When Hamas fighters broke through the Israeli border fence on October 7, it was seeking to provoke Israel into miscalculations driven by outrage. When insurgent or terrorist groups engage in spectacular overkill attacks, they typically seek to destabilize the target society and inflame a toxic mixture of shock, outrage, panic and wrath such that the dominant power inflicts much greater blows against itself than insurgents ever could.
Remember the 9/11 attacks? Al Qaeda leaders hoped to goad Washington into something profoundly unwise and self-damaging. Unfortunately, the George W. Bush administration obliged by invading Iraq in 2003, which damaged American credibility and global leadership, undermined public support for US military actions in the Middle East, and greatly empowered Iran. As for terrorism, the misbegotten Iraq war actually produced an even more extreme iteration of Sunni Islamist radicalism in ISIS.
Hamas wants Israel to make the same kind of mistake. Though it may seem counterintuitive, what Hamas really wants is an Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza interior.
Since 2007, when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, Israel has been controlling the territory from the outside only, retaining a tight grip on coastal waters, the airspace, the electromagnetic spectrum and all points of exit and entrance except for one small crossing controlled by Egypt.
In the past year, Hamas became increasingly uncomfortable. The momentum of the Palestinian confrontation with Israel had shifted strongly to the West Bank, led by unaffiliated ad hoc armed youth groups like the “Lions’ Den.” And they were noticing a subtle erosion of support from Turkey and Qatar.
Since its founding in 1987, Hamas’ primary goal has not actually involved battling Israel. That is a means to the real goal, which is to marginalize secular Palestinians in Fatah and take over the national movement. Hamas wants to dominate all territories under Palestinian control, impose ultraconservative religious social policies, and, above all, take over the Palestine Liberation Organization (PNA) and its priceless global diplomatic profile, including UN observer state status and over 100 embassies around the world.
From 1987 to 2000, Hamas was distinctly secondary within the Palestinian national movement, which was dominated by Fatah. But the Second Intifada that began in the fall of 2000 following the failed Camp David summit radicalized both sides. The Israeli “peace camp” collapsed and Ariel Sharon became prime minister. Among Palestinians, Hamas finally became a contender for national leadership.
After two elections in which Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas overwhelmingly won the presidency but Hamas-backed candidates twice emerged as the biggest legislative bloc, Hamas violently expelled Fatah from Gaza. The Palestinian split continues to this day, but compared to the West Bank, Gaza is far less culturally and historically significant.
Hamas obviously thinks that if it wants to take over the Palestinian movement, it needs another sustained insurgency against Israeli occupation. Hamas is hoping to lure the Israeli military back into the interior of Gaza for the urban combat that favors insurgent groups. Hamas hopes a sustained insurgency can eventually result in a steady drip of killed and captured Israeli conscripts, allowing Hamas to claim that it alone is actively fighting for Palestine.
What this means is that in trying to fulfill the pledge to “eliminate Hamas,” Israel could well deliver everything Hamas is counting on.
Instead, it would behoove Israel think carefully about how to deny Hamas what it seeks from a prolonged insurgency in Gaza.
It’s not just a matter of restraint. Israel must rethink its whole approach to the Palestinians. Israeli governments have gone out of their way since the Oslo Accords in 1993 to make Fatah and the PLO look like feckless failures as they pursue a fruitless campaign to obtain statehood through negotiations. Israel has frequently promoted Hamas over Fatah, not just inadvertently but quite deliberately.
No one is guiltier of this than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In March 2019, he patiently explained to his Likud Party’s Knesset members that, “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas.” In case anyone did not fully understand, he added, “This is part of our strategy — to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.”
Many Israeli governments have pitted Hamas against Fatah since its founding in 1987, hoping to split and thereby cripple the Palestinian movement.
If Israelis finally realize how catastrophically misguided this policy is, then there are three obvious correctives. First, Israel does not actually benefit from promoting a potent Palestinian radical Islamist party. Second, Israel should do its utmost not to fall into the trap Hamas has set in Gaza. And, third and most crucially different from long-standing Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, if it wants to defeat and marginalize Hamas, Israel must begin treating Fatah and the Palestinian Authority with respect and seriousness.
Anyone truly appalled by the terrorist attacks must actively reward those Palestinians who are committed to talking to Israel as opposed to those who are committed to shooting Israelis.
This op-ed was originally published by Newsweek. Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute.
Cover photo: from the left, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan speaks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken while US President Joe Biden and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wait to make statements before a meeting in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023 (photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP.)
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