For the last week, supporters of the Palestinians have been railing at Israel for its response to rocket attacks from Gaza. The plight of ordinary Palestinians in this latest round of fighting has stirred the sympathy of the world. But when given a chance to put an end to the shooting, Hamas wanted no part of a cease-fire.
Israel’s acceptance of the Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire was controversial. Many Israelis and some members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Cabinet thought it was foolish to stop the counter-strikes on Gaza while Hamas was still in possession of a stockpile of what is believed to be several thousand missiles. But in the hope of ending this confrontation and preventing more loss of life, the Israelis agreed to stop attacking Hamas positions and armaments in Gaza.
But Hamas wanted no part of a cease-fire that would have left them with plenty of rockets left to shoot at Israel and would have ended the ordeal that Gaza Palestinians are enduring as the Islamist group uses the strip’s population as human shields. Moreover, a cease-fire now would have eliminated any chance that Israel would have invaded the strip to do what many in Israel believe is their government’s obligation to finish with Hamas once and for all and remove the possibility that this tragic standoff will be repeated in a couple of years.
Why did they say no?
The first thing that must be acknowledged is that saving the lives of the people of Gaza is the last thing on the minds of Hamas’s leaders.
As I wrote over the weekend, many observers complain that Israelis have bomb shelters (as well as the Iron Dome missile defense system) to run to when attacked, but Palestinians have nowhere to go. But in fact, Hamas’s leaders, fighters, and their arsenal are kept safe in the warren of bunkers and tunnels that honeycomb the strip. The bomb shelters there are for the bombs, not civilians. So while many Palestinians were hoping for a respite, Hamas thinks it can hold out indefinitely, shooting at Israel. Indeed, it scored its first “success” in the battle today by killing an Israeli with a mortar shell near the Erez Crossing into Gaza.
Just as important is the fact that Hamas’s goal in the fighting is not, as they falsely claimed, to protect Palestinians or to merely retaliate for Israeli “aggression” against the strip they withdrew from in 2005. Rather, it is to force concessions from both Israel and Egypt that would strengthen their grip on power in Gaza as well as give them an advantage vis-à-vis their Fatah rivals/partners in the Palestinian Authority.
Hamas wants Israel to release terrorists that were rounded up in the West Bank during their efforts to find the three kidnapped teenagers who were eventually found murdered by some of the group’s operatives. Forcing Israel to allow these people to walk free—some of whom were originally released from prison as part of the ransom to free kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit despite the fact that they had committed murder—would be a major propaganda coup for the terrorist movement.
The Islamists also want to parlay sympathy for the suffering Palestinians of Gaza into leverage that would force the government of Egypt to open up the smuggling tunnels as well as to give it more leeway to operate in the border area. That would strengthen its struggling economy as well as give Hamas a massive cash infusion. It would also open up the supply lines to Iran that have been closed by the Egyptian military after the coup that toppled Hamas’s Muslim Brotherhood allies last summer and ease the way for Iran to replenish their arsenal of rockets and other weapons.
Outside observers who see the struggle as part of a “cycle of violence” or who buy into the narrative in which it is seen as a blood feud in which both sides are culpable forget that a cessation of hostilities doesn’t suit Hamas’s strategic vision. It must be re-emphasized that Hamas’s goal remains Israel’s destruction and the forced exile and/or slaughter of its people. To achieve that end there is no limit to the privations and suffering to which they are prepared to subject their own people.
All this means that in seeking a solution to the immediate problem in Gaza, the last thing the U.S. should be doing now is trying to reward Hamas for its cynical decision to exploit recent tensions and to start another round of rocket warfare against Israel. At worst, Hamas should not be appeased with anything more than a cease-fire that leaves them in place but with no easy way to get more rockets to shoot at Israel. But if Secretary of State John Kerry really wants to do something to advance the cause of Middle East peace he cares so much about, he should be demanding that Hamas disarm. Nothing short of demilitarizing Gaza will ensure the safety of its people or give a chance for renewed peace negotiations. If the U.S. supports any concessions to Hamas, it will be bear some of the blame for the next round of bloody violence that will inevitably follow a new cease-fire.