Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Israel and Hamas

Israel, Hamas need a strategy
New Indian Express, (Chennai), Wednesday 26, 2008
ONGOING violence between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas is heading for one interesting pos sibility, namely, both sides burying their hatchet and seeking a temporary truce. While full recognition and formal negotiations are still far off, some form of rational interaction between the warring sides is increasingly become inevitable. It is matter of "when" and not "if."

For both sides, military option has become ineffective and politically problematic. A growing number of countries feel that Israel's response to the barrage of Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip has been disproportionate.

Even those who sympathise with Israel and endorse its right to defend its civilian population are extremely concerned over the mounting Palestinian civilian casualties. In the latest round, the Israeli forces killed over 100 Palestinians, a vast majority of whom being non-combatants.

Advanced technology and human intelligence significantly diminish the chances of civilian casualties. But the world is yet to witness a weapon that only targets militants, leaving the unarmed unharmed. As Israel often recognises, even targeted killing would have to be extremely accurate, if civilian deaths were to be avoided.

Moreover, as the world once again learnt, Israel lacks an effective military strategy vis-à-vis the militants. Since the late-1980s, it has been fighting a host of militant groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and factions of mainstream Fatah. More than two decades later, however, Israel is yet to evolve an effective and successful military strategy against non-state actors. In short, Israel's response has not only been disproportionate but also ineffective. If it were to protect its civilian population from rocket attacks, Israel needs a strategy that works.

Even for Hamas the military option has been ineffective and costlier. For months Palestinian militants have been launching Qassam rockets against Sderot in the Negev. In recent weeks, they managed to strike the port city of Ashkelon north of the Gaza Strip. While Israel's human casualties remained small, these rockets have completely disrupted the daily lives of thousands of Israeli civilians, made them vulnerable and exposed the limitations of national defence. Minimal property damage was accompanied by large-scale psychological hardships and fear among Israelis.

By escalating the rocket attacks against Israel, Hamas not only exhibited its capability but also challenged Israeli military might. That it was able to launch Qassams despite massive Israeli responses underscore Hamas' determination, arsenal and organisational effectiveness. The large scale destruction of civilian infrastructure by Israel has not weakened the militants. Put it mildly, Hamas is unable to provide basic necessities to the people of the Gaza Strip but can still deliver Qassam rockets against Israel! This however has not changed the fortunes of the Hamas. International sympathy for the Palestinians is accompanied by widespread disapproval of rocket attacks against Israeli civilians. Even those Arab countries which have little sympathy for Israel are unable to understand let alone endorse the strategy pursued by Hamas-held the Gaza Strip authorities. Not even in private mainstream Arab leaders are prepared to endorse rocket attacks against Israel.

Moreover the military strength has not resulted in any improvement in the political fortunes of Hamas. The political isolation of Hamas-held the Gaza Strip is far from over. Despite the obvious limitations, the international community or those who matter, continue to rely on the Palestinian Authority under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas. The widespread Arab sympathy over Israeli reprisals has not transformed into pro-Hamas sympathies. No Arab ruler is prepared to shift his support from Abbas to Hamas.

Thus, Hamas also needs a strategy that would end its isolation and garner political dividends. While Qassam rockets can ensure its military strength, they are not a sign of Hamas' political acceptance.

Thus, their failed military strategy would eventually force Israel and Hamas to re-examine their attitude towards one another. For Israel, Abbas-led Palestinian Authority is preferable because it is moderate, believes in co-existence and also worked with Israel for over a decade.

But on the flip side, it lacks popular support and becoming increasingly marginalised.

On the critical question preventing Qassam rockets, the effectiveness of Abbas is less than zero. Any meaningful Israeli strategy against Qassam therefore would mean Israel seeking some tacit understanding with Hamas, even if this means undermining Abbas and his determination to isolate the Islamic militants. In short, if Israel were to stop Qassam rockets, Abbas is not the address.

Even if this does not mean mutual recognition, sooner or later Israel will have to deal with Hamas politically.

The Islamic militants also have no option but to deal with Israel politically. Ironic as it might sound, the ability of Hamas to end its diplomatic isolation depends upon Israel. In September 1993 the White House rolled out a red carpet welcome to Yasser Arafat because the Palestinian leader was acceptable to Israel. This changed radically when Arafat ceased to be a peace partner. Israel's isolation of the Palestinian leader resulted in the US disengaging from the Palestinian leader. Pro-Arafat Arab countries did nothing to his confinement within his Ramallah compound.

The fate of Hamas will not be different. Its ability to emerge as a player in the Middle East peace process would inevitably require some Israel acquiescence, acceptance and gradual recognition. Without that Hamas will not be able to convert its military attacks against Israel into political dividends. By offering security guarantees to Israel in the form of suspension of Qassam attacks, Hamas could emerge as meaningful political player in the Middle East.

For its part, ensuring civilian security is of paramount importance to Israel rather than ideological rigidity towards dealing with Hamas. If it can rein in and control its rank and file Hamas will find Israel to be its partner. An effective hardliner like Hamas is a rational choice for Israel rather than ineffective moderates like Abbas.

Israel may be less sensitive towards the sufferings of the Palestinians but it is hyper about its own casualties. This will inevitably force Israel to re-examine its policy towards Hamas.

Here the Palestinians are at a great disadvantage. By elevating them as martyrs, Hamas has reduced the Palestinians as a cannon fodder for its suicidal policies. Time has thus come for Hamas to re-examine the efficacy of its military strategy within the context of Palestinian suffering. Palestinians lives should be protected and cherished and not squandered on mindless militant ideology. If it wants the international community to abhor the killing of innocent civilians, the Palestinian leadership, especially the Hamas should start valuing the lives of the Palestinians. The living souls are as valuable as the dead. When they start valuing lives of their own people a bit more seriously, the Israel-Hamas cooperation becomes inevitable.

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