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The Gaza Horror and US Policy

Authors: Steve Simon & Jonathan Stevenson

Affiliation: The University of Washington/ the International Institute for Strategic Studies 

Organization/Publisher: Survival – Global Politics and Strategy

Date/Place: December 4, 2023/USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 20 

Link: https://www.iiss.org/globalassets/media-library—content–migration/files/publications—free-files/survival/2023/12/65-6-simon-and-stevenson.pdf

 

Keywords: 7 October, Benjamin Netanyahu, Gaza, Hamas, Hizbullah

Brief:

On October 7th, Hamas, the militant Islamist Palestinian group which controls Gaza, led a surprise attack across Israel’s border with Gaza. The New York Times reported that Hamas seeks to re-establish itself as a military force.  The authors state that Hamas drove Israel into an extremely violent response, and there is currently no clear understanding of why Hamas attacked Israel and why now.

In the author’s framing, more Jews died in one day than any other since the Holocaust, as even the secular Palestinian Authority condemned the attack.  According to the authors, by its charter, Hamas is a jihadist organization that sees a zero-sum framework for Muslim and Jewish interests. Comparing Hamas with the Islamic State (in Iraq and Syria), Hamas adopted different principles. However, Hamas behaved like the Islamic State on October 7th. 

The authors write, “From Israel’s standpoint, this shift will necessitate Hamas’s complete removal from Gaza, and has therefore complicated Washington’s attempts to regulate its actions. Many observers have noted correctly that Hamas represents an idea that resonates deeply in Gazan society and that such ideas cannot be erased, especially by violence. This is true, but irrelevant since many Israelis assume that the idea of resistance is fundamentally ineradicable, which is why they do not place much stock in the idea of land for peace.’’

 

Hamas and Israel in Gaza:

After the Camp David Summit failed to produce a final status for the conflict as a result of the Second Intifada, Ariel Sharon -the elected prime minister a year after the summit- decided that the best option vis-à-vis the Palestinians was to sever Israel’s ties to some parts of the occupied territories.

 

However, the authors respond that “Pruning Gaza from Israel might have been a good thing had it been negotiated with the Palestinians. But it was not. The Israelis’ attitude seemed to be that one doesn’t negotiate the amputation of a gangrenous toe with one’s foot. In any case, the initiative was controversial in Israel and had not been carefully thought through.’’

George W. Bush pushed the Palestinian Authority to reclaim its local legitimacy by holding elections, however Hamas won the elections and took power. The White House believed that this would rip off the ugly mask of Hamas. While Hamas did lead to a split among the Palestinians due to its poor governance, it has control of the strip has remained firm. Meanwhile, Hamas holds Israel responsible for the welfare of Gazans since it is the occupying power. 

Since Hamas does not recognize Israel and opposes a two-state solution, its perspective aligns with Netanyahu. He aims to “mow the grass” of Hamas rather than seek a political solution, since he does not believe in a two-state solution. 

To weaken the credibility of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Israel’s strategy has been to neuter Palestinian politics. In return, this resulted in the undermining of the PA as a plausible partner for peace. 

“More than 30 Palestinians, including women and children, died in Israeli airstrikes in August 2022. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which lost commanders in the airstrikes, fired dozens of rockets into Israel. This ongoing carnage did not sway Israel from its instrumental approach to Hamas. The 7 October attack, however, indicated decisively that it had backfired. The author refers to the less of 13 lives in Israel as an ongoing “carnage,” but Israel’s killing of over 30 Palestinians is not referred to as “carnage” or any term that keeps the value of the lives from both sides equal. 

 

Gaza Crisis Restructured:

The United States is driven by two essential concerns in the Gaza crisis: preventing the conflict from expanding geopolitically and safeguarding its reputation by averting a more severe humanitarian catastrophe. Also, President Biden’s public visit to Israel was designed to serve as a deterrent, prompting all parties to reconsider major hostilities and avoiding the risk to a US president while rational decisions prevailed on strategic matters.

Gaza witnessed the entry of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) with significant force in late October. Israel’s operation was vaguely described as either ‘expanding ground activity’ or the ‘second stage’ of the war, suggesting a level of compliance with US calls for restraint, or at least the appearance thereof.

Prime Minister Netanyahu refused a ceasefire, likening it to ‘surrendering to terrorism,’ and attributing civilian casualties to Hamas’s use of human shields. By mid-November, Gaza City found itself surrounded by Israel, effectively splitting the strip into northern and southern sections, anticipating a prolonged and intense conflict.

The primary strategic focus for the United States remains preventing a broader war involving Iran and Hezbollah.

A proposed idea involves reinstating the control of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, possibly requiring the deployment of a predominantly Arab and potentially United Nations-mandated peacekeeping force. The proposed plan is likely to face initial rejection from Israel’s war cabinet and public opinion.

Saudi Arabia, while condemning the Hamas attack and maintaining diplomatic inactivity, prioritizes stability, harbors hopes for normalization with Israel, and might ultimately welcome the regional containment of Iran implied by controlling Hamas.

 

Washington’s Quandaries Restructured:

Despite the extreme provocation by Hamas potentially diminishing international sympathy, an overly aggressive Israeli response has inadvertently bolstered the group – a consequence that Hamas may have anticipated.

Critics of the Biden administration have primarily focused on advocating for a ceasefire, which the US supports in the form of brief, localized pauses in fighting for humanitarian aid delivery, civilian evacuation, and hostage return. In formulating and implementing policy regarding Gaza, the Biden administration must factor in the 2024 US presidential election.

The US has several theoretical options, including threatening to withhold ammunition shipments, withdrawing air defenses and deployed troops, disavowing the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding on US security assistance for Israel, voting for anti-Israel resolutions in the UN Security Council or UN General Assembly, or sending American aid convoys into Gaza and challenging the IDF to confront them.

Despite potential drawbacks, the overall risk aligns with past experiences: if the US takes punitive actions or threatens to do so, Israel may feel isolated but also unrestrained, nullifying the intended leverage. In such situations, pressuring Israel often involves providing political cover for steps that Israeli leaders consider necessary but whose wisdom the US considers questionable.

The authors advise the United States to maintain a middle course, considering the complex domestic and international factors. This involves supporting Israel’s efforts against Hamas while consistently advising restraint. The further recommend developing a proactive multilateral plan for the aftermath, however distant it may seem at present.

The authors state that Hamas drove Israel into an extremely violent response and that currently there is no clear understanding of why and why now Hamas attacked Israel. However, there a number of very plausible explanations for the timing given the ongoing Abraham Accords, which seeks to marginalize the Palestinian issue from the region, and the escalating attacks against the Al-Aqsa mosque. Furthermore, Israel’s occupation and systematic displacement of the Palestinians, itself sufficient explanation for the attack, did not start yesterday. Fundamentally, the authors present a perspective that ignores the central problem at the heart of the conflict: the occupation. So long as one side occupies the other with international amnesty given the by the US, conflict will inevitably continue.

 

By: Dilara Özdemir, CIGA Research Assistant

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