Is Israel Inadvertently Legitimating Hamas Rule in Gaza?

By holding the terrorist organization responsible for all attacks, Israel may be undermining the possibility for a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Gaza-Rule-Banner.jpgA Palestinian holds a Hamas flag as he climbs a street pole during clashes with Israeli security forces near Ramallah. (Mohamad Torokman/Reuters)

Israel's latest exchange of violence with Hamas in Gaza exhibits many of the features that characterized previous periods of conflict between the parties. In the days preceding Israel's operation, Hamas and other terrorist groups fired over 100 rockets and mortars into Israel and laid explosives near the fence that separates Gaza and Israel, causing casualties among Israeli soldiers. After warnings from Israel's political leadership, it responded with a series of air attacks against Hamas.

But this time, the nature of Israel's response indicates that it is treating Hamas more and more like the sovereign authority in Gaza, with a complicated series of implications. Such treatment both increases the chances for a period of short- to medium-term calm after the current round of hostilities subsides, but decreases the chances for a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians over the long-run.

There are three specific ways in which Israel is treating Hamas like the supreme authority in the coastal enclave during the current stage of the conflict. First, and most importantly, Hamas is being held responsible for all acts of violence emanating from the Strip. While Hamas is directly to blame for some of the rocket fire and explosives that took place in the weeks before Israel commenced Operation Pillar of Defense, many of the attacks that precipitated Israel's most recent response were conducted by other terrorist groups, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad or the Popular Resistance Committees.

Nevertheless, Israel's leadership has held Hamas liable for the violence, targeting the military wing's leader, Ahmed Jabari, as the first measure in its response, and later targeting Hamas leaders like Yehiya Bia, the head of the Hamas rocket-launching unit. In a letter to the U.N. Security Council on November 12, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, said that "Israel holds Hamas fully responsible for all acts of terrorism flowing from Gaza." And on November 14, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that "Hamas is responsible for the rocket-fire and all other attempts to harm our soldiers and civilians [from Gaza], even when other groups participate. And it is Hamas that will pay the heavy price; a price that will be painful."

Such a strategy in effect forces Hamas to choose whom it represents. If it prevents other terrorist groups from firing rockets at Israel, it provokes their ire but spares the majority of Gazan civilians from the effects of Israel's military response. Doing so, paradoxically, shores up Hamas's rule. If, on the other hand, it shies away from confrontation with more radical groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad and does not interfere with their attacks against Israel, it will invite exactly the kind of retaliation -- and pay exactly the kind of price -- that it is facing now.

Second, Israeli officials are speaking about their relationship with Hamas in ways that indicate their perception of Hamas as the sovereign authority in Gaza. Indeed, Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, stated that Israel is "sending an unequivocal message that our citizens will not be hostage to terrorist missile fire and cross-border attacks." By describing the attacks as "cross-border," Israel is drawing a line, placing full responsibility for everything that takes place on the other side of its border on the shoulders of Hamas, just as with other member states.

Presented by

Zachary K. Goldman is the executive director of the Center on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law. He served as a policy advisor in the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes as a subject matter expert on the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. More

Goldman has served as a special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and as an associate in the litigation department of Sullivan & Cromwell. He has published articles on the origins of the American alliance with Israel and on the Persian Gulf.

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