By Paul R. Pillar (28-year CIA veteran and top analyst)
Anyone who reads about the carnage in the Gaza Strip and has at least an ounce of humanity is hoping that a ceasefire will come soon. Jodi Rudoren’s coverage in the New York Times suggests that current calculations of the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu involve weighing the crippling of the physical ability of Hamas to attack Israel against international condemnation of Israel that is likely to mount as long as the Israeli operation continues.
Those considerations are no doubt part of the Israeli government’s thinking, but only a part and a rather tactical part at that. In anticipating when Netanyahu and his cabinet will call a halt to the operation, a more strategic view is required — or at least what Netanyahu would consider strategic.
So far Israel has sustained less condemnation than one might think, given that its explanation for the hugely disproportionate civilian casualties its operation has inflicted — that they are a result of Hamas’s unprincipled hiding of its military assets among the civilians — patently lacks credibility.
The infliction of death and destruction on the civilian population of the Gaza Strip is, as with so many other Israeli military offensives and as with the blockade and economic strangulation of Gaza itself, intended to reduce popular support for whatever group or government Israel happens to be opposing.
The paucity of appropriate condemnation is due first and foremost, as always, to the political pusillanimity of American politicians of both parties who are more concerned about not jeopardizing their reelection chances by crossing a powerful lobby than about advancing the long-term interests of the Israel they claim to support, let alone the United States they are supposed to serve.
Little counterweight to this perpetual tendency is coming from European leaders, who are disinclined to sanction Israel at a moment when they are preoccupied with the latest turn in the Ukraine crisis and have economic reasons to be disinclined to do much about sanctioning Russia.
There will be a ceasefire after this round of fighting, as there has been after previous Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip. Maybe a ceasefire is a week or so away, which would make Operation Protective Edge about as long as Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, in which some 1,400 Palestinians died. Netanyahu does not want to keep mauling Gaza indefinitely, not only because of direct human costs to Israel (which so far consist — quite unlike the far greater Palestinian casualties — almost entirely of soldiers engaged in offensive operations) but also because he does not want to destroy Hamas.
Netanyahu needs Hamas. Netanyahu may be blind to how his policies endanger Israel’s long-term interests, but he is staunchly committed to the medium-term objective of retaining the West Bank. Having Hamas around as a hated, continually invoked reason never to get serious about negotiating a comprehensive settlement with the Palestinians serves that objective.
As the sequence of events preceding the current round of violence makes clear, Netanyahu saw as the biggest threat to that strategy the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, the dominant party in the Palestinian Authority. If the agreement held, excuses for not being serious about negotiating a comprehensive peace agreement and establishing a Palestinian state to replace the occupation would become too flimsy to maintain.
So Netanyahu did everything he could to destroy the reconciliation, including the mass round-ups of Hamas members and other applications of force that led almost inevitably to the onslaught that followed. Netanyahu was aided and abetted in that strategy by the U.S.-led West, which accordingly shares responsibility for the bloodshed that has ensued.
Now Netanyahu’s government can continue to make all the familiar claims about how Israel doesn’t have a negotiating partner, how half of the Palestinians are ruled by a terrorist group supposedly dedicated to the destruction of Israel, how rockets coming from Gaza show how Israel can never risk ending occupation of the West Bank, etc. etc.
He also can say that Hamas is resisting a ceasefire. Hamas deserves strong criticism for fighting on even when it knows this means the possibility of casualties among innocent Israeli civilians as well as the certainty that significantly more Palestinian civilians will die from Israeli bombs and gunfire. Sometimes it appears that the group forgets there are more important things than its objective of having political power over all Palestinians. But the response by Hamas certainly is not surprising.
The Israeli government has succeeded in structuring the situation such that Hamas figures it has nothing to lose by continuing to fight, because it has nothing to gain from not fighting. It tried the peaceful route, by observing a ceasefire in the year and half since the previous ceasefire despite Israeli violations, and by surrendering much of its political power through the reconciliation pact, in which it agreed to support a Palestinian government with no Hamas members and with a commitment to negotiating a peace agreement with Israel. Netanyahu made sure Hamas got no payoff whatsoever for following the peaceful route, and instead paid a price for it.
All that Hamas can now see as in its immediate interests is to try to bolster its popular support and credibility by, as a first choice, holding out for some relief to Gazans from their status as inmates in what amounts to an open-air detention camp. Haunting that pursuit, however, will be the knowledge that after the deal Hamas struck with Israel in November 2012, the ceasefire that was called for did take hold, but the easing of the Israeli blockade of Gaza that also was supposed to occur largely did not — another example of an Israeli disincentive to Hamas to negotiate peacefully.
Beyond that is an interest in getting Israel to observe the prisoner exchange deal that it violated by re-arresting hundreds of former prisoners. And if all that fails, there at least is whatever catharsis comes from futile whacks at Israel with a few more rockets or some fighters sneaking through tunnels. The more death and destruction that Israel inflicts on the Gaza Strip, the stronger will be the popular desire for catharsis and revenge.
Unless the underlying issues are addressed, the next ceasefire will not stop this tragic cycle. The stage will be set for another round, when Israel will mow the lawn again. Absent regime change in Israel, the cycle will continue until and unless political leaders in the U.S.-led West summon political courage they have not displayed and acknowledge that the objectives the current Israeli government is pursuing are not in their own country’s interests, or even in Israel’s.
Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)