How not to demilitarize Hamas
How not to demilitarize Hamas

How not to demilitarize Hamas

In a few weeks, indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas are to take place in Cairo with the aim of consolidating a durable ceasefire. The problem is that the two sides have two quite different agendas – while Hamas chiefly seeks the removal of the siege over Gaza, the Israeli government is primarily interested in demilitarizing Gaza.

But is pushing for demilitarization of Hamas in Gaza alone really in Israel’s interests?

The government embraced this objective after important Israeli figures, pointing to Syria’s relinquishing of chemical weapons and the PLO’s 1988 adoption of non-violent resistance, put forward proposals aiming to fully demilitarize the Gaza Strip, including its rockets, missiles and offensive tunnels in exchange for massive economic investments in the Strip.

The most prominent of these, advanced by former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, offers economic aid for Gaza’s full demilitarization. The Strip’s population would enjoy a massive $50 billion investment over 5 years and sea access via an internationally monitored port in Cyprus. Likud Minister Israel Katz, for his part, has suggested a “civic disengagement" should Gaza be fully demilitarized. This would mean disconnecting any civic or infrastructural link between Israel and the Strip: stop providing electricity, water, fuel and so on in order to end Gaza's dependence on Israel and create a border between Israel and Gaza.

In exchange, Gaza would receive sea access via a port on an artificial island under international supervision. Similarly, former GSS Head Yuval Diskin advocated ramping up military pressure on Hamas to force it to accept deep demilitarization in exchange for significant Israeli gestures to improve the lives of Gaza’s civilians. Numerous ministers, including Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, have incorporated this notion in their political plans and speeches.

However, these proposals are faulty because they assume demilitarization can be disconnected from statehood – that improving Gazans’ wellbeing would marginalize Hamas, leaving it to choose between abdication or being overthrown by Gazans desirous of a better life. Both scenarios are unrealistic. Most Gazans share Hamas’s view that military capacities are necessary, both to ensure Israel fulfils its commitments regarding Gaza and to liberate, at least, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Moreover, Gazans hostile to Hamas are unorganized and outgunned by a strong armed movement ready to use force to protect itself. Operation Protective Edge has hurt Hamas, but enfeebled Gaza’s population even more. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former adviser Yaacov Amidror has repeatedly stated since the fighting began, if Israel wants to get rid of Hamas, it will have to do it itself by retaking the Gaza Strip militarily. This would entail an enormous cost that Israeli society currently doesn’t want to pay and might trigger violent resistance by other movements and on other fronts.

There is a third way, one that would involve rethinking Israel’s policy not only toward Gaza or Hamas, but also toward East Jerusalem and the West Bank. This would aim at ultimately transforming Hamas into a political party in an independent Palestinian state, making Hamas, and other armed factions, subject to its laws on the use of force and invested in the state’s survival.

Only when there is a Palestinian state will Hamas actually have to choose between accepting the legal commitments and sovereign nature of the State of Palestine and going to war not only with Israel, but with the rest of Palestine and its Middle Eastern allies as well. Specifically, if the Palestinian state would be established next to Israel based on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, then it is likely that both Qatar and Turkey – Hamas’s main patrons, who support the initiative since its launch – will join the coalition pressuring Hamas not to abrogate the peace agreement with Israel. This virtually certainly would be the policy of most of the Arab League members, led by Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Like it or not, the demilitarization of Hamas passes through Palestinian statehood. Not because Palestinian statehood would end all violence against Israelis, as some Palestinians would continue to challenge Israel’s very existence. But the aim should be to minimize their number; a Palestinian state could be the most effective way to do so. It would by definition seek a monopoly over the use of force, making demilitarization of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad feasible – not simply by forcible disarmament but also, no less importantly, by integrating those Hamas militants willing to abide by their state’s international commitments and obey its leadership. Palestinians in general and Hamas specifically would then face a choice between working in the interest of their state’s prosperity and continuing a military struggle against a much more powerful Israel and its Arab allies.

This approach is also the only way to deal with Palestinian motivations for attacking Israelis, not just with their capacities to do so. A state based on an agreement with Israel, for instance, should have an educational system that could help reduce Palestinian prejudice towards both Jews and Israel – and vice versa.

It’s understandable that Minister Katz, who opposes Palestinian statehood for ideological reasons, seeks to resolve the issue of Gaza separately from that of the West Bank. But those like Mofaz, Livni and Diskin, who see the two-state solution as an Israeli national interest, are working against their own goals when they argue that Gaza’s demilitarization could happen without Palestinian statehood. It cannot, and in maintaining that it can, they weaken their own argument in favor of a Palestinian state.

The ceasefire reached two weeks ago postponed this and other major issues by a month, giving Israeli opinion leaders enough time to explain to their co-citizens that the two can only happen in tandem.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen is welcomed by Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank June 14, 2022. Mohamad Torokman / REUTERS

Realigning European Policy toward Palestine with Ground Realities

Events in 2021 – particularly the Gaza war – put in sharp relief how much Europe’s policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs a refresh. The European Union and its member states should use the levers they have to push for their stated goal of a peaceful resolution. 

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