The United States has been a largely helpless spectator as the fighting between Israel and Hamas has continued this week. But rather than merely calling for restraint or trying to cajole Egypt into resuming its traditional role as broker between the two parties, Washington should be attempting to get at the heart of the problem: forcing the terrorists in Gaza to disarm.
Secretary of State John Kerry is reportedly on his way to Cairo to persuade the military government there to play a more active role in diplomacy. However, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi takes almost as dim a view of the Obama administration as he does of Hamas, an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood that he has been suppressing.
Sisi’s cooperation is crucial to ending the fighting quickly since in addition to demanding the release of terrorists by Israel, the Islamists want the border crossings from Gaza into Egypt opened. They also would like the Egyptians to facilitate the transfer of cash from Qatar and other foreign backers of Hamas. If Kerry’s message to Egypt is for Cairo to bend to Hamas’s wishes, it’s not clear whether Sisi will listen. But as much as Sisi accommodating Hamas in some way may seem the easy way out, it is doubtful that the Egyptian is so foolish as to think a rapprochement with Hamas will do his country or the cause of regional stability much good in the long run. Nor should Kerry be advocating such a policy.
The problem here is not whether Kerry helps construct another temporary fix that will merely set the region up for another round of rocket terrorism from Hamas the next time it wants to extract concessions from Israel or Egypt. Rather, the most constructive position that the U.S. could take would be for it to offer extensive help for Gaza but only if Hamas gets out of the terror business.
Just as the U.S. sought, with European and ultimately Russian assistance, for the Assad regime in Syria to be forced to give up its chemical weapons, so, too, now Washington should be working hard to force Hamas to give up its rocket arsenal.
To be sure, that may be something of a pipe dream. Hamas is at its very core a terrorist organization committed to violence and to use any tactics to achieve its goal of destroying Israel. But it must be understood that as much as the current conflict is driven by Hamas’s intransigent refusal to end the war on the Jewish state, its ability to go on fighting that war has been enabled by past decisions by the U.S. and Egypt to tolerate its hold on Gaza and to allow a status quo in which the Islamist group was allowed to not only stay in power but also to amass the arms with which it could seek to threaten the peace of the region.
Though Hamas is routinely depicted as being under terrible economic and military pressure, as Avi Isacharoff writes in the Times of Israel, it is quite content with its current position. Hamas’s leaders and their weapons stockpile are safe and sound in their bunkers and tunnels deep under Gaza’s civilian population centers. Their firing of rockets at Israel has boosted their popularity among a Palestinian people that is still fixated on their hatred of Jews and Zionism. And the rising toll of Palestinian civilians killed as the result of Israeli efforts to suppress the rocket fire has led to more sympathy for Hamas. Nor are they particularly daunted by the prospect of an Israeli ground operation in Gaza since they think it is unlikely to capture their key strongholds and bunkers and will only make Israel’s international position even more untenable and cause casualties on both sides to spike.
Thus, Hamas may feel like it can go on shooting at Israel indefinitely until Egypt or Israel gives up and makes a concession that will enable Hamas to declare victory, something that would also give it more leverage over their erstwhile Fatah partners in the Palestinian government. So while a cease-fire would be the best thing for civilians on both sides, it would be a catastrophe were the U.S. to be working toward a deal that would grant Hamas such a triumph.
As historian and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren wrote yesterday on CNN.com, the U.S. objective should be a deal that will call for Israel to lift its maritime blockade of Gaza and a massive infusion of foreign aid in exchange for the surrender of all of Hamas’s rocket arsenal and the return of control of the strip to the Palestinian Authority.
Without the demilitarization of Gaza and the end of its status as an independent Palestinian state in all but name—but one ruled by Islamist tyrants—there is no chance for peace for Gaza or the West Bank in the foreseeable future. Kerry, who devoted much of the last year to a futile and actually counter-productive round of peace talks that set in motion the series of events that led to the current fighting, must try and see beyond the immediate problems and realize that if the parties are not to be doomed to endless repetitions of this drama, the status quo in Gaza must be upended. If, instead, he signs on to yet another cease-fire proposal that will leave Hamas and its rockets in place, it will mean more than a guarantee of more fighting in the future. It will also ensure that any future peace efforts will be just as pointless as the ones Kerry just conducted. Rather than pressuring Egypt to help Hamas, Kerry should be marshaling international opinion behind a solution that will disarm the terrorists and give peace a chance.