Gaza: The Calm Before the Storm

Middle East Times​, 18 November 2008

The minor escalation of hostilities this past week between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip did manage to make some noise amid the epochal cacophony of the global financial crisis. The headlines in the international media, however, had less to do with the limited border skirmishes, rocket launches, air strikes, and border closures which transpired, than with the fact that the nearly five-month ceasefire between the Palestinian militant group and the Jewish state appeared to be unraveling.

Silence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the natural state.

And yet the tentative calm that emanated from Gaza over the past months, while anomalous, was not simply a chance occurrence. Rather, fundamental strategic calculations brought Hamas and Israel to the place they now find themselves: posturing at escalation, but in reality biding their time until political developments locally as well as in Washington play out.

While miscalculation is always an eminent possibility, it is clearly in the interest of both parties to maintain the ceasefire.

For Israel’s ruling Kadima party, restarting hostilities at this juncture would be tantamount to political suicide. Currently, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is in a dead heat with Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu in polling for the next election, due in February.

The hardliners in the Likud have, for years, been highly critical of Kadima’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. This has included everything from the 2005 Gaza disengagement – the very issue, in fact, that led Ariel Sharon to break away from Likud and create Kadima – to the June 2008 ceasefire with Hamas.

Likud maintains that the disengagement allowed Hamas to turn Gaza into a staging ground for Qassam rocket attacks on Israeli towns. Hamas’ subsequent violent takeover of the coastal strip in June 2007 amplified the problem; the ceasefire a year later, in Likud’s eyes, ratified these unacceptable developments.

 

An escalation now, three months before the election, would give credence to Likud’s overarching narrative and worldview. As one Likud parliamentarian put it: “These continuous … attacks on [Israeli towns around the Gaza Strip] bear witness like a thousand witnesses to the failure of the foreign and defense policies instituted by Olmert and Livni.” “Only a different leadership,” he added, “that will stop this appeasement in the face of terror organizations … will be able to gradually improve the situation.”

This line of attack from the Israeli right will continue so long as rockets keep falling on Israeli civilians. It is worth mentioning that, based on past experience, there is no realistic military solution aside from an Israeli reoccupation of the Gaza Strip that would stop Hamas from launching rockets. Artillery strikes, targeted air sorties, limited ground incursions, and an economic embargo have all been tried over the years, with little tangible success.

Retaking Gaza, as many on the Israeli right demand, would require costly street to street fighting in the cramped warrens of Gaza‘s towns and refugee camps. Even the Israeli military’s most optimistic assessments then call for several months of occupation before a decline in rocket fire would be evidenced.

More troubling from a strategic point of view is what would happen to Gaza after the Israeli reoccupation. “What is to be the mechanism for a settlement, which will allow the passing of the territory to responsible hands?” one high-ranking Israeli army officer rhetorically posited earlier this year. “An answer of ‘it will be okay’ will not suffice in this round.”

All this, even before the political implications for Kadima of reversing its original raison d’etre – the 2005 Gaza disengagement – are taken into account.

Hamas, for its part, is also likely interested in awaiting political developments set to take place over the coming months. The group’s advances in the past three years, via ballots (winning the January 2006 Palestinian Authority legislative elections) and bullets (the June 2007 coup in Gaza), has taken it from a mere ‘spoiler’ to the forefront of Palestinian political life, replete with a territorial base.

Hamas’ ability to withstand the economic and political embargos against it, all the while maintaining rocket fire on Israeli civilians, precipitated the eventual ceasefire with Israel. This period of calm has allowed Hamas to consolidate its hold over Gaza, establish a more sophisticated military apparatus inside the coastal enclave, and begin eroding the international consensus against it.

Hamas probably understands that these strategic achievements are still tenuous, and that a resumption of hostilities with Israel would be counterproductive at this point. The more likely scenario is that Hamas takes its cue from internal and external political developments.

 

First, the term of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas is set to expire in January 2009. A constitutional crisis is widely expected, as Abbas is believed to be intent on holding on to power until January 2010 and scheduled legislative elections. Negotiations between Abbas’ Fatah party and Hamas have been fitful up till now, and an impasse – possibly violent – might occur.

In the final analysis, though, this crisis over presidential authority is more theoretical than real. Abbas hasn’t had control over Gaza in over a year, and Hamas’ ability to strike at Fatah in the West Bank is more a nuisance than an existential threat.

Rather, the real determining factor – aside from internal Palestinian machinations and the vicissitudes of Israeli politics – is what the incoming Barack Obama administration in Washington has planned for the Israeli-Palestinian arena. An ardent re-engagement in the peace process is a given; what the exact contours of this renewed U.S. role will be is, at present, still uncertain.

Yet, it is this very uncertainty – and with it the hope that U.S. policy might evolve in a more amenable direction to Hamas’ objectives, namely diplomatic engagement – that arguably will act as a restraining influence on Hamas.

Like others all across the world, both Israelis and Palestinians are waiting to see in what direction U.S. foreign policy heads under Obama. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, silence is always relative, calculated and, at present for both sides, golden – especially when, as Muhammed Ali once said, you can’t think of a good answer.