Israel must heed the lessons of history over Gaza

Israel's collective punishment of the people of Gaza has only served to strengthen Hamas. If it were eliminated, it would perhaps be replaced by something far more radical, says Mohammed Bazzi

Hamas represents a significant segment of the Palestinian population. Above, a Palestinian shouts slogans during a demonstration in the old city of Jerusalem against Israel's military offensive on the Gaza Strip. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP
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Since Israel launched its air assault and subsequent ground invasion of Gaza on July 8, a seductive conventional wisdom has emerged in the West: that Hamas instigated a tough Israeli response because the Islamist movement began firing rockets, unprovoked, at Israeli cities and towns.

Over the past week, the US and European powers – alarmed by the wildly disproportionate casualty rate among Palestinian civilians and the level of destruction inflicted by Israeli forces on Gaza – began exerting diplomatic pressure on Israel to halt its offensive. But the dominant narrative is still that Hamas started this conflict and that it refuses to accept a ceasefire.

The reality is more complicated: this latest cycle of violence began after Palestinian militants kidnapped three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank on June 12. Despite indications that the teens were abducted by rogue freelancers rather than Hamas operatives, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government used the kidnappings as an excuse to arrest hundreds of Hamas activists in the West Bank. Dozens of these Hamas members had been released in 2011 during a prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was abducted in 2006. Israeli officials have not presented evidence that those who were re- arrested had returned to militant activity. According to Israeli press reports, the parolees were commended by Israeli officials in the West Bank for “having gone straight” a week before they were re-arrested.

Mr Netanyahu’s government used the tragic abduction and murder of the Israeli teens as a pretext to try to cripple Hamas and it responded with one of the few means it has to put pressure on Israel: launching rockets from Gaza. Of course, Hamas is not justified in firing rockets indiscriminately against Israeli civilians, which is a violation of international law. Neither is Israel justified in its disproportionate military response.

More broadly, successive Israeli governments have refused to deal with the fundamental problems facing Gaza: an Israeli siege (supported by Egypt) that has stretched for seven years, and the territory’s separation from the rest of the Palestinian population in the West Bank. In April, after Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) signed a reconciliation agreement, Israel precipitated a new economic crisis in Gaza by cutting off salary payments to the 43,000 civil servants who run the territory. Instead of seeing the accord as an opportunity to engage with Hamas, Mr Netanyahu’s government worked to undermine Palestinian reconciliation.

After Hamas expelled the PA and seized control of Gaza by force in June 2007, Israel imposed a tight economic blockade on the territory’s 1.7 million residents. With support from the US and other western powers, Israel claimed that the siege would prevent Hamas from firing rockets at Israeli towns and would turn Palestinians against the group. But this policy of collective punishment was morally inexcusable and ultimately futile: it has only harmed the people of Gaza and made them more dependent on Hamas. Whether US and Israeli officials like it or not, Hamas represents a significant segment of the Palestinian population.

But why does Hamas continue its seemingly futile rocket barrages, which provoke a severe Israeli response and heavy suffering for the people of Gaza? Because Hamas is worried about being outflanked by more radical factions. Hamas also wants to appear resilient to its constituency, to prove that it can stand up to a far superior Israeli military and win some concessions out of this lopsided fight. Hamas can’t simply agree to a straightforward ceasefire that would keep Gaza isolated and economically devastated. Rather, it wants the release of the hundreds of prisoners arrested by Israeli forces last month, the easing of the blockade, a reopening of Gaza’s border with Egypt and the resumption of salary payments to civil servants.

Instead of turning Palestinians against Hamas, the blockade makes them more dependent on the group. For example, after Israel severely restricted fuel supplies to Gaza in 2008, most traffic came to a halt. Palestinians adapted by walking or riding bicycles. Sensing a fresh opportunity to generate public sympathy, Hamas began using police cars to ferry civilians around Gaza. The group even pasted orange stickers on its patrol cars proclaiming: “We are ready to drive you for free”.

In the 1980s, US and Israeli officials used to argue that Palestinians would grow tired of conflict and find an alternative to Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organisation. Unfortunately, the alternative that emerged was more militant and intransigent. Hamas succeeded in positioning itself as an alternative to the corrupt, inefficient and largely discredited PLO leadership. Today, the danger is that while Hamas remains cut off, an even more lethal force will emerge in the Palestinian territories: radicals inspired by Al Qaeda. By failing to deal with Hamas, the West is making the same mistake it made in the 1980s.

Amid the broader regional turmoil – and the rise of the Islamic State group – some in the West are finally acknowledging the mistakes of the past. At the Aspen Security Forum on July 27, a senior US intelligence official warned that even if Israel manages to uproot Hamas, a more dangerous force would replace it. “If Hamas were destroyed and gone, we would probably end up with something much worse,” Lt Gen Michael Flynn, the outgoing head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, warned his audience. Let us hope Israel heeds that warning.

Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and a former Middle East bureau chief for Newsday