstanding the 12-hour pause announced early this morning by Israel — it is time to revisit some basic assumptions about Hamas. Until now, Israel assumed Hamas was the “devil we know,” capable of attacks that were mostly a nuisance; accepting its rule over the Gaza Strip was preferable to risking a vacuum of governance like what we see in Somalia and Libya. But Hamas’s reckless violence in the current round of fighting severely undermined this thinking.
First, Hamas has proved a bad ruler. By placing many of its military assets — tunnels to infiltrate Israel, bunkers for its fighters, rocket launchers to terrorize Israeli civilians — under or among mosques, hospitals and schools, Hamas turned Gaza’s civilians into a shield for its military assets, in effect daring Israel to attack them. Then it cynically turned the predictable casualties that ensued into propaganda, and rejected cease-fire proposals, notably an Egyptian plan accepted by Israel, the Arab League and the international community. Last week, Mohammed al-Arabi, a former Egyptian foreign minister, accused it of “shedding the blood of innocent Palestinians.”
The latest round of warfare showed that Hamas had become more dangerous, and its offensive capacity stronger, than we had known. Its ability to threaten Israeli towns through its tunnels and to rain rockets on Israeli cities raised what had been a nuisance to a challenge of strategic proportions.
For these reasons, Hamas’s rule over Gaza must be brought to an end, its military wing disarmed, and Gaza’s people given the chance to elect new leaders.
This can be done in three stages:
First, Israel has every right to intensify its campaign until Hamas’s leaders agree to a cease-fire. Israel’s forces must step up the pressure on Hamas, so that its leaders feel the encirclement tightening. (So far, Israel’s incursion has destroyed more than two dozen offensive tunnels, reduced rocket fire at Israeli civilians and collected important intelligence.) Second, any cease-fire must carry the condition that Hamas cannot rearm. Third, the Palestinian Authority must regain a share of power in Gaza, so that new elections can be held.
These measures could clear the way for Gaza’s reopening to the world, so that its people could at last prosper in peace.
All of this can be achieved because of a fundamental change in Middle East politics: For perhaps the first time, there is a true convergence of interest among Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority and Israel in limiting the spread of Islamist extremism.
Remember that it was the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas, that governed Gaza following Israel’s complete withdrawal from the territory in 2005. After a divisive election a year later, Hamas seized sole power in Gaza in 2007. For an enduring peace, Israel should quietly promote a resumption of control in Gaza by the Palestinian unity government, with international support. If Israel succeeds in tying a cease-fire to an immutable ban on rearmament by Hamas, government by a unified leadership of technocrats— as the Palestinian Authority and Hamas agreed to on July 3 — should be encouraged for Gaza.
Such a government could, at minimum, govern the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, and provide basic rule of law. With continued support from Arab countries, this would allow for more economic growth in Gaza and for a gradual lifting of the Israeli-Egyptian blockades. It could even open the way for a long-term, post-conflict “Marshall Plan” for Gaza, led by moderate Arab states and supported by Israel.
Unrealistic? Perhaps. But the alternative — continued rule by Hamas, with its propensity for periodic warfare against Israeli civilians — is far worse. Would an ungoverned Gaza be able to produce and launch thousands of rockets that could cover the length of Israel? We can’t be certain. Similarly dire predictions of Israeli vulnerability to jihadist “tidal waves” from Syria and from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula have been proved wrong in the past. The original sin that led to this outbreak was a willingness, in previous cease-fire agreements, to let Hamas rebuild its offensive capabilities. This reality must not be repeated.
Before this round of fighting, Hamas had been weakened by two years of political and economic setbacks for its supporters in the Middle East. It had to leave its base in Syria because of the civil war there. Its Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egypt were ousted. Its popularity among Palestinians was declining. A June poll showed that 70 percent of Gazans wanted to continue the cease-fire with Israel then in effect; 57 percent wanted the newly established unity government with Fatah, the Palestinian party that governs the West Bank, to renounce violence against Israel; 65 percent said the Palestinian Authority should send officials to administer Gaza.
Opinions have no doubt changed, given the heat of battle and the anguish of Palestinians over the hundreds of civilian casualties. But Gazans know that Hamas is to blame for their staying in neighborhoods about to be bombarded, for hiding rocket depots in their children’s schoolyards, for digging tunnels under mosques. Gazans may hate Israelis, but I suspect that a similar poll, if taken today, would show even less support for Hamas than in June.
Israeli military officials know there is no simple solution — but that a political solution is always better than a military one. But to achieve that political solution, Israel must first arrive at cease-fire negotiations from a position of strength. For that, a significant price must be extracted from Hamas.