How Will the War in Gaza End?
TEL AVIV – A year into World War II, the United Kingdom’s War Cabinet established a committee that would be responsible for clarifying the UK’s objectives in the conflict. The following year, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt devised the Atlantic Charter, which established their war aims and a shared vision for the future. As Israel continues its relentless air and ground campaign against Hamas – and as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza deepens – US President Joe Biden is probably desperately hoping that his recalcitrant Israeli allies will launch a similar effort.
So far, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has refused to discuss any vision for a political deal to end the fighting in Gaza, let alone for a broader Israeli-Palestinian peace. In fact, the current devastation in Gaza seems to serve little strategic purpose at all. Netanyahu’s only real objective appears to be political: to maintain the cohesion of his far-right coalition, so that he can stay in power.
That means, first and foremost, keeping the war going. Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir of the hard-right Jewish Power threatened to break the coalition if Israel halts its military operations in Gaza. According to Netanyahu, only when all Israeli hostages held in Gaza are released and the total and unconditional “obliteration” of Hamas is achieved can the fighting stop and a deal (possibly including a renewed Israeli occupation of Gaza) be implemented.
But this goal is both unrealistic and dangerous. Hamas is an Islamist nationalist organization with deep roots and considerable support. Since its founding in 1987, Hamas has threatened the exclusive rule of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the West Bank. In fact, the “security cooperation” between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel was never anything more than a euphemism for a joint battle against Hamas in the West Bank. But Hamas has continued to thrive.
Now, thanks to its defiant stand against Israel’s military in Gaza, Hamas is gaining in popularity among Palestinians, particularly in the West Bank, where the ruinous effects of the war triggered by the group’s October 7 massacre of Israeli civilians are not felt. If Hamas wins the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the remaining Israeli hostages, as is currently being negotiated, its popularity will skyrocket.
To be sure, there is a chance that Israel will succeed at eliminating Hamas’s military and political leadership, breaking its chain of command, and destroying its ability to function as a formal organization. But Hamas’s popularity suggests that, if nothing else, its ethos will remain central to the Palestinian national movement.
In fact, the destruction of Hamas, were it possible, could actually undermine Israeli security. Amid the post-conflict chaos, thousands of Hamas fighters would join criminal gangs, such as those that already apparently hold some of the Israeli hostages, while others would join Salafist groups that are even more radical.
In the modern Middle East, political vacuums always invite jihadist violence and upheaval. Afghanistan became a hub of cross-border terrorism during the Soviet occupation in the late 1980s. The Islamic State’s now-defunct “caliphate” emerged in areas of Syria and Iraq where government authority had collapsed during years of chaos and civil war, with former officers of Saddam Hussein’s dismantled Iraqi military forming the group’s backbone. Former Iraqi military officers bolstered al-Qaeda’s ranks, too.
The implication is clear. If Hamas is toppled, and there is no legitimate Palestinian political authority capable of filling the vacuum it leaves behind, Israel will probably find itself in a new kind of hell. Establishing a permanent buffer zone between Israel and Gaza, as the Israeli government now seems intent on doing, will do little to prevent this outcome. What it will do is drain Israeli resources, much as the “security zone” in southern Lebanon did until Israel withdrew in 2000.
Enduring divisions and disorder on the Palestinian side further undermine prospects for a stable post-conflict peace. The PLO’s political party, Fatah, is committed to a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, as PA President Mahmoud Abbas is well aware, the increasingly popular Hamas must be represented in Palestinian institutions. A “revitalized” PA could not legitimately govern Gaza after the war – as the United States has advocated – without Hamas’s endorsement.
Such an endorsement would require reconciling the PLO’s quest for a “political” compromise with Hamas’s struggle for Palestine’s “historical” rights. But, for Hamas, endorsing the Oslo Accords that the PLO negotiated with Israel is a non-starter, because recognizing Israel and abandoning its armed struggle against the “occupier” – two conditions of the Accords – would destroy its own legitimacy. Hamas recently released an 18-page statement which emphasizes the need to punish the “Zionist occupier,” identifies no reasonable war aims, and makes no mention of a partnership with the PLO or a political solution. Apparently, not even Gaza’s biblical agony or the brutal decimation of Hamas’s ranks and the destruction of its strategic assets could compel an ideological transformation.
As long as the PLO fails to co-opt Hamas into the political process, it will be impossible to establish a legitimate Palestinian government in post-conflict Gaza, let alone achieve the dream of Palestinian statehood. This is bad news for both Israelis and Palestinians. But it serves Netanyahu and his coalition of extremists just fine.
Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace and the author of Prophets Without Honor: The 2000 Camp David Summit and the End of the Two-State Solution (Oxford University Press, 2022).
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.
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