Ever since Hamas triumphed in the Palestinian
elections nearly three years ago, the story in Israel has been that a full-scale
ground invasion of the Gaza Strip was imminent. But even when public pressure
mounted for a decisive blow against Hamas, the government backed off from a
Now the world waits for Ehud Barak, the defense minister, to send in the tanks
and troops as the logic of this operation is pushing inexorably towards a ground
war. Nonetheless, officials have been stalling. Significant ground forces are
massed on Gaza's border, but still the talk in Israel is of "exit strategies,"
lulls and renewed ceasefires.
Even if Israeli tanks do lumber into the enclave, will they dare to move into
the real battlegrounds of central Gaza? Or will they simply be used, as they
have been in the past, to terrorize the civilian population on the peripheries?
Israelis are aware of the official reason for Mr. Barak's reticence to follow
the air strikes with a large-scale ground war. They have been endlessly reminded
that the worst losses sustained by the army in the second intifada took place
in 2002 during the invasion of Jenin refugee camp.
Gaza, as Israelis know only too well, is one mammoth refugee camp. Its narrow
alleys, incapable of being negotiated by Merkava tanks, will force Israeli soldiers
out into the open. Gaza, in the Israeli imagination, is a death trap.
Similarly, no one has forgotten the heavy toll on Israeli soldiers during the
ground war with Hezbollah in 2006. In a country such as Israel, with a citizen
army, the public has become positively phobic of a war in which large numbers
of its sons will be placed in the firing line.
That fear is only heightened by reports in the Israeli media that Hamas is
praying for the chance to engage Israel's army in serious combat. The decision
to sacrifice many soldiers in Gaza is not one Mr. Barak, leader of the Labor
Party, will take lightly with an election in six weeks.
But there is another concern that has given him equal cause to hesitate.
Despite the popular rhetoric in Israel, no senior official really believes
Hamas can be destroyed, either from the air or with brigades of troops. It is
simply too entrenched in Gaza.
That conclusion is acknowledged in the tepid rationales offered so far for
Israel's operations. "Creating calm in the country's south" and "changing
the security environment" have been preferred over previous favorites,
such as "rooting out the infrastructure of terror."
An invasion whose real objective was the toppling of Hamas would, as Mr. Barak
and his officials understand, require the permanent military reoccupation of
But overturning the disengagement from Gaza – the 2005 brainchild of Ariel
Sharon, the prime minister at the time – would entail a huge military and financial
commitment from Israel. It would once again have to assume responsibility for
the welfare of the local civilian population, and the army would be forced into
treacherous policing of Gaza's teeming camps.
In effect, an invasion of Gaza to overthrow Hamas would be a reversal of the
trend in Israeli policy since the Oslo process of the early 1990s.
It was then that Israel allowed the long-exiled Palestinian leader, Yasser
Arafat, to return to the occupied territories in the new role of head of the
Palestinian Authority. Naively, Arafat assumed he was leading a government-in-waiting.
In truth, he simply became Israel's chief security contractor.
Arafat was tolerated during the 1990s because he did little to stop Israel's
effective annexation of large parts of the West Bank through the rapid expansion
of settlements and increasingly harsh movement restrictions on Palestinians.
Instead, he concentrated on building up the security forces of his Fatah loyalists,
containing Hamas and preparing for a statehood that never arrived.
When the second intifada broke out, Arafat proved he had outlived his usefulness
to Israel. His Palestinian Authority was gradually emasculated.
Since Arafat's death and the disengagement from Gaza, Israel has sought to
consolidate the physical separation of the Strip from the much-coveted West
Bank. Even if not originally desired by Israel, Hamas's takeover of Gaza has
contributed significantly to that goal.
Israel is now faced by two Palestinian national movements. The Fatah one, based
in the West Bank and led by a weak president, Mahmoud Abbas, is largely discredited
and compliant. The other, Hamas, based in Gaza, has grown in confidence as it
claims to be the true guardian of resistance to the occupation.
Unable to destroy Hamas, Israel is now considering whether to live with the
armed group next door.
Hamas has proved it can enforce its rule in Gaza much as Arafat once did in
both occupied territories. The question being debated in Israel's cabinet and
war rooms is whether, like Arafat, Hamas can be made to collude with the occupation.
It has proved it is strong, but can it be made useful to Israel, too?
In practice that would mean taming Hamas rather than crushing it. Whereas Israel
is trying to build up Fatah in the West Bank with carrots, it is using the current
slaughter in Gaza as a big stick with which to beat Hamas into compliance.
The ultimate objective is another truce stopping the rocket fire out of the
Strip, like the six-month ceasefire that just ended, but on terms even more
favorable to Israel.
The savage blockade that has deprived Gaza's population of essentials for many
months failed to achieve that goal. Instead, Hamas quickly took charge of the
smuggling tunnels that became a lifeline for Gazans. The tunnels raised Hamas's
finances and popularity in equal measure.
It should come as no surprise that Israel has barely bothered to hit the Hamas
leadership or its military wing. Instead it has bombed the tunnels, Hamas's
treasure chest, and it has killed substantial numbers of ordinary policemen,
the guarantors of law and order in Gaza. Latest reports suggest Israel is now
planning to expand its air strikes to Hamas's welfare organizations, the charities
that are the base of its popularity.
The air campaign is paring down Hamas's ability to function effectively as
the ruler of Gaza. It is undermining Hamas's political power bases. The lesson
is not that Hamas can be destroyed militarily but that it that can be weakened
Israel apparently hopes to persuade the Hamas leadership, as it did Arafat
for a while, that its best interests are served by cooperating with Israel.
The message is: forget about your popular mandate to resist the occupation and
concentrate instead on remaining in power with our help.
In the fog of war, events may yet escalate in such a way that a serious ground
invasion cannot be avoided, especially if Hamas continues to fire rockets into
Israel. But whatever happens, Israel and Hamas are almost certain in the end
to agree to another ceasefire.
The issue will be whether in doing so, Hamas, like Arafat before it, loses
sight of its primary task: to force Israel to end its occupation.
This article originally appeared in The
National, published in Abu Dhabi.