I’m sometimes asked “why doesn’t Israel simply talk to Hamas?” The short answer is “you can’t compromise on existence”. Here’s a longer one.
Why There’s a Hamas-Israel War
By Barry Rubin
The deliberate murder of eight and the wounding of nine Israeli rabbinical students in Jerusalem only highlights the fact that Hamas is at war with Israel. It is, from Hamas’s view, a war that will never end until Israel is exterminated and its citizens killed or expelled. No other analysis is accurate or can explain what is happening.
First, the fact that it is a war must be understood. The Gaza Strip is technically not a state, yet is functioning as one. The Gaza government of the radical Islamist Hamas has declared war on Israel. The war’s purpose is not to free Gaza from occupation, nor is it a defensive war in response to Israeli attacks.
The goal–openly and daily declared by Hamas in media and speeches, teaching in schools and sermons in mosques–is a long-term campaign to wipe Israel off the map and to kill or expel most of its citizens. There’s a word for this: genocide.
The war’s background is clear. Israel withdrew completely from the Gaza Strip, pulling out all troops and dismantling all settlements. Palestinian forces controlled their side of the borders with Israel and Egypt. Israel’s goal was to enhance negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA) seeking a diplomatic solution that includes an independent Palestinian state.
Hamas won the Palestinian elections. Still, power was divided between Hamas and Fatah, a nationalist group which had always dominated Palestinian leadership and continued to control the government’s executive branch. Their relationship was rocky but the two sides worked out a coalition agreement under Saudi mediation. The new system seemed to have a chance.
At that moment, Hamas staged a bloody coup, expelling Fatah and seizing full control. This was an act against the whole international community, which had backed the PA as a signatory to the Oslo accords and party to a peace process with Israel. Billions of dollars of Western aid sought to create a stable PA regime able to improve its people’s lives and reach a just peace. Whatever the problems that process experienced, it was the sole hope for progress. With Hamas in power, though, any hope for diplomatic progress is blocked. The PA now only controls roughly half the land and people it claims to represent directly, and Hamas might even take that over.
Hamas had always rejected that outcome, openly endorsing terrorism, seeking Israel’s destruction, and using the type of antisemitic rhetoric hardly heard since 1945 and the defeat of Nazi Germany. To achieve its goals, Hamas favored a permanent state of warfare with Israel. Since its coup that is precisely what Hamas has done. It also seeks to extend its rule to the West Bank, destroying the PA, escalating fighting, and pursuing its objective of creating a radical Islamist, anti-Western Palestinian state allied with Iran and Syria.
While relations between Israel and the PA-ruled West Bank have remained relatively peaceful by comparison for four years, the Hamas-led Gaza regime constantly sponsored or carried out firing rockets, mortars, and ground-based terror attacks aimed to kill Israeli civilians. That these did not succeed in causing great casualties was no thanks to Hamas but to Israel’s successful defensive measures.
For its own reasons, the current Israeli government has been relatively restrained in response, due to a desire to maintain Western support as well as the government coalition’s fragility. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert realized that his best political move was to stress his efforts to make peace with the PA, not only because this was U.S. and European policy but also to argue he could not be replaced in the midst of delicate negotiations.
There were regular Israeli retaliations in Gaza but no large-scale incursion. Much debate discussed small-scale cuts in electrical supply but they were generally postponed or cancelled. An embargo was put on goods going into Gaza, but directly supplied electricity, medicine, and other vital goods were allowed across the border.
In the last few days, however, some important things have changed. One new development was the successful, albeit temporary, breach of the Egyptian border by Hamas, which used the opportunity to import vast arms supplies. The other big development was the firing of longer-range missiles, some hitting the Israeli city of Ashkelon for the first time. Clearly, Hamas was able to attack larger and larger portions of Israeli civilians.
A strong response was required. Israel’s goal is not to kill or injure civilians–something that, aside from moral implications has absolutely no strategic value–but to weaken Hamas’s ability to attack Israel. It is a thoroughly defensive strategy.
To see who is aggressor here is an easy task. If Hamas were to stop attacking Israel there would be no cross-border Israeli operations whatsoever. But if Israel does nothing in retaliation–as it has repeatedly for long periods of time–the Hamas attacks on Israel continue. Israel’s goal is to defend its civilians; Hamas’s goal is to destroy Israel as a state and society.
For the international community, the crisis is intensified because this is a new type of conflict, given Hamas’s ideology and goals. Two elements are critical to stopping the violence.
First, the world should support Israel in its effort to defend itself at present and to pursue the long-term goal of reaching a comprehensive peace agreement. In this context the PA should receive support to ensure that it is not overthrown by Hamas, though such backing should be conditioned also on the PA’s efforts to clean up corruption and incitement to terrorism on its own territory.
Second, Hamas should be isolated and pressured with the maximum goal of pushing it out of power and the more immediate goal of making it realize that it must stop the war on Israel or face that outcome. Aid or comfort given to Hamas by the West will only encourage its intransigence and lead to more violence and suffering.
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Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA). His latest books are The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).