This article was originally published in POLITICO Magazine on July 11, 2014.
Tel Aviv — Down in the south there is a feeling of déjà vu: Israeli jets have dropped thousands of tons of bombs on Gaza, hundreds of rockets have been launched into Israel and troops are amassing along the border ahead of a possible ground invasion.
And yet something is very different about this latest go-round of violence between Israel and Hamas. The Palestinian militant group is, in the estimation of Israeli officials, weaker than it has been in memory, and Israel senses the best opportunity it has had in a long time to permanently degrade or even eliminate Hamas as a political factor. It’s not just that the Israelis are pounding Hamas from the air and rounding up senior Hamas officials; with help from their de facto ally across the border—Egyptian general-cum-dictator-cum-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—they have managed to keep Hamas’ supply tunnels to Gaza virtually shut down. Analysts estimate that the roughly $20 million per month that Hamas collected in tax revenues from the tunnels has been reduced almost to zero.
Based on their public statements, it’s clear that at least some Israeli hawks would like to do to Hamas what Sisi has done to the Muslim Brotherhood group from which Hamas once sprung: batter it into submission. Officials in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet have gone further, talking openly of a campaign to eradicate the group. Even Hamas officials admit they are worried. “I would say that, yes, the situation is not ideal,” Osama Hamdan, the head of Hamas’ foreign relations bureau, told me. “It’s certainly not as it was a few years ago.”
Indeed, Israel’s four-day-old offensive has already surpassed the last war against Hamas—in 2012—in size, with Israeli jets carrying out more than 1,100 airstrikes since Monday night, an average of more than 10 per hour. The word from both sides is that this is only the beginning. Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, promised a “lengthy campaign, which will not be completed in a matter of days,” and on Thursday night the Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, spoke of a “very long battle.”
All this has been triggered by an act that even Israeli security officials believe was probably not approved by top members of Hamas in Gaza or Qatar but was more likely the work of a rogue Hamas branch in Hebron: the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers.
Netanyahu has presented no evidence that indicates Hamas’ leadership was involved. Nonetheless, he has launched a massive operation against the militant group, rounding up hundreds of members in the West Bank. The leadership went to ground, its more radical rival Islamic Jihad took advantage of the vacuum to launch more rockets, and Israel eventually struck Hamas, prompting the current conflict. The army has begun gathering troops and tanks along the border, and ministers are speaking openly about a ground invasion.
“The voices in Israel go from, ‘Let’s create some friction with Hamas, to show we’re serious,’ to the idea of taking back the Gaza Strip,” says Ya’akov Amidror, a retired general who was until recently Netanyahu’s national security adviser. “And democratic systems are craziest ones in the international arena, because the leadership has to take into consideration all of these ideas.”
It is hard to see an endgame beyond quixotic hopes for the extinction of Hamas. Avigdor Lieberman, the hawkish foreign minister, has called for re-occupying Gaza, a costly and bloody undertaking that’s likely to find little popular support. Others have suggested a short-term invasion aimed at crippling Hamas, with the aspirational hope that the Palestinian Authority will somehow regain control over the strip. “Perhaps Abu Mazen’s [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’] people can take the responsibility for Gaza. Whether they want to or not, I don’t know,” Amidror said. “But it’s true, for today, there is no alternative.”
There was no need for an “alternative” in 2012, when Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-led government played a central role in brokering the cease-fire. But Sisi’s military-backed regime, which booted Morsi from office last year, has declared Hamas a terrorist organization, and destroyed most of the smuggling tunnels into Gaza on which the group relied for weapons and tax revenue.
The tunnel closures have brought Hamas to a point of diplomatic and financial isolation, which compelled it to announce a reconciliation deal with Fatah in April, a first step toward ending the seven-year schism between the two groups. The pact was widely seen as a political defeat: Hamas agreed to a “national consensus” government that contained no members of the group. The deal had already begun to flounder before the Israeli military campaign, with both sides arguing over who should control Gaza, and the kidnapping pushed the Hamas-Fatah relationship again to the point of collapse.
Now Hamas can do nothing but rather desperately use the current fighting to bolster its position. The Qassam Brigades, the group’s military wing, has struck further than in previous conflicts, launching rockets at the northern city of Haifa and at Dimona, the home of Israel’s nuclear reactor. The group also tried to land a squad of makeshift naval commandos on the beach near Ashkelon.
All of these attempts have ended in failure, though: The rockets were shot down or plunged harmlessly into the sea, and the naval gunmen were killed without any Israeli casualties. “The feeling in Israel is that Hamas, until now, has had very few benefits and achievements out of this conflict,” said Ephraim Kam, a former Israeli intelligence officer.
With no diplomatic successes, Hamas may hope to continue the rocket fire long enough to extract some political concessions. So far, however, there has been no serious talk about terms: Egyptian and Palestinian sources say a few halting attempts at early negotiations ended in failure, and there have been none since.
It’s not that there aren’t, right now, terms for a cease-fire; they were apparent even before the Israeli offensive began. Hamas will have to rein in the rocket fire, both from its own military wing and groups like Islamic Jihad. Israel will have to relax the campaign against Hamas, and—perhaps in conjunction with Egypt—loosen the siege on Gaza.
But the increasingly hostile political climate across the region makes all of these concessions politically difficult, and the Israeli cabinet is unlikely to approve a loosening of the blockade, not after a month in which ministers have thundered about the need to destroy Hamas. Egypt has kept the main crossing at Rafah closed, aside from allowing a few medical supplies and injured Palestinians to cross on Thursday.
“You can certainly doubt that the Egyptians are in a great hurry to reopen it,” said Issandr El Amrani, the Cairo-based North Africa director for the International Crisis Group. “Given the vitriol Egypt has leveled against Hamas in the past year, and the Hamas connection to the Brotherhood, I’m not convinced that there exists a significant domestic public opinion for reopening Rafah.”
A prisoner release is also likely to be a political non-starter in Israel. Some 900 Palestinians were arrested after the teenagers were kidnapped, according to local rights groups, including dozens who were released in 2011 as part of the deal to free captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Hamas wants at least the latter group to be released.
But last month Israel announced that it had arrested another one of those “Shalit prisoners” and charged him with the murder of a police officer near Hebron in April. Naftali Bennett, the head of the right-wing Jewish Home party and a key member of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, immediately called for an end to future prisoner releases. “After 30 years, it’s clear that Israel should not release any more terrorists, in any situation, period,” he said.
So the conflict is metastasizing, with no realistic way to end it. On Friday morning there was another large movement of tanks and armored personnel carriers toward the border with Gaza. Israeli officials say they are confident they won’t face too much international pressure to halt the fighting soon.
President Barack Obama on Thursday night offered to help mediate a cease-fire—but almost on cue Dan Shapiro, the ambassador to Tel Aviv, told Army Radio the next morning that Israel would enjoy U.S. support even if it launched a ground invasion. “He wants to move slowly, but slowly doesn’t mean that at the end he won’t take the decision,” Amidror said of the prime minister. “He’ll move slowly, but eventually he will be forced.”
Hamas has also found itself without a strong international backer. Iran only recently resumed limited financial support, after cutting ties in 2012 over its lack of support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hamas maintains a good relationship with Turkey and Qatar, but neither has replaced the military and financial benefits derived from its former allies in Egypt and Iran.
Israeli officials have said that the 2012 cease-fire remains on the table as a way to immediately end the fighting. But with Gaza besieged and its coffers nearly empty, Hamas seems to have calculated that it has few avenues left to bolster its standing but to fight on.