Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

The Conflict With Hamas is Unpleasant, but Not Terrible

| Aug. 23, 2018


A Hebrew-language version of the op-ed appeared in Haaretz on August 20, 2018. The translation was provided by the author.

At a time when most people around the world are enjoying the lazy, lethargic days of late summer, Israel has to deal with Hamas' never-ending threats. Hamas, however, is a distraction from the real threat today, Hezbollah and the growing Iranian presence in Syria.

Hamas presents four primary threats to Israel today. The first, cross-border tunnels, designed to enable Hamas to conduct terrorist attacks against Israel's civilian home front, has already been largely thwarted, by the underground barrier Israel is currently building, and should essentially be neutralized when it is completed next year.

The second threat, Hamas' attempts to forcibly cross the border fence, has also largely been thwarted — at a further price to Israel’s international standing — by less than fully restrained fire against "nonviolent demonstrators," many of whom just happen to be Hamas fighters. The danger is twofold; that the ongoing limited conflict will ultimately lead to a major conflagration, or that Hamas may finally learn what nonviolent conflict really means. If 100,000 truly nonviolent Gazans (East Jerusalemites, or West Bank residents), armed solely with flowers, were to storm the border fence, we would face a serious problem. We can't shoot them all. In the meantime, the Palestinians' seemingly inexhaustible well of hatred, and never-ending ability to choose the wrong options, has saved us from having to face this dilemma.

Astonishingly, the third threat, of "flaming kites," has managed to drive the Israeli public and political arena crazy for months. To be sure, the kites, whose level of techno-operational sophistication brings us back to the dawn of humanity, can kill. One kite landed in a nursery school, while the children were playing outside, and only by a miracle was a near catastrophe averted. Nevertheless, not a single person has been hurt to date by "kite terrorism" and the fires they cause have been blown out of all proportion. Most of the damage has been to agricultural fields, which are rapidly plowed under, and is no longer seen. Our hearts go out to the farmers, whose crops are burned, and to the people who live in the Gaza border area generally. A policy of restraint is infinitely preferable, however, to a large-scale military operation, which will not really change anything of significance anyway. The financial cost of the damage caused by the kites is the equivalent of no more than a few hours of warfare, not to mention the cost in lives.

The fourth threat, Hamas rockets, has also essentially been neutralized — at the national level — by Israel’s rocket defense systems and is thus limited today primarily to the Gaza border communities. This is certainly unsatisfactory, even "unacceptable" (a term which should be banned from the Hebrew language, since every one of the "unacceptables" happened long ago) and mortars, as opposed to rockets, remain a significant problem. Nevertheless, Israel's northern communities had to live under far more severe threats for decades, as did those in the south during earlier times. Unfortunately, this has been the price of our renewed national sovereignty for more than a century and some proportion is warranted.

A future conflict with Hezbollah and Iran will be an entirely different story. Indeed, Israel's civilian home front and military rear are likely to suffer unprecedented destruction. The IDF continues to adhere to an offensive strategy and ethos, but the debatably good old days, when our forces could sally forth, conquer territory and achieve decisive victory, are apparently gone forever. The last thing that Israel needs today is to conquer additional populated territory and without conquering territory it is almost impossible to achieve decisive victory.

For these and other reasons, the IDF does not yet have an effective offensive response to the Hezbollah rocket threat, even though we have been facing it for decades, except at the price of an all-out war and heavy casualties. As long as the price of the "solution" continues to exceed the danger posed by the threat, Israel's governments will prefer to go a different route.

In these circumstances, Israel has been forced to adopt an increasingly defensive and diplomatic response. By way of example, Israel has deployed various rocket defense systems, such as Iron Dome, built border fences on all fronts, is now constructing additional defensive obstacles on the northern and Gazan borders, and is building "virtual defenses" against cyber threats. Israel's defensive response is already significantly better today, but the problem is cost, including the number of batteries and especially interceptor missiles required for missile and rocket defense. At the currently planned levels, the IDF will have to give priority to defending vital military installations and civilian infrastructure, such as airbases and power plants, over population centers, in order to ensure its ability to continue conducting wartime operations. The public will remain partially exposed and vulnerable.

A rare and constructive trial balloon was recently spied in our national skies — and apparently shot down immediately; a proposal to budget an additional 30 billion shekels for defense, including completion of a national rocket and missile shield. A defensive shield such as this need not be completely hermetic, but should be designed to achieve two primary objectives: first, elimination of the above need to prioritize defense of vital military installations and civilian infrastructure over population centers. Second, "neutralization" of the Hezbollah rocket threat, in the sense that the home front is able to continue functioning during wartime, at a level similar to what Israel achieved during the last round against Hamas in 2014. A shield such as this is estimated at $7–10 billion. The United States has committed to funding $5 billion for rocket defense over the next decade, and Israel should ask the Trump administration to "front-load" it even at the expense of other needs. Israel can cover the rest from its own resources.

Diplomacy has long gotten a bad rap in Israel, but is critically important today, especially when wedded to a coherent military strategy. Diplomatic efforts with Egypt (and indirectly with Hamas), for example, may prove to have been the best means achieving long term quiet the Gaza border. Israel can continue beating the Palestinians militarily for decades, but there is no military solution to the conflict with them.

The Palestinians love Palestine so much, they are willing to burn every last tree in it and where trees are burned, people will ultimately be killed as well. It may be hard to understand, but Hamas is actually in dire straits, in the face of Israel's overwhelming military superiority. We are rapidly neutralizing their military capabilities and depriving them of the ability to cause us significant harm. Their economy and infrastructure are in a shambles and their international and Arab isolation deepening. The Palestinian Authority is hostile to Hamas and exerting pressures against it, and the public in Gaza is showing signs of growing despair over their plight and leadership.

If Israel had a national leadership worthy of the name, the message to the people would be clear — cool it. The conflict with Hamas is certainly not pleasant, but not terrible. If fighting breaks out, Israel will continue to prosper, while Gaza will sink ever deeper into the abyss. A few limited ops, some diplomacy, a bit of patience and steadfastness, and this too shall pass.

Statements and views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, the Harvard Kennedy School, or the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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For Academic Citation:

Freilich, Chuck."The Conflict With Hamas is Unpleasant, but Not Terrible." Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, August 23, 2018.