Hamas said on Sunday that it was in contact with other groups in the Gaza Strip to calm the situation and avoid another war with Israel.
Representatives of the Islamist movement said that they have urged the groups to abide by an unofficial cease-fire with Israel and stop firing rockets and mortars at Israeli communities. Hamas has even threatened any Palestinian who launches attacks on Israel.
Ayman Taha, a Hamas official, said that his movement did not want to give Israel an excuse to “wage a new war against the Gaza Strip.” He warned, however, that Hamas maintained the right to “respond to Israeli crimes, but only within the frame of national consensus.”
What to make of this?
It seems to me that the situation is not that different from the period preceding operation Cast Lead. As you may recall, Israel decided to launch the operation after Hamas ended a ‘cease fire’ that had been in effect for about six months with a heavy rocket barrage that continued for about a month. Hamas’ pretext was a November, 2008, incident which began when IDF forces entered Gaza to destroy a tunnel being dug under the border fence, and ended with the death of six Hamas fighters.
Israel was aware that Hamas had been building up its forces over a long period, but most likely did not act earlier for political reasons, not wishing to be seen as an aggressor. The Hamas rocket attack (which they called “operation oil stain”) was intolerable — 87 rockets were fired in the first 24 hours — and triggered the Israeli response. Unfortunately, Israel was prevented from bringing the operation to a conclusion by pressure from the incoming Obama Administration and the weakness of the Olmert government.
Although the first stages of the operation were highly successful from a military standpoint, achieving their objectives and minimizing collateral damage to an unprecedented extent, Cast Lead was portrayed in the anti-Israel media and UN as a deliberate massacre of the civilian population.
The third and last phase of the operation, which would have seen the IDF entering the densely populated Gaza City and destroying the Hamas regime, was never carried out, and the military significance of the operation was only to temporarily weaken Hamas. In the theater of information war, Israel took a huge beating, just as it had in the 2006 Lebanon conflict.
And despite the operation, Gilad Shalit remains in Hamas captivity, where he has been since June 2006.
Israel did take note of the way the media had been used against it in 2006 and tried to prevent a recurrence. Although it went to great lengths to reduce harm to civilians — and generally succeeded — the media reaction was no better, and possibly worse, than in 2006.
It’s my judgment that Hamas has a great deal of control over the other terrorist groups in the Strip and their protestations about ‘wildcat’ terrorism are not believable. They choose to permit a certain amount of it for the psychological effect on Israelis, but keep it down to a level which they think will not trigger a serious response. At the same time they continue their operations near the border fence — like the one that resulted in the death of one Israeli soldier and the serious wounding of several others yesterday, in the hopes of pulling off another coup like the kidnapping of Shalit.
Hamas seems to be trying to replay the same game as in 2008 — to stay out of war until a moment of its own choosing. When they initiate hostilities, the expectation is that — yet again — Israel will be prevented from achieving a decisive victory, and that the public relations and diplomatic consequences will favor Hamas.
Israel is deterred from launching a preemptive operation by several factors:
- The PR and diplomatic debacle that is certain to follow.
- The prospect of casualties in the IDF and on the home front, especially since there is the possibility of Hizballah joining the conflict with its massive rocket force.
- The assumption that the IDF will not be allowed to finish the operation again, and therefore it will not be worth the cost.
- The consideration that there is no available replacement for Hamas, and the power vacuum that would result from destroying the present regime would be filled by forces that are possibly worse.
Nevertheless, my recommendation is that Israel preemptively attack Hamas in Gaza. Here’s why:
There is no possibility that Hamas will become moderate. Its entire reason for being, as presented in its charter, is to remove the Zionists from ‘Palestine’ by means of violent jihad. The strategy of weakening Hamas by pressuring it economically has failed, killed by the Goldstone report and the Mavi Marmara flotilla. War is inevitable.
In that case, the first three deterrents to Israeli action are mitigated to some extent if the action is unexpected. Regardless of who shoots first, Israel will be called the aggressor. This was proven by Cast Lead, which — while it was actually a response to Hamas’ unilateral ending of the cease-fire — is universally considered an Israeli ‘attack’. In any event, the less preparation that Israel’s enemies have, the better.
Coordination with Hizballah will also be much less effective if their operation is reactive, and happens at a time of Israel’s choosing. It might even be possible to deter Hizballah altogether from joining in.
Similarly, the reaction of the international institutions, if not primed by Hamas, will be slower. The US will respond depending on the diplomatic climate created by the Arabs, Iran and Israel, and again, the less prepared Israel’s diplomatic enemies are the better.
Another consideration is that as long as Hamas retains its capabilities, Israel is at risk for incursions, perhaps bloody ones and perhaps including more kidnappings, as well as rocket attacks which may strike critical infrastructure. And now Hamas has the capability of hitting densely populated areas.
The problem of what to replace Hamas with remains, and I don’t have an answer to this. But it will remain exactly as much of a concern if Hamas is allowed to initiate hostilities.
As I recently wrote, we can’t avoid the coming war, which has been enabled by Western cowardice in confronting Iran. But there is an enormous difference between a successful preemptive war, as in 1967 when Israel lost about 900 soldiers, and a successful defense against a surprise attack, like 1973 when the IDF’s death toll reached about 2,700.
Israel should strike Hamas first, and continue the operation at least until its military infrastructure — including what is buried in Gaza city — is completely destroyed.