Hamas troops in Gaza
Photo: AFP
Ron Ben-Yishai
The Hamastan dilemma
Israel has four options for dealing with Hamas, but they are all bad

How do we respond to Hamastan in Gaza? There is no unequivocal answer among Israel's political and military top brass.


The indecision is not merely related to the Qassam rocket fire and terror attacks produced by the Strip; we're talking about a strategic long-term threat to Israel stemming from the very existence of such a close Islamic entity - a radical entity that is growing stronger militarily while being supported and guided by Iran.


Recent defense establishment assessments led to the conclusion that Hamas' hold on the Gaza Strip is strong and growing stronger each day. The organization has already succeeded where the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and Fatah have failed: It imposes order with an iron first and ended the armed anarchy. This has greatly boosted the popular support for its regime.


Yet this isn't all: The IDF's field representatives, who come into direct contact with the Palestinians in the Strip, were amazed to discover that the economic siege imposed on Gaza enables Hamas to boost its power and popular support.


The reason is that the assistance in food, medicine, and other vital supplies poured into the Strip by Israel and other international elements are sufficient to prevent a humanitarian crisis. Yet they are insufficient in order to restart the almost completely paralyzed economy.


Gaza's construction industry, for example, is not functioning because Israel is not transferring cement and building materials that may be used for fortifications and tunnels. In addition, the transfer of fertilizers, which can be used to produce explosives, has also been curbed.


Meanwhile, the Hamas threat on the Karni crossing is preventing the transfer of goods from the Ashdod port. As a result, tens of thousands of Gaza families have fallen on hard times. The hungry residents are forced to turn to Hamas' welfare apparatus, the "Dawa".


This system, which is funded by donations from abroad and Iranian money, operates mainly through mosques and provides basic needs.


The grateful Gazans' dependency on the Dawa is growing, further boosting the Islamic movement and political support for Hamas.


In light of all this, even if Mahmoud Abbas realizes his plan to hold general elections soon, it's highly doubtful whether Gaza residents would vote for him. Israeli defense officials chuckle when they're asked about Fatah's election chances in Gaza: "Even if Hamas would agree to hold such elections, its members know everyone would be voting for it. They know how to do it, even if the elections are monitored by international observers."


A senior defense official summarized the issue: "Hamas didn't take over the Strip in order to give up its control within a few months, or even years. They're there to stay, and if we don't stop them they'll be taking over the West Bank as well."


Boycott helping Hamas

The official policy of Israel and its allies at this time is to boycott the Hamas regime and isolate it in the Palestinian, Arab, and international arena. At the same time, foreign aid is being poured into the Strip in order to prevent a humanitarian crisis, while steps are being adopted in a bid to boost Abbas' and Fatah's status and control in the West Bank.


This is mostly a containment policy formulated in Jerusalem and Washington with the participation of Cairo and Amman. Its main objective is to prevent Hamas from taking over the West Bank as well, while preventing the Muslim Brothers organization from growing stronger in Egypt and Jordan.


The question is: What's next? Israeli political and defense officials fully agree that Abbas would not be doing the dirty work for us in Gaza.


This is not being mentioned in public, but officials in Jerusalem are convinced that even if Abbas and Salam Fayyad are able to restore the PA's security and civilian control in Judea and Samaria, and even if the Palestinians are able to present a political horizon with Israel's assistance, they would not be able to retake the Strip in the foreseeable future, or alternately, stir up a popular uprising that would topple Hamas or hold elections that would see Fatah regaining power.


Even if we release jailed Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, it won't make a difference - at best, the Fatah troika would be able to prevent a Hamas takeover in the West Bank as well.


It's also clear that Hamas would not be modifying its positions and aspiration to eliminate the State of Israel. It also won't stop the process of military growth with Iranian support. Even if we reach a temporary ceasefire with Hamas, the organization would continue to grow stronger and prepare for a "decisive confrontation" at a convenient timing for it.


Israeli officials also realize that we cannot maintain an economic siege over the Strip for a long time, because, absurdly, such a siege only plays into Hamas' hands. The political boycott against Hamas is also starting to wane – this can be attested to by the latest British parliament document as well as similar words uttered by Italy's prime minister.


It is no wonder then that the Israeli government is helpless in the face of the unresolved Gaza Strip dilemma.


4 problematic alternatives

Each alternative is worse than the other: One possibility is to attempt to topple Hamas' government in Gaza through an ongoing economic and diplomatic boycott coupled with military pressure.


Another option is for Israel to silently agree that Palestinian and international elements, for example the European Union, would engage in contacts with Hamas. Initially this would be done in order to reopen the crossings and ease the economic pressure on the Strip, and later in order to press Hamas to moderate its positions.


The danger is that Hamas, once it extracts itself from the diplomatic isolation, would view it as a sign that its policy succeeded. It won't change its fundamental positions and continue to grow stronger militarily, but also elicit further concessions and use them in order to undermine Fatah's status in the West Bank as well.


A third possibility is an agreement with Hamas: Israel will reconcile itself de facto to Hamas' control in Gaza, engage in direct dialogue with it through low-ranking officials and officers, and also allow Abbas to do that. In addition, Israel will demand and get a long-term ceasefire that would promise several years of tranquility to western Negev communities. This will be done in the hopes that over time Hamas will moderate its positions, as the Fatah did earlier under Arafat's leadership.


Yet this is also a problematic option, to say the least: There is no guarantee that Hamas would want to and be able to enforce the ceasefire; it will demand to end the pursuit of Hamas members in the West Bank, which will allow it to boost its political and military power there. In addition, the organization will grow stronger in the Strip uninterruptedly. In a few years, we'll be facing a security problem that is much graver.


At this time it appears there's only one way to get rid of Hamas in the Strip: A wide-scale military operation that would see the IDF taking over some areas and creating a water obstacle that would clog the tunnels in the Philadelphi Route. At the end of the operation, the Strip would be handed over to the joint control of Abbas and a multinational force.


Both the government and IDF, for understandable reasons, are not rushing to embark on such operation. All the attention is currently devoted to the northern dilemma. Yet there is silent agreement that soon, perhaps as a result of a Qassam that kills or terror attacks, there would be no choice but to resort to military force.


It appears that until that point, Israel will slightly ease the economic siege over the Strip and continue to debate, until Hamas forces it to end the indecision.


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