Warning Words

Israeli Diplomat Says Gaza War Taught Hamas a Lesson

Since 2008, Israel has fought three wars with Hamas. While most of the world has condemned Israel’s heavy-handed approach in Gaza, one top diplomat Monday said that heavy hand would deter Hamas for years.

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters

On Monday evening in Cairo, Hamas reluctantly agreed to extend a 72-hour ceasefire by another day. Palestinian negotiators warned that unless negotiations primarily conducted with Egypt made some progress, violence could erupt in Gaza.

That will likely worry many international observers, but Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, isn’t too concerned.

On Monday Hanegbi told a handful of reporters that Israel’s campaign in Gaza this summer would deter Hamas for years. “I think Hamas is going to be much more restrained in the coming years,” he said. “It will be very careful before being so adventurous.”

Hanegbi went even further. He said there was a chance that this time around, Hamas would reconsider its strategy of building up its arsenal, and instead reconsider exactly what it had achieved after eight years in charge of a strip of land Israel removed its soldiers and settlers from at the end of 2005. The suggestion was that Hamas would know it was beaten and want to discuss a more permanent peace with Israel.

He was careful to include with this prediction the pro forma condition that anything can happen in the Middle East, but he also sees a war that caused as many as 2,000 Palestinian casualties and the leveling in some cases of whole neighborhoods as the kind of experience that would lead a terrorist group to think twice before striking Israel again.

In some ways this view undermines an initial claim from Israel that Hamas deliberately launched its rockets from densely populated neighborhoods and dug its tunnels underneath mosques and schools as a tactic of maximizing Palestinian deaths it could blame on Israel. While Israel sought to protect its citizens, Hamas sought to use the misery of its people as a way to demonize Israel in the court of international opinion, Israel’s top officials said.

Israel faced unprecedented criticism for its war in the west. President Barack Obama directly criticized Israel for not taking enough care to avoid hitting civilian areas. The United Nations Human Rights Council voted to launch a special investigation into Israel’s tactics during the war with only one vote against, the United States.

“It’s an oxymoron,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. “You can’t have the two arguments. Either Hamas’ tactics work and the war does not deter them, or Hamas is not deliberately trying to maximize casualties on their own side.”

Hanegbi’s prediction that Hamas would be deterred for years does not comport with recent history either. This summer’s Gaza war was the third such conflict with Hamas there since the end of 2008. In each of these cases, Hamas not only rearmed, but also expanded the range of their rockets.

This time he hopes Hamas will act more like Hezbollah, a Shi’ite fundamentalist political party and militia in southern Lebanon that went to war with Israel in 2006. In that conflict, Israel bombed the airport in Beirut, the city’s southern suburbsm, and Hezbollah positions throughout the south. That war left Hezbollah more hesitant to strike Israel again, he said.

“For eight years they didn’t even shoot us with a water gun,” Hanegbi said. “Why is that? For three years they were preoccupied with Syria. But for five years before that there was total tranquility on the north.”

At the time, the 2006 war wasn’t seen as a win for Israel, even within the Jewish state. Most of Israel’s top military leaders considered the conflict a failure because Israel’s ground troops did not have basic supplies when they invaded southern Lebanon at the very end of the conflict. Hezbollah had fought it to a draw and Israel was left seething, something its powerful military wasn’t used to experiencing.

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Across the Arab world, the mere fact of Hezbollah surviving was hailed as a victory and Israel’s reputation as a regional superpower took a shellacking. They were no longer considered unbeatable. Within a few years, Hezbollah leveraged its success in the war to become the dominant political party in Lebanon and its allies now control the Lebanese government.

Hanegbi acknowledged that for groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, survival alone would be portrayed as victory. But just because Hamas in its propaganda celebrated the martyrs for its cause and claimed to embrace the hardship and death of its struggle against Israel, he said, does not mean the group cannot be deterred.

Hamas cannot point to any real tangible benefit from the current war, Ibish acknowledged. “It’s true that Hamas has nothing to show for this politically,” he said. “It’s also true Hamas has not paid a particularly heavy price, except for dead Palestinians, which they are willing to sacrifice. They don’t hide this.”

If Hamas is deterred, it’s unlikely it’s solely because of Israel’s military might. The region’s politics have shifted with the Arab Spring. Unlike at the end of the war against Hezbollah, which saw much of the Arab world rally around the Shi’ite group, Hamas is diplomatically isolated. It is supported mainly by Turkey and Iran, two non-Arab states that are resented in the region, and Qatar, seen as a diplomatic busybody with too much cash, and the Al Jazeera news channel, which delights in tweaking the region’s autocrats.

Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which gained ground across the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, but which is now fighting for its life in Egypt and elsewhere after the military unseated Egypt’s elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, last year.

Exploiting the region’s distaste for Hamas has allowed perhaps Israel’s greatest political triumph: It has maneuvered Egypt into negotiating Israel’s side in the peace negotiations. Battling Merkava tanks will likely seem easier than wringing concessions from Egypt, which is obsessed with destroying the Brotherhood and its offshoot, Hamas.

For this reason, Israel prefers Egypt’s interlocutions to America’s. Two weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Cairo and Paris in a bid to end the war. Kerry proposed that Qatar and Turkey help with the reconstruction of Gaza and the payment of Hamas civil servants in Gaza in exchange for a ceasefire. Israel and Egypt instead pressed Hamas to begin disarming in exchange for more reconstruction, dismissing Kerry.

Egypt, most Arab states and even the United States share this basic goal for Hamas, Hanegbi told reporters on Monday, and Washington now seems largely content to consult from the sidelines rather than play a central role. “The real negotiations are between the Palestinians and the Egyptians,” he said.

In many ways the war has paused as inconclusively as the one in 2006 did. Hamas is still in power and in possession of thousands of rockets with which to threaten Israel again. Nonetheless, in Hanegbi’s mind the war has been a success.

The Egyptians, according to Hanegbi and other diplomats in the region, have pressed Hamas to end the construction of tunnels, particularly the tunnels into Israel, which could be used for terrorist attacks later on. In exchange, the Israelis have offered to hold off on what it calls “interception” missions inside Gaza, according to Hanegbi, or the targeted killing of top Hamas leaders.

But if Hamas were to continue to construct tunnels, Hanegbi said, Israel is prepared to send in ground forces to destroy them. “Once we have any intelligence about a tunnel dug into Israel, we will use whatever tactic we can to stop it,” he said.

In other words, if Hamas does not agree to a peace that Israel believes it needs to keep its people safe, Israel reserves the right to take matters again into its own hands. But at least in Hanegbi’s view, Hamas is unlikely to start a new war again like that for several years.