I’ve been wondering, as many of my readers have, how long the war in Gaza will continue. This depends on what Hamas and Israel are trying to achieve. What is the mission? What is an acceptable end state?
Hamas has been pretty clear: it wants an end to the siege of Gaza, which means opening it to trade and commerce with both Egypt and Israel. Hamas also wants release of the West Bank operatives Israel arrested in the prelude to this latest Gaza war. It will resist demilitarization and try to maintain its hold on governing Gaza.
Israel is more of a mystery to me, so I listen carefully when an Israelis speak. They initially seemed to focus on ending Hamas’ rocket threat. But Iron Dome has effectively neutralized the rockets, one-quarter to one-third of which have either been used or destroyed. Destroying many more would require a full-scale reoccupation of Gaza, which the Israelis are loathe to do.
The tunnels into Israel now loom larger as a security threat, albeit one limited to the immediate surroundings of Gaza. So far, the Israelis have destroyed about half the tunnel network. But in order to be effective, the tunnels have to come up inside Israel. Sooner or later–likely sooner–the Israelis will acquire the technical means to detect the digging. The tunnels could then be destroyed inside Israel, making the kind of operation now going on in Gaza unnecessary. It may provide some satisfaction to destroy a couple of years of digging, but it puts Israeli soldiers at risk. If alternative ways are developed to reduce the threat they would obviously be preferable.
Israel’s objectives do not seem to be limited to restoring calm (aka ending the rocket attacks) and destroying the tunnels. It appears to want to break Hamas’ will to fight. The Israelis think they share this objective with Egypt, which regards Hamas as a Muslim Brotherhood organization and therefore an implacable enemy of the restored military regime in Cairo.
Both Egypt and Israel would like to see a post-war political evolution that puts the Palestinian Authority (PA) back in charge of Gaza. Israel has had bad experience trying to engineer regime change in the Arab world (witness the 1956 effort to overthrow Nasser and its later Lebanon machinations). But the Israelis still imagine they can, with cooperation from the international community, help the PA by steering reconstruction funding from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and border openings in the right directions. Hamas was already in trouble before this latest war, perhaps even on the verge of collapse as a viable governing entity. More radical groups like the Islamic State have little traction in Gaza, the Israelis think.
Unless one side or the other is victorious, the end of this war will likely involve a trade: improved security for Israel, reconstruction and economic benefits for Gaza. But there is no guarantee of the political outcome the Israelis and Egyptians are hoping for. Displacing Hamas entirely is not just mission creep but mission leap. In the meanwhile, Gaza’s civilians are paying an exorbitant price.