By James M. Dorsey
Wars inevitably spark change. That is no truer than in the war in Gaza no matter what Hamas and Israel say. The signs of changing attitudes of Israel and Hamas towards one another go significantly beyond the fact that the two sworn enemies who refuse to recognize one another are negotiating even if only indirectly. They also go beyond the fact that the road to the Cairo talks was paved in part on indirect negotiations between Hamas and the United States, which like Israel has declared Hamas a terrorist organization. While some European officials have been urging Israel to negotiate directly with Hamas.
Keywords: Middle East, Israel, Palestine, Gaza, Hamas, Egypt
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu announced changed Israeli attitudes towards Hamas when he defined Israel’s goal in the Gaza war as the weakening of Hamas military capability, if not the demilitarization of the group, rather than his long standing objective of total destruction of the organisation. While Israel seemed to be indiscriminate in its risking of civilian casualties during the war, Hamas’ senior leadership in the Strip has emerged from the fighting unscathed.
The negotiations despite their cyclical breakdowns do not only acknowledge Hamas as a key player in any long lasting arrangement with Israel but also constitute a recognition of the fact that the Islamist group looks a lot better than other militant Palestinian groups in Gaza such as Islamic Jihad, which has often played the role of an agent provocateur trying to force conflict in an environment in which both Hamas and Israel would have wanted to avoid military confrontation. Even if Hamas does not comprise the moderate Palestinians that Israel and its western backers prefer to deal with, it looks better than the Islamic State which occupies significant chunks of Syria and Iraq.
Israel’s acknowledgement of Hamas as the best of a bad bunch is evident in the substance of the Cairo talks: the building blocks of a future state and a two-state resolution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict – rule by a Palestinian national unity government, open borders, a sea port, extended territorial waters, and an airport – in exchange for military and security arrangements that ensure the security of both Israel and the Palestinians.
Anat Kurz, director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for national security studies, which has close ties to Israel’s government and security establishment, reflects the changed attitudes in official Israeli thinking. “Israel does not want to destroy Hamas. There’s a shift in the Israeli position … Israel wants to leave Hamas enough capability because it is the most organised force in the Gaza Strip,” Kurz told The Guardian. She acknowledged that the label- ling of a group as terrorist often serves as a way of avoiding negotiations that could involve painful compromises. (1)
Ironically, Kurz’s articulation of changed (2) Israeli attitudes mirrors statements by Hamas leader Khaled Mishal, including his assessment of Israel’s demand that Hamas first recognize the Jewish state and denounce armed struggle before any potential direct talks. In a lengthy interview with Al Jazeera, Mishal described the Israeli demands as a tool to evade negotiations, noting that the United States and the Vietcong negotiated an end to the Vietnam War while the fighting continued. “The argument throws the ball into the Palestinian court … We will not surrender to Israeli blackmail,” Mishal said. He noted further that a quarter of a century after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat first renounced violence and then recognized Israel Palestinians have yet to secure their rights.
More importantly, both in his explicit remarks and in the tone of his interview Mishal made clear that Israel had signed on to a two-state resolution that would end the Israeli- Palestinian conflict with the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.” We accept a state with the 1967 borders but Israel doesn’t. That makes a solution difficult to achieve,” Mishal said referring to the borders before the 1967 Middle East war in which Israel conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. (3)
Changed Israeli and Hamas attitudes however do not automatically lead to a solution. Nevertheless they are a sine qua non for any longstanding arrangement whether a ceasefire or a final peace agreement. So far neither Israel nor Hamas has demonstrated the political will to build on the change in the way they eye each other. Intractable hostility suited both Israel and Hamas until the last Gaza war.
The change is nonetheless significant. Hamas has clearly stated what it has long been signalling: Israel is there to stay. Mishal has downplayed the Hamas charter that calls for Israel’s destruction, saying that it is “a piece of history and no longer relevant, but cannot be changed for internal reasons.”
His number two, Mousa Abu Marzouk, noted that “the charter is not the Quran. It can be amended.” Their statements echo the words of the late Israeli Defence Minister Ezer Weiz- man who stood in front of his Likud Party emblem that showed Jordan as part of Israel and said with regard to the charter of the Palestine Liberation Organization that at the time called for Israel’s demise: “We can dream, so can they.” (4)
The Israeli-Hamas dance is occurring in an environment in which Israeli intelligence failures have allowed the Islamist group to gain the strategic upper hand. Israeli destruction of Gazan infrastructure may have turned the strip into a modern day Dresden. But returning Gaza to the Stone Age has not stopped Hamas from inflicting significant political and psycho- logical damage on Israel. Israeli military and intelligence sources fear that fundamental Israeli intelligence failures have put Hamas in a position to increase Israel’s political cost and determine when Israel’s longest war against the Palestinians will end.
Israel’s two-month old war against Hamas has shifted from a sledgehammer approach intended to shock the Islamist militia into accepting Israeli demands for demilitarization into the one thing Netanyahu had wanted to avoid: a war of attrition that would strengthen his right-wing critics at home and risk Israel losing control of ceasefire negotiations in which Egypt did Israel’s bidding.
Hamas’ refusal to bow to Israeli military superiority as well as its uncompromising insistence on a lifting of blockade and the right to furnish Gaza with an airport and sea port caught Israel by surprise.
Hamas’ steadfastness leaves Israel with few good options: continua- tion of a war of attrition that works in Hamas’ favour; unilaterally declaring an end to the war that would be rendered meaningless by the continued launching of rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza; and/or accepting in the face of failure of Egypt’s biased mediation a shifting of efforts to end the fighting to the United Nations where Israel is likely to get a less sympa- thetic hearing.
The effects of Hamas’ strategy are already evident on the ground. Beyond having been forced into a war of attrition, Israeli towns and settlements adjacent to the Gaza Strip have turned a majority of their residents into internal refugees. “This is a strategic achievement on a par with Hamas’ success in closing (Tel Aviv’s) Ben Gurion international airport for a couple of days last month,” commented DEBKAFile, a news website with close ties to Israel’s military and intelligence establishment (5). Hamas is likely to cement its achievement with the war threatening the opening of the school year in chunks of Israel. Parents in cities beyond Gaza’s immediate parameters have warned that they will not let their children attend school as long as the Palestinian threat persists. In addition, Israel’s international standing has been significantly dented highlighted by US and British suggestions that they may review arms sales to the Jewish state more stringently.
Israeli military and intelligence sources attribute their failure to predict Hamas’ ability to stand up to punishing military strikes to a decision in the last decade to focus the country’s intelligence resources on gathering tactical intelligence and its military on ensuring weapons and training superiority rather than on understanding the enemy’s strategy, mindset and evaluation of the local and international environment in which it operates. As a result, Israeli intelligence and security agencies have cut back on personnel seeking to understand the broader picture in which Hamas and other groups operate.
Proponents of the shift in focus point to Israeli successes in recent years including the 2008 assassination in Damascus of Imad Mughnieyh, a widely respected Hezbollah and Ira- nian operative, who masterminded attacks on Israeli and US targets as well as a host of kid- nappings of foreigners in Lebanon, including the CIA’s station chief. They also list the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists in Iran and elsewhere, the Stuxnet cyber-attack on Iranian com- puter systems related to the Islamic republic’s nuclear program, and the 2007 destruction of a Syrian plutonium reactor built with the help of Iran and North Korea. They further argue that Israeli forces involved in Gaza benefitted from superior tactical knowledge.
Those successes notwithstanding Israeli intelligence was unable to provide Netanyahu and members of his security cabinet with the necessary strategic analysis to pre-empt what has become a classic example of Machiavelli’s pursuit by Hamas of diplomacy by other means. Israeli intelligence’s inability was already evident in faulty analysis of the popular Arab re- volts that toppled the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen as well as of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strategy of allowing the Islamic State, the jihadist group that con- trols a swath of Syria and Iraq, to emerge as the major rebel group so that he could substantiate his claim that he was fighting a terrorist phenomenon that threatens not only his regime but also the region as a whole and the West.
In the run-up to the Gaza war, Israeli intelligence wrongly predicted that Hamas would quickly sue for a ceasefire. In addition there were gaps in intelligence about where Hamas leaders were hiding and where the group had stored its rockets arsenal. Add to that a political failure to assess the strategic importance of the tunnels, including the fact that some of them ended on the Israeli side of the border that forced the military to change the focus of its opera- tion. Finally, intelligence underestimated Hamas’s military ability demonstrated by the Israeli military’s use on several occasions of old M113 personnel carriers with inferior armour rein- forced, at times a lack of body armour and radio communications, and the deployment of some troops that had no combat experience.
Said Amos Harel, one of Israel’s most respected military commentators: “These phenomena show that the IDF, especially the ground forces, needs to think hard and plan anew. Israel’s technically advanced forces found an enemy playing in a different field, thus eroding its advantages. The Israel Air Force, with the assistance of MI (military intelligence) and the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security service), can strike its targets with great precision. But against Hamas or Hezbollah, this may not be enough to win decisively… If the IDF wants to preserve its ability to win using manoeuvres, quite extensive changes must be considered.” (6)
Harel’s remarks are part of an informal Israeli post-mortem of the Gaza war at the core of which is not only the focus of intelligence services but also the Israeli military’s organization, strategy and doctrine. The key question is whether current organization and doctrine meets the requirements of unconventional rather than conventional warfare given that Israel’s last four wars were against the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, and Hamas.
The debate about the Israeli military comes against the backdrop of its changed demog- raphy. Israel’s military today is not what it was in the late 1980s when it told then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin during the first Intifada or Palestinian popular uprising against Israeli occupation: ”We can solve this militarily but not on terms that would be politically or morally acceptable to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) or the government. .. you, Mr. Prime Minister have to solve it politically.” A few years later Rabin engaged in the failed Oslo peace process with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Nor is the Israeli government similar to that of Rabin. The government of Netanyahu in the first week of the assault on Gaza apparently turned down a proposal to conduct light- ning strikes inside Gaza that would have destroyed Hamas’ command and control centres and other military infrastructure and spared a large number of innocent Palestinian lives. It also refused to entertain a proposal for a full re-occupation of the Gaza Strip. As a result, Debkafile suggested that had Israel opted for lightning strikes “at an early stage in the conflict, instead of ten days of air strikes, it might have saved heavy
Palestinian losses and property devasta- tion, the extent of which troubles most Israelis too.”(7)
Israel’s liberal Ha’aretz newspaper added in an editorial: “When you’re too heavy, big or bloated, it’s hard to move, run or even bend down. Your arm is so fat it can’t reach into a tunnel. It gets stuck and you stand there helplessly. That’s precisely the situation with the Israel Defence Forces. It’s a King Kong of an army — big and cumbersome; every move unin- tentionally knocks down a house, bridge or UN school in Gaza... The top brass has forgotten that line in the Book of Proverbs: ‘with wise advice thou shalt make thy war.’(8)
With analysts predicting increased differences between the military and Israel’s political leadership in the wake of the Gaza war, both entities are coping with very different political and demographic constituencies. Israel’s right-wing has moved further to the right forcing Netanyahu to fend off pressure from coalition partners like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman whose Yisrael Beytenu (Israel is our Home) Party ended its alliance with the prime minister’s Likud early in the war, and economy minister Naftali Bennett’s Habait Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) Party that both advocated reoccupation of Gaza.
Similarly, religious and conservative forces have become more prominent in the Israeli military. The commander of Israel’s elite infantry Givatii Brigade Col. Ofer Winter, that suffered high casualties in the last month, declared holy war on the Palestinians in a message to his troops at the beginning of the Gaza war that went on to say: “The Lord God of Israel, make our way successful. … We’re going to war for your people Israel against an enemy that defames you.”(9)
Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon recently appeared to acknowledge the consequences of Israeli strategic and tactical mistakes by effectively conceding that Hamas had succeeded in imposing a war of attrition on Israel. Yaalon insisted that the Gaza war would only end “when quiet returns to southern Israel” and that Israel preferred a diplomatic rather than a military resolution of the conflict.(10) “This approach leaves the initiative in Hamas’ hands and Israel ignorantly navigating its military moves towards a ceasefire instead of winning the war. Despite its inferiority in fighting strength and weaponry, Israel’s enemy uses this ambivalence to retain the element of surprise and keep the IDF moving without direction,” DEBKAFile said. (11)
It has also made Netanyahu more vulnerable to criticism that Israel will be unable to militarily defeat Hamas in a war of attrition that takes an increasing toll on Israel’s population and that only full disarmament of Hamas will restore Israeli security. Ironically, some of the prime minister’s critics, including former defence minister Moshe Arens, would be willing to cut short the war of attrition and concede to some of Hamas’ demands in the absence of a military campaign aimed at complete disarmament on condition that the government prepares for another round of fighting which they view as inevitable at some point in the future. (12)
Even that seemingly conciliatory approach could backfire in the absence of a bold Israeli initiative to sincerely negotiate an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The war in Gaza and the failure of Egypt to politically undercut Hamas in the ceasefire negotiations have raised the spectre of internationalization of the conflict. Palestinian factions are making it increasingly difficult for Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to avoid filing war crime charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court. In addition, European efforts to shift ceasefire talks from Cairo to the United Nations in New York are more sympathetic to Hamas’ demands for a lifting of the siege and international supervision of border crossings and reconstruction of Gaza – the very steps that could reduce Israeli control of the process.
In thwarting Israel’s strategy, Hamas has also cast a shadow over the Egyptian-Israeli alliance that Israel worked hard to establish in the wake of last year’s military coup against President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother aligned with the Islamist leadership in Gaza. Key to the stalled Egypt-led talks in Cairo is an intimate relationship forged between Israeli and Egyptian leaders. The relationship is built on shared political goals, first and foremost among which deep-seated animosity towards the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot.
Egypt demonstrated its approach in the initial days when it first put forward a proposal to achieve a ceasefire in Gaza. The proposal was rejected by Hamas because Egypt did not even bother to consult it before putting its proposal forward. Egypt has since refused to deal directly with Hamas, primarily addressing itself to Palestine Authority officials as representatives of all Palestinian factions, including Hamas. Throughout the talks Egypt sought unsuccessfully to water down Hamas’ demands because they would enable Gaza to interact with the international community beyond the control of Israel and Egypt.
As a result, the Cairo talks have convinced Palestinian negotiators that Israel would like to see an end to the hostilities. Rather than that creating a basis for an agreement, it has rein- forced Hamas’ resolve. The dilemma is that “Israel demands a cease-fire before renewing nego- tiations, whereas Hamas believes that only rocket fire will make Israel more flexible,” said prominent Israeli journalist Zvi Bar’el in Ha’aretz newspaper.
Egypt’s effort to exploit the Cairo ceasefire talks to its and Israel’s advantage is a reflection of a successful Israeli diplomatic effort over the past year to convince Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi that they share common interests. Israel’s diplo- macy was so successful that a report in The Wall Street Journal suggested that if anything Al Sisi was more hard line towards Hamas than the Israelis themselves. (13)
The paper quoted Israeli officials as worrying that Egypt’s closure of tunnels leading from Gaza to the Sinai that with the blockade were crucial for the delivery of badly needed civilian supplies without offering the Palestinians an alternative supply line could backfire. “They were actually suffocating Gaza too much,” the Journal quoted an Israeli official as say- ing. While Egypt seemed bent on effectively destroying Hamas, Israel wanted to see a severely weakened Hamas that was nonetheless capable of controlling more militant groups in Gaza. Egyptian attitudes toward Gaza were highlighted by the fact that Egypt since the toppling of Morsi has accused Hamas of conspiring with Morsi and the Brotherhood against the Egyptian state. In fact, some of the charges being levelled against Morsi in legal proceedings in Egypt involve Hamas.
A senior Israeli official, General Amos Gilad, the Israeli defence ministry’s director of policy and political-military relations, who played a key role in forging the Israeli-Egyptian alliance, hinted at the two countries’ close cooperation during a recent visit to Singapore. “Everything is underground, nothing is public. But our security cooperation with Egypt and the Gulf states is unique. This is the best period of security and diplomatic relations with the Ar- abs. Relations with Egypt have improved dramatically,” Gilad said.(14)
Israel’s intelligence and policy failures have cost it dearly. Repairing the damage is likely to be complicated and painful. Reorganizing the military and revamping its doctrine and strategy is no mean task. It involves a debate that by definition will have to also include Israel’s broader policies towards the Palestinians at a time that popular anti-Arab and anti- Palestinian sentiment is running high.
1. Fraser G. 2014. Sometimes it’s good to talk – even to ‘terrorists’, London: The Guardian,
2. Talk to Al Jazeera. 2014. Khaled Meshaal: 'Not a war of choice', Doha: Al Jazeera, August 17, http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/talktojazeera/2014/08/khaled-meshaal-not-war-choice- 201481516939516479.html
3. Ibid. Talk to Al Jazeera
4. Interview with the author
5. DebkaFile. 2014. Though militarily inferior, Hamas has hit Israel strategically with attrition a n d p o p u l a t i o n f l i g h t , A u g u s t 2 4 , http://www.debka.com/article/24215/Though-militarily-inferior-Hamas-has-hit-Israel-strategic ally-with-attrition-and-population-flight
6. Harel A. 2014. Gaza war taught IDF: Time to rethink strategies, Tel Aviv: Haáretz, August 5 http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/.premium-1.608896
7. DebkaFile. 2014. Iran, Al Qaeda took note of curbs on IDF vanquishing Hamas, which now h a s c o r e o f a P a l e s t i n i a n a r m y, A u g u s t 6 , http://www.debka.com/article/24166/Iran-Al-Qaeda-took-note-of-curbs-on-IDF-vanquishing- Hamas-which-now-has-core-of-a-Palestinian-army-
8. Haáretz. 2014. The IDF has put its brain in storage - or lent it to HamasThe military’, August 5, http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.608859
9. Cohen G. 2014. Mortar fire kills 5 soldiers in staging area near Strip, Tel Aviv: Haáretz, August 1, http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/.premium-1.608349
10. Ibid. DebkaFile August 24
11. Ibid. DebkaFile August 24
12. Arens M. 2014. A war of attrition is not an option in Gaza, Tel Aviv: Haáretz, August 25, http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.612178
13. Entous A. and Casey N. 2014. Gaza Tension Stoked by Unlikely Alliance Between Israel and E g y p t , T h e Wa l l S t r e e t J o u r n a l , A u g u s t 6 , http://online.wsj.com/articles/unlikely-alliance-between-israel-and-egypt-stoked-gaza-tension- 1407379093
14. Interview with the author