The Israeli historian Benny Morris has a tough-minded article in Haaretz that is worth pondering.
He notes that before long Israel will end its military operations in the Gaza Strip and Hamas will start rebuilding. “In a few months, the tunnels leading into Israeli territory will resume operation and the missile stockpiles will be replenished, perhaps with new and improved homemade models (or even smuggled ones). Therefore, the next war will surely come.”
Morris is surely right. Hamas remains dedicated to Israel’s destruction and it remains intent on keeping its grip on Gaza. What can or should Israel do about it?
He suggests, correctly I think, that truly defeating Hamas would “require months of combat, during which the Strip will be cleansed, neighborhood by neighborhood, of Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives and armaments.” He concedes that such operations “will exact a serious price in lives from both Israel Defense Forces soldiers and Palestinian civilians,” but he argues that Israel has no other choice and he bemoans the unwillingness of Israeli society to pay the toll in blood required to win this war. He writes:
In recent decades, Israeli governments and the Israeli people have turned into carbon copies of the West: All they want is peace and to hide their heads in the sand; there’s no willingness to sacrifice soldiers (and no willingness to exact a heavy price in blood from the enemy’s civilians), even if it’s clear that the price today – in terms of both our soldiers and their civilians – would be lower than it will be in the future.
There is something to this analysis–a lot, actually–but it is incomplete. It is true that Israel, like the U.S., is casualty-conscious (reluctant not only to lose its own citizens but even to inflict heavy losses on the other side) and that our enemies exploit this mindset. But even if Israel were willing to engage in the hard and bloody task of defeating Hamas, the inevitable question comes: What next? What entity will next rule the Gaza Strip? To this Morris does not have a convincing answer: “After gaining control of Gaza, it must be hoped that some moderate Arab power, perhaps the Palestinian Authority, will take over the reins of government.”
“Some moderate Arab power”? It’s hard to imagine any power wanting to occupy Gaza. Certainly Egypt, which once ruled it, wants no part of it today. The only realistic alternative is the Palestinian Authority, but it has already lost a power struggle with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and there is little reason to think it would be strong enough to suppress Hamas even after an Israeli invasion.
The “post Hamas, what?” question is one that I think is a major deterrent to the kind of action that Morris advocates, probably an even bigger deterrent than fear of casualties in clearing operations. Actually, support for the war in Israel has soared even as IDF casualties have mounted. But Israelis remember how easily they got into Lebanon in 1982 and how hard it was to get out. They don’t want to repeat that experience. The U.S. invasion of Iraq provides a similar cautionary lesson; the U.S. had no firm idea who would replace Saddam Hussein and wound up getting sucked into a costly war.
Unless someone in Israel can figure out what comes after Hamas, the Israeli government will, for better or worse, leave Hamas in place after the current round of fighting.