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Israel and Hamas need each other — now more than ever

The fact that Israel has no desire to destroy Hamas and re-occupy Gaza means the next round of fighting will end much like the previous ones: a ‘strategic tie’ with enormous human suffering in both Israel and the Strip.

By Doron Matza

Hamas supporters take part in a rally marking the 29th anniversary of the founding of the movement on December 11, 2016, in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Hamas supporters take part in a rally marking the 29th anniversary of the founding of the movement on December 11, 2016, in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

It is impossible to understand what is happening in the Gaza Strip without understanding the following paradox: the relationship between Israel and Hamas appears as a “zero-sum game,” yet both sides cooperate with one another.

For over a decade, Israel and Hamas have maintained a relationship of both confrontation and reconciliation. From the Israeli point of view, Hamas’ presence in Gaza is not merely a constraint, it is also a significant strategic advantage. This is because the more than two million people in Gaza live under an organized regime that frees up Israel from maintaining a constant presence in the Strip and worrying about the civilian population there. And all this without totally forgoing control over Gaza’s security, economy, and borders.

Meanwhile, Hamas’ regime in Gaza, which split Palestinian rule into two separate geopolitical entities between the West Bank and Gaza, allows Israel to fend off pressure to sign a final-status deal, by claiming that that very split prevents it from reaching an arrangement when a central player on the opposing side does not accept the rules of the game, rejecting Israel’s very right to exist.

From Hamas’ point of view, Israel’s presence allows it to maintain its principal identity as the exclusive resistance movement in the entire Palestinian political system. Doing so positions Hamas as an alternative to Fatah, which, among other things, turned into a corrupt and hated movement — a process that eventually lead to its expulsion from the Strip. Furthermore, over the past few years Fatah has been maintaining tight-knit security coordination with Israel in the West Bank, effectively perpetuating the occupation.

Palestinian police deployed during a demonstration by Hizb-ut-Tahrir party supporters against political arrests of the party members by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank city of Hebron, February 25, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Palestinian police deployed during a demonstration by Hizb-ut-Tahrir party supporters against political arrests of the party members by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank city of Hebron, February 25, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

This past decade has shaped the complex relations between Hamas and Israel. On the one hand, there is an element of mutual reconciliation and a deep recognition of the advantages that both sides provide the other, in order for both to promote their strategic goals. On the other hand, there is a mutual understanding that the main condition for ensuring that these goals are met is tied directly to maintaining the conflict between the two sides. Even more importantly, both sides manage the conflict so as not to create new conditions that will significantly alter the present reality. In other words, so that Hamas continues to rule Gaza.

This is the main reason that every military conflict between Israel and Hamas over the past decade, whether led by Olmert’s centrist government or Netanyahu’s right-wing governments, almost always ended at the exact same strategic point at which they started: a kind of “tie” in which Israel does not take over the Strip or destroys Hamas’ institutional, bureaucratic, and military infrastructure there.

Operation Protective Edge was a perfect example. Israel refrained from achieving a strategic victory in Gaza, instead preferring to focus its military efforts on exposing and destroying Hamas’ tunnels. This is because Israel feared that overthrowing the Hamas regime would lead to one of two scenarios: re-occupying the Strip and taking responsibility for the goings on there, or replacing Hamas with a Fatah-led regime, which could eventually place pressure on Israel to come to the negotiating table.

A Palestinian woman walks past the rubble of a home that was destroyed by Israel during the 2014 war, Rafah, Gaza Strip, July 30, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash 90)

A Palestinian woman walks past the rubble of a home that was destroyed by Israel during the 2014 war, Rafah, Gaza Strip, July 30, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash 90)

The need to manage the conflict in a way that maintains the strategic conditions of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship in Gaza is the main reason for short-term military confrontations, which wear out civilians on both sides. The effect on the civilian population — along with the scope of the intervention of both regional and international actors — are the sole parameters that affect when these confrontations come to an end, rather than reaching strategic and military goals.

Defense Minister Liberman’s threats that the IDF will be more intentional and aggressive the next time it faces off with Hamas is a testament to the fact that he understands the price of managing this kind of conflict — one in which there are no winners of losers. However, a lack of desire to destroy Hamas in such a way that will bring about the re-occupation of the Strip means that the fate of the next confrontation will end the same way as the previous ones: a strategic tie at the price of continual human suffering in Israel and Gaza.

Doron Matza is a member of the Research Program on Jewish-Arab Relations in Israel at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel-Aviv. This article was first published in Hebrew by the Forum for Regional Thinking.

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    COMMENTS

    1. AJew

      Is this a joke? Am I reading this correctly? What is this latest accusation? Are you guys now saying that Israel and Hamas are defacto allies?

      If I would be the one who would start having bizarre fantasies like these, the first thing I would do is seek medical help (a shrink). 😅

      I mean, when we handed Gaza over unilaterally, we were villains. When we attacked Gaza we were villains. When we don’t attack and destroy Hamas, we are villains. Are you guys for real?

      I really hope sane American Jews read this magazine. It should be an eye opener for them. This constant, mindless anti Israel propaganda! They should see what Israel is up against.

      Reply to Comment
      • Lloyd Kennedy

        It’s a de facto realisation of the Orwellian maxim that war is not to be won, only perpetuated. Israel created Hamas and all the time this farcical two state solution is up for discussion they can continue the status quo of doing nothing about it.

        Reply to Comment
    2. i_like_ike52

      The last time the Palestinians had a “free election” was 11 years ago, and HAMAS won it. If Abbas were ever fool enough to allow elections again, as he was proposing to do until he thought the better of it, HAMAS would probably win again. This means the the thesis of this piece, saying that basically HAMAS is a “tool” of Israel, has the support of the majority of the Palestinian population. Does that really make sense?

      Reply to Comment
      • duh

        The point can be made with more clarity – the existence of the Gaza Strip in the first place allows Israel to remain a demographically “Jewish” (read: colonial-settler) state, so any organized administration there is going to be useful in that aim. That’s the paradox of a supposedly resistance group taking it over.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Mike Hall

      Frankly, it’s insulting our intelligence to propose, as this Israeli security officer author does, that there is some equivalence of choice in Hamas’ and Israel’s behaviour.

      And in the opening sub heading also to suggest some equivalence of ‘human suffering’ between Gaza and Israel, well, that’s just the usual offensive Israeli propaganda.

      Reply to Comment
    4. I find the words “the next confrontation” and thinking along such lines utterly obscene.

      Reply to Comment
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