Hamas should be disarmed, not destroyed

The saying “the third time’s the charm” has never been so popular among Israelis as the Jewish State fights its third major conflict with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip in five years. With rockets targeting all of Israel’s major cities for the first time in history, everyone here seems to agree that it’s time for a paradigm shift --- that the goals of this conflict should amount to more than just buying time with deterrence before a fourth round of even deadlier violence.

The Obama administration and other regional players have wrongfully suggested that the ceasefire understandings reached following the last round in 2012, known as Operation Pillar of Defense, should be restored to end the current conflict. For those seeking peace, such logic brings to mind Einstien’s infamous definition of insanity, with regard to repeatedly making the same mistake and expecting different results.

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Though they are forbidden from voicing opposition to Hamas, most Gazans likely share Israeli sentiments that this round must be the last one. Hamas’s rockets now threaten 80 percent of Israel’s population, hitting the country’s economy hard at the height of the tourism season. Gaza is in its worst state since Hamas took power in 2007, and the Islamist group’s governing ability is crumbling at the hands of a joint Egyptian-Israeli blockade, unprecedented regional isolation, and the rising tide of al-Qaeda inspired jihadists.

Having failed at slowing its political marginalization with the recent reconciliation agreement with its Fatah rivals, Hamas took an existential gamble by entering into a conflict with Israel. By drawing the spotlight on suffering in Gaza once again, Hamas aims to shame Egypt into opening the Rafah border crossing and coerce the Palestinian Authority into paying the salaries of over 42,000 increasingly angry government employees in Gaza whom Hamas has been unable to compensate for the past three months. Using its unprecedented rocket arsenal, attack tunnels, drones, and commando raids, Hamas sought to salvage its image among the Palestinian populace ahead of general elections still slated to take place next winter.

But for the time being, the only the only result of Hamas’ gamble has been the wanton destruction and death brought upon Gaza by Israeli aircraft seeking to target rocket launchers and deploy punishing strikes on the homes of Hamas leaders.  Due to Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system, Hamas has been unable to inflict mass casualties with their rockets, while every threatened “surprise” cross border raid has been thwarted by the Israeli military.

Despite the IDF's performance, there is a quiet consensus in Jerusalem that military solutions to bring long-term quiet are limited. A ground incursion is likely to only accomplish what cannot be done from the air, and that is to stem, not eradicate Hamas rocket fire and force the group into a ceasefire.  Only a complete recapturing of the Gaza Strip could bring an end to the rocket fire, but would cost Israel crucial international legitimacy, treasure, and politically-threatening troop casualties. Lastly, with Fatah unwilling and incapable for taking control of Gaza, dismantling Hamas would invite far more irrational Salafi-jihadi groups to fill their void. 

There is, however, a rare opportunity for a regional arrangement which could ultimately bring an end to the cycle of violence in Gaza.  As part of any ceasefire, the international community should demand that Hamas dismantle its rockets and those of other fringe groups in exchange for a lifting of the blockade by Israel and Egypt. Israeli government officials are increasingly citing the Syrian example of a successful case where a credible threat of military force succeeded in extracting destabilizing weapons from the region, in a sign that Jerusalem may be warming up to such an agreement.

Critics in Israel and abroad are likely to cite the failure of attempts to disarm Hezbollah as part of UN resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Lebanon War.  This time, however, is different. Unlike Hezbollah, Hamas no longer has an open border with which to smuggle advanced weapons and other materials. Though Hamas is becoming increasingly adept at manufacturing its own rockets, it knows that such weapons cannot fill the stomachs of Palestinian children, or put their parent back to work. Hamas is almost entirely dependent on a lifting of the blockade to maintain its seat of power in Gaza, and should be faced with the choice to either abandon its program or face complete collapse.

Hamas’s rejection of Egypt’s latest ceasefire offer on July 15 proves that the group does not feel sufficiently threatened to make the concessions that would allow for a lifting of the Gaza blockade. Unified International pressure, including from Hamas’s last remaining backers Qatar and Turkey, is needed alongside assurances that its political stature in the Palestinian arena will be preserved.  A UN-mandated multinational force assembled by moderate regional governments should be deployed to oversee the disarmament. If Hamas’s rule collapses, this force would be able to facilitate the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza.

For those seeking stability in the eastern Mediterranean, time is running out to mobilize this daring, yet doable solution. Israel will continue to intensify its military operations in Gaza until the rockets stop or international pressure swells as a result of civilian casualties, forcing its hand and allowing Hamas to escape without demands to disarm. In a true testament to its character, Hamas is hoping for the latter scenario – anything to preserve its rockets for the next round of destabilizing violence.  

Nisman is president of the Levantine Group, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Gilran is vice president of Intelligence at the Levantine Group.