How to Prevent the Next Israel-Hamas War
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Familiarity breeds fecklessness. For much of the international community, the fourth Gaza war between Israel and Hamas has been an occasion for the shaking of heads and the wringing of hands. The cease-fire, when it comes, will be an opportunity to disengage — until the next time rockets and missiles fly.
And of course, everyone knows there will be a next time.
This world-weariness stems from a lack of understanding of the motivations of the belligerents. There is a tendency to take their explanations at face value. Israel claims to be protecting itself from a dangerous terrorist group. Hamas claims to be defending the rights and dignity of Palestinians. Each side says the other gives it no choice but to resort to arms.
These are excuses, not explanations. Any serious international effort to break the cycle of crisis and carnage—and to prevent a fifth Gaza war — must start with a clear-eyed understanding of the real aims that drive the conflict on both sides.
Sworn enemies they might be, but Israel and Hamas actively collaborate in perpetuating the cycle; they have never made serious efforts to end it. This is because each has important interests that are served by the status quo.
For Israel, the spasms of violence are tolerable because they facilitate settlement and gradual de-facto annexation in the West Bank. Hamas rule in Gaza bolsters Israel’s claim that it has no partner in peace because the Palestinians are divided, and that a significant part of their political leadership is a hostile terrorist organization. The Israeli settlement project is framed as a form of forward defense against an implacable enemy.
For Hamas, occasional war with Israel is a means to a narrow political end: to unseat Fatah and take control over all Palestinian self-ruled areas. By lobbing rockets into Israel, it can claim to be doing more for the Palestinian cause than the supine Fatah-led government in the West Bank.
The strategy has worked. Although Palestinians in general are fed up with both factions, polls show Hamas has gained support in the West Bank. It is concomitantly losing support among Gazans, who bear the brunt of the wars with Israel; this matters little to the leaders of Hamas because their monopoly of violence in Gaza prevents any challenge from Fatah.
Hamas has other incentives to keep attacking Israel, such as the patronage of Iran, but these are secondary to its political aims.
If it weren’t for these interests, Israel and Hamas might be able to arrive at a long-term truce, with serious commitments not to attack each other and arrangements for peacekeeping and reconstruction. But because both sides find the status quo useful, they are unlikely to turn the next cease fire into an opportunity for a major restructuring.
Can this be avoided? Yes, if the countries pressing for a cease-fire recognize the real motivations of the two sides, and address them directly.
This requires parties the U.S., which has the most leverage with Israel, to reinforce its opposition to settlement activity in the West Bank — not only because it undermines a two-state solution, but because it is a key driver the of Gaza wars. Israelis jealously protect their “special relationship” with the U.S., so some plain-speaking by Washington would get their attention. There is already some anxiety in Israel that voices sympathetic to the Palestinian cause are on the ascendancy in American politics.
Beyond that, given the depth of the partnership, Biden has other means of making his displeasure felt — such as scaling back cooperation in non-security issues — short of the nuclear option of reducing the $3.8 billion in annual military aid.
On the other side, parties that have influence on Hamas, such as Egypt and Qatar, will need to make it clear they will not tolerate its use of war with Israel to gain political advantage against Fatah. If Hamas really hopes to lead the national movement, it can do so by joining the Palestinian Liberation Organization and accepting the 1993 agreements, including the recognition of Israel. If it wants power in the West Bank, it should try to win support for a vision for the future rather than simply outbidding Fatah on violence and extremism.
The Egyptians and Qataris will also need to ensure that their reconstruction efforts in Gaza do not strengthen Hamas, as they have too often in the past. They should insist that funds and projects go directly to the private sector and civil society groups, carefully vetted to prevent misuse.
And there needs to be major pressure from the U.S., Europe and the Arab world on Hamas’ foreign patrons, especially Turkey and Qatar, to lean on the organization to renounce violence and honor the 1993 Palestinian agreements with Israel — or lose their patronage.
None of this will be easy: Turning a cease-fire into a sustained peace is a process, freighted with the risk of failure. Above all, it will require the mediators to maintain close engagement with the protagonists. But a hands-on approach now would save much hand-wringing later.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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