Three scenarios

There are enough reasons to believe that the current escalation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza will continue. There are also reasons to believe that the two sides are pursuing both short- and long-term political objectives for such an escalation.

Separating Gaza from the West Bank, both de facto and de jure, is one component of the unilateral Israeli strategy that started with the withdrawal from Gaza. Israel hopes thereby, among other things, to undermine Palestinian aspirations to establish a state in all the occupied Palestinian territory that includes the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

This plan, however, was interrupted by Hamas’ victory in parliamentary elections in 2006 and then further by the movement’s military takeover of Gaza in 2007. Israel could not allow Gaza under Hamas control to be opened to the world through Egypt, because that would not only increase Hamas’ chances of survival but also allow the Islamist movement to grow in both political and military strength. Hence, Israel modified its strategy and decided to impose a full closure on the impoverished strip to suffocate Hamas as well as the people of Gaza.

It was a very shortsighted tactic. Instead of prompting resistance to Hamas control, Israel’s draconian closure on Gaza only prompted greater sympathy for the movement and Gazans in general from the Arab public and internationally. The pressure it created on life in Gaza finally culminated in the very public breach of the Gaza-Egypt border in January that was seen in most quarters as a clear victory for Hamas. This in turn has now forced another Israeli rethink, hence Israel is now escalating the situation in Gaza in preparation for implementing a military solution to its problem of Hamas control there.

But Hamas, in turn, also cannot live with the status quo created by Israel and the international community under which it has been confined to Gaza and has not been able to live up to the basic expectations its people have of it and of any Palestinian leadership. The January 23 breach of the border with Egypt was an attempt by the movement to relieve the pressure on it and Gaza in general.

This too was a short-term victory. Egypt could not accept that one of its sovereign borders was forced open and insisted that the border be resealed and only opened again under the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Having succeeded only for a short while to open the border, Hamas then decided that a military escalation, by responding strongly to Israeli attacks, would provide a reasonable way out of the impasse.

With both sides pursuing escalation, a major confrontation seems all but inevitable. There is much speculation about the exact scope and nature of such a confrontation and the level of resistance it will be met with, but a major Israeli incursion and possibly an attempt at fully re-occupying the Gaza Strip would seem likely.

Israeli objectives for the current escalation range from crushing Hamas and ending its control over the Gaza Strip to deterring any further rocket strikes across the border. Hamas too has a range of objectives. First, the movement seeks to be perceived as the main Palestinian force fighting the Israeli occupation and this way to establish itself as the counterpart to Israel on the Palestinian side. This is also an important domestic objective in light of the fact that Palestinians have been fighting this illegal Israeli occupation for the past 41 years, whatever the nature of their leadership.

But another Hamas objective is to avoid a major confrontation by convincing Israel that getting rid of the movement is impossible no matter how much force Israel uses. Hence, for Israel to end the rocket attacks it has to reach an understanding with Hamas. Hamas has consistently called for a ceasefire as an alternative to the ongoing escalation. Its ceasefire proposal, when looked at carefully, is not very different from the interim arrangements that the PLO leadership has been trying to reach with Israel. Hamas is proposing ending hostilities between the two sides in return for an end to Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza and an end to all settlement expansions. The only difference is that Hamas does not want this to be an official agreement but rather an understanding. Furthermore, Hamas does not want to pursue an end-of-all-claims agreement but rather a ceasefire for a limited but significant period of time that, depending on which version one reads, ranges betwe! en 15 and 30 years.

Hamas has been inspired by Hizballah. Hizballah has been able to reach some kind of military balance with Israel that convinced Israel to leave the movement alone in return for an end to the katyusha attacks. Hamas is trying to reach a similar balance of deterrence, and while there is a huge military difference in the comparative strengths of Hizballah and Hamas, one factor stands out: If Israel wants to crush Hamas, the price will include a full and comprehensive re-occupation of the Gaza Strip, of which Israel already has very long and bitter experience.

The only alternative to these two scenarios–a full confrontation or a ceasefire–is if Israel decides to return to deal with the Palestinians as one central body and territory. This will require ending the international and Israeli opposition to the resumption of the intra-Palestinian dialogue that could be mediated by Arab governments, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to bring back an arrangement similar to that of the 2007 Mecca agreement . The Mecca agreement installed a national unity government that was rapidly moving toward accepting the relevant stipulations of international legality and the pursuit of a final agreement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.