As the fighting in Gaza continues with no lasting cease-fire in sight, some of the discussion about this war has shifted to whether Israel can or should seek to depose its Hamas enemies altogether. This is a debate that is long overdue.
In Haaretz, Benny Morris suggests that while he doesn’t expect it to happen, sooner or later Israel must take on the unpleasant task of defeating Hamas once and for all. Our Max Boot disagrees since he believes the casualties that would inevitably result from such a long and bloody struggle would be prohibitive for Israel. More than that, he argues that in the absence of a viable alternative to Hamas to run Gaza, Israel really has no choice but to let the Islamists remain in place when the current round of fighting ends at some point.
While I think Max’s two objections to Morris’s suggestion provide a formidable rationale for a decision by Prime Minister Netanyahu to call a halt to his country’s counter-offensive, I have to come down on the other side of this argument. A long battle to take down Hamas would be costly. Nor can Israel be certain of what would follow. But a failure to end the rocket and terror tunnel threat from Gaza now would be an even costlier mistake that Netanyahu and his successors would regret.
Prior to the current outbreak and even after the rocket fire from Gaza resumed this month I was among those who thought Israel would never consider retaking control of the strip. But like most wars, this one has changed the way both sides looked at the conflict. Israelis now see that the tunnel city underneath Gaza is no minor nuisance but a strategic threat that will require a major commitment of forces to contain if Hamas is allowed to reconstruct even a portion of its terror infrastructure. Though the Iron Dome missile defense system has prevented the thousands of rockets fired at Israel from Gaza from causing many casualties, it is a misnomer to assume that it provides a complete answer to that danger. Whether or not a single rocket ever kills an Israeli, Hamas has forced two-thirds of the population of Israel to spend part of their lives in bomb shelters. With thousands of rockets still left in their possession, Israel cannot contemplate a cease-fire that would allow Hamas to resume this ordeal at any future time of their choosing. And anything short of their elimination will ensure that this is exactly what they will do.
Moreover, even much of the Israeli left now understands that there can be no compromise with Hamas. Any thoughts that the unity pact signed this spring with Fatah would moderate their positions are now seen as absurd. As Morris rightly points out, this round of fighting is not just the latest tit-for-tat in a cycle of violence but rather the natural result from an ideological commitment to shedding the blood of Israelis in a never-ending war to destroy the Jewish state. When Hamas says it is the “resistance” to the “occupation,” its spokesmen are not referring to the West Bank but pre-1967 Israel. Though both Netanyahu and the people of Israel would have preferred to offer Hamas “quiet for quiet” and to end the fighting weeks ago, the tunnels and the weeks of rocket fire leave them no alternative but to seek a conclusion to this problem. While pundits are fond of saying that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires a political rather than a military solution, so long as Hamas is in power that is simply not true.
If Israel is to have quiet and have any hope of peace in the long run, Hamas has to go. While they rule Gaza, not only is a two-state solution off the table; any assurance that normal life in the territories or much of Israel can be counted on is also not possible.
Max is right that the cost of taking out Hamas will be terrible. But the assumption that Israelis are not willing to pay that price may no longer be valid. Every poll of opinion in Israel now shows that up to 90 percent of the people support the war and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s handling of the conflict. More importantly, the vast majority also believe it would be a mistake to stop the fighting before the country’s security is assured.
Few would have believed that such results were possible even in a time of peace. But for Israelis to take this position after weeks of fighting during the course of which they have lost dozens of soldiers—each death being a traumatizing event for the small country where the majority of young people serve in the army—shows that there has been a major shift in opinion on the subject. Israelis from across the political spectrum are no longer willing to be held hostage to the caprices of a band of Islamist murderers bent on destroying them. While no one can be sure how long this consensus will hold, Netanyahu clearly has the support he needs to carry on with this vital mission for the foreseeable future.
Max’s suggestion that the example of America’s lack of a post-Saddam scenario in Iraq should give Israel pause is also very much to the point. There is no question that Netanyahu will have to answer objections that center on the question of what will follow Hamas in Gaza. But the possible answers to this question are not such a mystery even if none of them are attractive.
The most logical answer is the Palestinian Authority. After all, the PA ran Gaza along with most of the West Bank prior to Hamas’s bloody 2007 coup. The return of the PA would end the blockade that Israel, Egypt, and most of the international community placed on the strip after the terror group took power there. Such an outcome would also make it possible for talks about a two-state solution to resume. It is precisely the justified fear on the part of most Israelis that the West Bank would become another Hamasistan that makes territorial withdrawal there unlikely even in the unlikely event that Fatah and its leader Mahmoud Abbas recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.
Would the PA be able to fend off an Islamist insurgency in Gaza? It might be difficult, but I think the answer is yes and the West Bank provides a precedent. Hamas could never have ousted Abbas in Gaza had not Ariel Sharon removed Israel’s army and all the settlements in 2005. Joint Israel-PA security cooperation has kept a lid, albeit a shaky one, on the West Bank as it did in Gaza prior to 2005. There is no reason to believe they would fail in Gaza now.
Benny Morris is merely echoing a developing Israeli consensus about Gaza when he says there is no alternative to finishing off Hamas. Just as there is no reason for the U.S. to compromise with al-Qaeda, neither is there any logical or ethical rationale for a continuation of Hamas’s rule in Gaza. Putting off a conclusion to this war will only lead to more suffering for both Israelis and Palestinians.