Four days into Israel’s ground operations in Gaza casualties are rising on both sides, but the only ones who seems to be cracking under the pressure are President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. While Hamas remains confident that it can bank on international support and Israel’s government seems determined not to kick the can down the road any further with respect to the ongoing threat from the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza, the administration may be panicking and about to make yet another mistake that will sow the seeds for more suffering in the future.
Secretary Kerry’s hot-mic moment when he sarcastically mocked Israeli efforts to destroy part of Hamas’s underground tunnel complex in Shejaiya was a telling moment in the conflict. Once back live on the air, Kerry reiterated support for Israel’s right to self-defense. But the comments, along with President Obama’s statement of “serious concern” about the casualties from the operation against the Hamas fortress, was the backdrop for the decision to send the secretary of state back to Cairo today to work on a cease-fire. While in principle that seems like the right thing to do at a moment when the conflict is heating up, it is difficult to escape the impression that Kerry’s mission is more an opportunity for an unforced error by Washington–one that will allow Hamas to emerge from the fray with a victory–than a mission of mercy.
Hamas was correct in its estimation that provoking a ground invasion would produce Palestinian casualties that fueled the fire of anti-Israel sentiment across the globe. Armed with the backing of Qatar, Turkey, and radical Islamists across the region as well as bolstered by the sympathy of international opinion that can always be counted on to damn any Israeli measure of self-defense even when the Jewish state is being assailed by rockets and tunnel infiltrations, Hamas believes it can simply stand its ground. The longer the bloody battle to disarm the Islamist terror movement that rules Gaza goes on, the more Palestinian human shields will die. That, in turn, will raise the pressure on Egypt to open up its border with Gaza and end the political and economic isolation that has hampered the terror group since the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo last year.
However, Hamas may have, for once, underestimated the resolve of both Israel’s government and its people. Prime Minister Netanyahu was slow to order the ground operation despite being given ample reason to send in troops once Hamas started launching hundreds of rockets at Israeli cities. He also gave Hamas ample opportunities to stand down and accept cease-fires that the Islamists consistently rejected. But once the die was cast, the prime minister seems to be serious about not repeating the mistakes his country made in the recent past whereby it gave Hamas the impression that there was nothing it could do that would be enough to prompt a decision to take out the group’s terror infrastructure. The methodical offensive appears to be doing serious damage to Hamas’s capacity to inflict terror on Israel. If it is allowed to continue, there is a chance that Israel will finally land a lethal blow against the group that is the real obstacle to peace in the region.
Just as important as Netanyahu’s resolve is the reaction of Israel’s people to the crisis. It is likely that Hamas believed Israelis too fearful of paying the high price in blood–both in terms of its own soldiers and Palestinians–to significantly impact the strategic equation along the Gaza border. But so far, despite the frayed nerves of people tired of having to run for bomb shelters and horrified by the loss of life in the fighting, support for the government appears to be strong. A visit to Israel’s southern region showed me that despite the best efforts of Hamas, life is going on even in the areas that have been most affected. Moreover, the faces of the busloads of Israeli reservists who are being shipped into the area of the border showed that the country’s citizen soldiers remain committed to doing what must be done to ensure their country’s safety. If Hamas thought Netanyahu was too politically weak to make hard decisions or that Israelis would turn on him and succumb to foreign pressure, it may have made a crucial mistake.
But that resolve is not shared by Israel’s American ally. Though nothing would do more to pave the way for a renewed peace process with the Palestinians that both Obama and Kerry have ceaselessly advocated than the weakening or the elimination of Hamas, neither man appears to have the intestinal fortitude to unwaveringly back an operation that would do just that. For months Washington has been sending mixed messages to the region that have encouraged the Islamists to believe the U.S.-Israel alliance was weakening as blame for the collapse of Kerry’s negotiations was placed solely on Israel despite the fact that it was the Palestinian Authority’s decision to embrace Hamas that finally ended that fool’s errand. Moreover, by constantly carping about Israel’s counter-attacks after Hamas launched the current war, the administration has encouraged the terrorists to believe that the U.S. won’t let them be defeated.
Thus Kerry’s decision to fly to Cairo to work on a cease-fire is exactly the news that Hamas wanted to hear. They have already made it clear they don’t care how many Palestinians die in the conflict they provoked so long as the end result grants them the political concessions from Egypt that will further their cause. They know that if the U.S. was not prepared to pressure the Egyptian government to throw Hamas a bone or to force Israel to stop operations aimed at eliminating their rocket arsenal and blowing up their underground fortresses, there was no reason for Kerry to come to the region. A cease-fire that would grant Hamas no political victories didn’t require the personal presence of the secretary in Cairo. But by bending to the usual hypocritical international outcry against any Israeli attempt to take out the terror nest on their border, the administration is signalling that it won’t let Netanyahu take out Hamas or allow Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to stand his ground about sealing his country’s border against infiltration from an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood he deposed.
Were Obama and Kerry prepared to show the kind of resolve that Netanyahu and Sisi have exhibited it would be very bad news indeed for Hamas and its foreign cheerleaders that continue to nurture delusions about Israel’s destruction. Instead, the U.S. appears to be as clueless as ever about the stakes involved in this fight and cracking under the pressure generated by the Palestinians sacrificed by Hamas on the altar of their jihadist mission. If so, the price paid by both Israelis and Palestinians in the future will be considerable.