This deadly war between Hamas and Israel, the third in less than six years, has become what seems like a rather well-rehearsed play in the theater of the absurd. It involves Hamas launching rockets from Gaza, Israel striking Gaza with massive airpower—and sometimes artillery and ground troops—and after a horrific amount of bloodshed and destruction on both sides, the agreement of a cease-fire.
This time, however, a cease-fire looks far more complicated to achieve. One thing that has changed since the first two mini-wars, which ended in 2012 and 2009, is that Israel says it wants a demilitarization of the Gaza Strip as a requirement for reaching a cease-fire deal. In interviews in the last two days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel wants Hamas and like-minded militant groups such as Islamic Jihad to give up their weapons in order for there to be what he calls “lasting quiet.” As he put it on NBC’s Meet the Press: “You have to have a mechanism to ensure demilitarization…You want money to go to the people of Gaza, not money for Hamas rockets and missiles." Netanyahu also told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon on Monday that the U.N.’s call for a cease-fire meets Hamas’ requirements, but not Israel’s.
The European Union’s foreign ministers last week also announced that they endorsed disarming all militant groups in the Gaza Strip. But demilitarization is a non-starter in Gaza City, and even in Ramallah, the seat of Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, which says that any such move would have to be negotiated as part of a comprehensive peace plan. Talks aimed at reaching a wider Israeli-Palestinian peace deal broke off in April.
If the immediate goal is a cease-fire, Israel’s demands for demilitarization may move the goalposts a bit further away. But it is Hamas that upped the ante, says one of Netanyahu’s advisors, by launching rockets with longer ranges and more deadly potential. The Palestinian militant group also poured its resources into an extensive network of tunnels with which to attack Israel. In the latest of several attempts by Gaza militants to infiltrate Israel through one of these tunnels in the past week, five Palestinian gunmen appeared outside the Nahal Oz Kibbutz late Monday; Israeli troops opened fire and killed at least one of them, while the others are thought to have escaped back into Gaza.
“Since the previous Gaza conflicts, there has been a clear escalation in the type of weaponry Hamas and other organizations in the Gaza Strip have deployed, largely in terms of the range they’re able to reach with the rockets,” says Dore Gold, one of Netanyahu’s foreign policy advisors and the president of the Jerusalem Center for International Affairs. “If Israel were to just reach a standstill agreement for a cease-fire, based on what transpired before, in a very short amount of time there would be yet another qualitative improvement, and that would amount to improvements that pose an unacceptable threat to Israel.”
As far Netanyahu is concerned, what comes after a cease-fire is critical, Gold says. “In the last few years, international organizations and governments have pressured Israel to allow Gaza to import larger quantities of cement, so that houses can be built, new schools can be established, hospitals can be constructed. It turns out that this was used for attacks against Israeli targets,” Gold says. “Therefore the demilitarization agreement is needed to address this problem to ensure that Hamas doesn’t use this concrete to make tunnels.”
He gave a worst-case scenario from modern history. In the 1970s, the South Koreans discovered that the North Koreans had built a series of infiltration tunnels under the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two countries, with plans to use them for attacks. “These tunnels are not of that width or size, but the principle exists that with tunnels you could have 1,000 or 2,000 terrorists behind Israeli lines.” Moreover, he says, the 1993 Oslo Accords envisioned a demilitarized Palestinian state with light arms for police and security forces. “Twenty years ago, no one ever imagined rockets that could hit Tel Aviv would be embedded in a self-governed Palestinian entity.”
But it is difficult to fathom the al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, agreeing to lay down its weapons or decommission its rockets. In their view of the world, they are the only Palestinian resistance in the face of Israeli aggression that has led to some 1,085 deaths in Gaza since the conflict worsened some three weeks ago. Israel has lost 51 people, 48 of them soldiers.
“Hamas and the other Palestinian groups will not give their weapons away. This idea came up in 2005 with the ‘Road Map,’ which talked about destroying the infrastructure of terror, but it was never implemented,” says Mkhaimer Abusada, a Palestinian political scientist who studies Hamas at al-Azhar University in Gaza. “I don’t think that’s going to happen unless we are talking about specific issues, like the disarmament just of long-range rockets, or making Hamas stop digging tunnels between Gaza and Israel. That’s a very difficult task to do. Unless Israel can manage to do it in the course of the war, who’s going to do it? The U.N.? The Palestinian Authority?”
The PA stands to take on a bigger role in Gaza if the two sides can manage to get to a cease-fire deal. One possibility would be to bring back the PA’s security forces to the Gaza Strip—they were ousted by Hamas in 2007, when the militant group took control of the area following Palestinian infighting—and have them control the border with Israel. That might include some kind of small security zone, notes Abusada, ostensibly to prevent Hamas militants from getting near the border.
Meanwhile, the likelihood of getting the sides to agree soon looks low. Netanyahu addressed Israelis Monday night and told them to be prepared for a “protracted campaign,” one liable to outpace the 2009 “Operation Cast Lead” in scope – and, observers fear, in casualties.