Israel and Gaza: Force is Futile


Since Israel’s Operation Protective Edge began on July 8, over 1,221 Palestinians and 56 Israelis have died in the fighting. Among the Palestinian deaths, the majority have been civilian, and the toll on both sides continues to rise and the violence shows no signs of subsiding. As Egypt tries to mediate between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), in Paris U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is working with foreign ministers from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey and Qatar to achieve a ceasefire. However, an end to the violence alone, though essential, will not be enough. As past experience demonstrates, previous ceasefire agreements with Hamas such as those in 2008 and 2012 proved to be stopgap measures, with repetitive refrains and hollow commitments that faltered when they no longer served the interests of either side and which failed to address the underlying grievances that fuel this conflict. Neither Israel nor Hamas can decisively win this conflict at the expense of the other: force is futile. Without a commitment to a more comprehensive and creative political and socio-economic solution from all sides, history is destined to repeat itself.

Israel’s current approach is reminiscent of its strategy during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, which did little to deter Hamas despite Israeli claims to the contrary. The use of air strikes and the military incursion of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) into Gaza have three principle objectives: to weaken Hamas and its capabilities, to protect Israeli citizens from rocket and missile attacks, and to dismantle a network of tunnels which extend from the Gaza Strip into Israel. Rocket fire has been a staple approach of Hamas and other militants, but Hamas now has more effective, accurate and longer-range rockets (such as M-302s), which have targeted Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, causing greater concern about the implications for Israeli citizens. This has been exacerbated by the discovery of what Israelis term “terror tunnels” stretching from Gaza into Israel. These came to light when thirteen Hamas militants emerged with equipment and in IDF uniforms from a tunnel near Kibbutz Sufa. Israeli intelligence subsequently uncovered a wider network of tunnels and a concerted plan for militants to infiltrate Israel. It is a discovery that has surprised Israel, making it more conscious of the porous nature of its borders and the changing nature of Hamas’ tactics, and feeding into wider fears and insecurities about attacks from the Gaza Strip. Resolving these vulnerabilities, as Operation Cast Lead was not decisive, is guiding Israel’s approach and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated this week that the operation will be protracted until the mission is accomplished.

Israel’s response may deliver temporary security by reducing the number of Hamas rockets and weakening its capabilities and the tunnels in the short term and mid term; however, in the long term, this strategy will not get Israel what it wants. There is no long-term benefit to be gained from further weakening a place like Gaza nor is it possible to truly eliminate Hamas. As other military engagements and the history of this conflict have shown, striking at militants only unleashes a new wave of fighters. The commitment to the cause of a Palestinian state and the struggle for its realization will not dissipate in response to military strength. And as the Director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, has suggested, the alternative to Hamas could be much worse: an unknown entity for Israel. In its current form Hamas exerts a level of influence over other factions in Gaza that are far less pragmatic in their approach, such as the Islamic Jihad and Popular Resistance Committees. In the past, Hamas has often been able to bring other groups along with it in observing ceasefires, and among the wider population it retains popular support.

For Hamas, there may have been a strategic calculation to engage Israel in a ground offensive, as a recent War on the Rocks article by Jacob Stoil highlights, but as past experience has shown, it won’t be able to win decisively against the stronger and better-equipped Israeli force. Hamas is motivated by multiple factors; not least the long-term struggle for a secure Palestinian state. The organization’s official charter states their commitment to jihad and the destruction of Israel in pursuit of returning historic Palestine to the Palestinians, an objective that is incompatible with a two-state solution and stability in the region. In the immediate term, it seeks the end of the debilitating seven-year blockade, which has undermined Gaza’s economy and its ability to trade, and severely limited the provision of vital supplies and services, including water, food, medical supplies, and building materials. As Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal have repeatedly stated, the blockade’s reversal will be integral to any ceasefire agreement. Further, Hamas wants border crossings to be opened, an end to targeted assassinations and the freeing of prisoners, including those who were captured during Israel’s Operation Brother’s Keeper in the West Bank following the kidnap and murder of three Israeli students, a crime Hamas has claimed it did not commit.

There are additional considerations. Hamas faces challenges within the Occupied Territories from other groups more intent on a military approach to realize the Palestinian cause. If Hamas is isolated, its ability to deliver a political solution to the needs of the Palestinians is impeded, which reduces its options for exerting influence, thereby increasing its reliance on military means. The agreement of April 23 between Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to form a unity government suggested a pragmatic move towards political and diplomatic solutions, including to its relationship with Israel. Working with the PLO was a means by which Hamas could retain relevance, improve conditions and deliver key services in Gaza. Moreover, by joining it, Hamas implicitly accepted the unity government’s commitments to recognize Israel, accept past agreements, and renounce violence. Israel’s rejection of this national unity pact, which contributed to the derailment of the US-led peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO, was a miscalculation and a missed opportunity on its part to bolster the more moderate elements of Hamas and in turn reduce the influence of the organization’s military wing. Though Israel perceived the move as in itself an attempt by the Palestinians to undermine the agreements of the peace negotiations and renege on previous understandings at a delicate point in the discussions, an attempt some in Hamas may have welcomed. However, the involvement of the Palestinian Authority in arresting Hamas members in the West Bank, as part of Israel’s response to the murders in June, helped reinforce the belief that military, rather than political solutions, would yield more immediate results and force Israel’s hand to act.

The danger is that the longer the fighting continues, the more people on both sides expect to see a definitive result. An article by Jacob Stoil explores the competing dynamics and calculations of both sides in the pursuit of a victory. Moreover, political pressures on both sides drive the conflict, and in Israel there are signs that suggest public support for the Operation is growing. On the Palestinian side, the PLO have endorsed Hamas’ demands, an important sign of unity for the organization and one which may helps its cause and that of the mediators.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has called for an immediate end to the violence, but recent attempts to broker a ceasefire in the current conflict have been haphazard, with small windows for humanitarian relief, as witnessed over the weekend. Previous ceasefires between Israel and Hamas give little evidence of hope for a solution unless something changes. The current calls from both sides for security and an end to the blockade echo these past agreements with depressing familiarity. In November 2012, the US and Egypt brokered a ceasefire to end eight days of fighting in which 150 Palestinians and five Israelis were killed. In this case, Israel wanted greater border security and an end to the rocket attacks and weapons smuggling, while Hamas wanted the embargo on Gaza to end. The same was true in June 2008, when Egypt brokered a ceasefire, which lasted for six months and which was intended to alleviate the embargo and facilitate the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Although these brought temporary calm, neither side upheld their side of the agreements in full, and little changed in the status quo.

These resolutions came as a result of international pressure, and although this is presently growing it has not yet forced the hand of either side. One area of concern for Hamas is the relatively muted support it has received from other Arab states, suggesting that against a backdrop of fighting in Syria, ISIS in Iraq and other regional concerns, the question of Palestinian statehood has slipped — a slip that the Israelis can use to their advantage. As the international community continues to exert pressure, it would do well to take the bold step of engaging in dialogue with Hamas. The PLO were considered a terrorist organization until 1991 and once given a seat at the table became increasingly invested in a more political, and peaceful, process. Political expression through words rather than rockets has to be preferable. Though recent efforts to reignite the peace negotiations have stalled, as a recent article in the New Statesman outlines, a more long-term commitment is necessary from all parties, even if this will take time.

Neither Israel nor Hamas are going anywhere, so both must work with the present reality. The desire for a resolution of grievances at any cost makes it harder to realize a political solution for the longer term. Both sides should move away from the equation that an absence of force equals weakness. As Gershon Baskin wrote last week, there needs to be a comprehensive, rather than a military approach, as well as mutual recognition of one another and the interests and aims each side holds.

Security is fundamental to Israel’s willingness to engage with Hamas, but Israel must recognize that its security and stability is tied to the conditions of those who live in the 365 square kilometers that make up Gaza. Human security and the provision of basic needs and rights is integral to any end to the conflict. Strikes on schools, hospitals and vital resources only heighten the suffering in an already densely populated and impoverished area where around 1.5 million people live in dire socio-economic conditions, 80% of whom are dependent on international assistance (a figure likely to be worsened by the end of the conflict). In addition to the immediate human toll and greater insecurity generated as a result of Israel’s air strikes and ground invasion, in the long term, there will be another generation of Palestinians who know nothing but conflict with Israel, a factor which is detrimental to future efforts for peace.

There are undoubtedly huge stumbling blocks in the process, most notably the lack of trust and confidence between the two sides. The experience of past ceasefires gives little reason to trust the other will keep their commitments, but in this the international community can play a role, supporting and engaging with each side to uphold an end to the violence, alleviate the blockade and monitor and enforce progress.

The current conflict is not new. It exhibits the same patterns of previous conflicts between the two sides, and is a tragic escalation of a constant background noise of Hamas rockets and Israeli repression that the international community has too often tuned out. What is distinct is that the longer it continues, the greater the loss of hope for an alternative becomes, and the more despair, particularly from the Palestinians, pushes an all or nothing approach. Without a more considered, long-term and strategic vision of what is possible, and a willingness to break through old behaviors and predictable patterns, history will repeat itself at great cost to both sides.


Claire Yorke is a doctoral student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and a member of NATO’s Emerging Leaders Working Group. From 2009-2013 she was Programme Manager of the International Security Research Department at Chatham House, and she worked for three years as a Parliamentary Researcher in the House of Commons focusing on defense policy. She has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of Exeter. Her research interests include conflict, negotiations, and the role of narratives in foreign policy.


Photo credit: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi