By holding the terrorist organization responsible for all attacks, Israel may be undermining the possibility for a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
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.
Finally, Israel's choice to target the leader of Hamas's military wing as the most high-profile action thus far also indicates its acknowledgment of Hamas as the sovereign authority in the Gaza Strip. It is, of course, the traditional practice of states during wartime to target the military, rather than the political leadership of their adversaries. This is, however, somewhat of a departure from Israel's recent practice with respect to Hamas. During other recent periods of acute violence, Israel did not distinguish between the military and civilian leadership of the organization in its targeting. Indeed, in March and April 2004, Israel targeted Hamas leaders Ahmed Yasin and his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, respectively. More recently, in January 2009, Israel targeted Hamas's Interior Minister, Said Seyam, and another senior leader, Nizar Rayan.
By targeting Jabari at the outset, Israel was sending a message that it views Hamas's military wing as responsible for keeping order in the Gaza Strip, and that its failure to do so will have consequences, just as it would with other members of the international community.
Israel's approach in Gaza in Operation Pillar of Defense is likely to have two paradoxical effects on the relationship between Israel and Hamas. First, in the short-to-medium term, holding Hamas's military leadership responsible for any act of violence emanating from Gaza will likely lead to a period of relative calm after the inevitable cease-fire is reached. This is because the group within Hamas that is in charge of enforcing order paid the most direct price when it permitted that order to break down and missiles to once again fly towards Israel's civilian population. This is clearly desirable from the point of view of the Israeli government, which must provide security to the residents of the southern half of the country.
But the long-term effect is that treating Hamas as the sovereign authority in the Strip will make a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians more difficult to achieve, largely because it will become harder for the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and Hamas to reconcile and achieve a unification agreement. In this context, a Hamas that can control violence emanating from Gaza and forestall Israeli strikes will increase its popularity among the people and find its rule there more secure. It will thus be less willing to compromise with the Palestinian Authority, particularly since the Arab Spring has already emboldened Hamas by making it feel as though Islamist parties are ascendant throughout the region, and that time is therefore on its side.
The short-term imperative of Operation Pillar of Defense is clear: Putting an end to Hamas's rocket attacks and re-establishing a cease-fire. The medium and long-term effects of Israel's strategy, however, are more complicated, and could end up severely backfiring on Israel.