In the summer of 2003 Israel launched a large-scale offensive on Hamas. In the space of a few weeks, several senior leaders of the organization's military wing were killed, and several political leaders were put on notice: Abdul Aziz Rantisi and Mahmoud al-Zahar, close aides to spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, narrowly escaped Israeli assassination attempts.
Israeli security officials saw the offensive as a great success. "We brought Hamas to the Hudna (cease-fire) on it's knees," they said in August of that year, when then-Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas managed to convince Palestinian groups to hold their fire.
The lesson to the Israeli public was clear – the Palestinians only understand force.
The lesson was also extraneous: Even before the summer of 2003, most Israelis believed that, and continue to do so today.
In September, when a quarter-ton bomb was unleashed on a building containing Yassin himself, the message was signed, once-and-for-all.
Failed to get the message
But what can you do, Hamas failed to get the message. Rather than getting rid of Hamas for good, it was Abbas who was sent packing, taking all hopes for a cease-fire with him.
Ironically, the dead-end, together with an overall depression gripping Israeli society at the time, had a dramatic impact on Israel, and was one of the main factors that led to the complete transformation of Ariel Sharon.
That, in turn, led to the disengagement program – or, as the Palestinians, and many Israelis see it, Israel's flight from Gaza.
In the early months of 2004 Israel set out for another offensive against Hamas. Yassin and Rantisi were killed, and Israeli security officials again viewed the operation as a great success.
It took another six months, but, again, officials told the same story: Israel's might brought Hamas to its knees, and forced it to sign the "temporary calm" in February 2005 for the period leading up to disengagement.
But again, Hamas refused to be defeated. The organization won a huge victory in local Palestinian elections, and is determined to use its part in the armed struggle, charitable organizations, and "clean" image (in contrast to the rampant corruption of the PLO/Fatah /Palestinian Authority,) to turn the organization into a major player in Palestinian politics.
Against this effort, Israel has yet again gone on the offensive, part diplomacy and part threatening: If Hamas takes part in elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, Israel could use force to prevent the elections from taking place.
Learning the lessons
One could have thought that after five years of force, someone here would start to understand: The Palestinians have their own desires, their own political parties and their own organizations.
Israeli force can make their lives bitter, but Israel does not have the ability to influence Palestinian public opinion. The opposite may even be true.
The latest poll results from veteran Ramallah pollster Khalil Shikaki show an interesting statistic: Israel's exit from Gaza, which 84 percent of the Palestinian public believes was brought about by the armed struggle (led by Hamas,) has led to renewed popularity for Fatah.
While Fatah and Hamas were tied for popularity following periods of strong Israeli military reactions, Israel's withdrawal – and the hope for renewed negotiations – have proven very strong for Fatah, the secular-political option in Palestinian politics.
Currently Fatah enjoys 47 percent support compared to the Hamas' 30 percent even as Hamas continues to make gains by continuing to wage war on PA corruption.
Yet this is a perception that fails to be etched into the Israeli psyche: Just as Palestinian attacks failed to break Israel, so too our military might failed to break them. Anyone wanting to strengthen moderate forces must offer a vision of hope, and cannot threaten to block a party that represents nearly a third of the Palestinian public.
Physically blocking or arresting Hamas would-be politicians would not only weaken the authority of Mahmoud Abbas, but would also renew the despair and bitterness amongst Palestinians, creating fertile conditions for terror organizations.
If Israel wants to fight Hamas, it must present the Palestinian public with an option of hope that would stem from the support for Abbas and his preference for diplomatic means
We must support democracy, rather than think we can determine candidates for their elections.
Our bombs didn't finish off Hamas, and our roadblocks won't bring victory either.