Hamas Cannot Be Defeated, So It Must Be Brought to Heel

The Real Goal of the Slaughter in Gaza

Ever since Hamas triumphed in the Palestinian elections nearly three years ago, the story in Israel has been that a full-scale ground invasion of the Gaza Strip was imminent. But even when public pressure mounted for a decisive blow against Hamas, the government backed off from a frontal assault.

Now the world waits for Ehud Barak, the defence minister, to send in the tanks and troops as the logic of this operation is pushing inexorably towards a ground war. Nonetheless, officials have been stalling. Significant ground forces are massed on Gaza’s border, but still the talk in Israel is of “exit strategies”, lulls and renewed ceasefires.

Even if Israeli tanks do lumber into the enclave, will they dare to move into the real battlegrounds of central Gaza? Or will they simply be used, as they have been in the past, to terrorise the civilian population on the peripheries?

Israelis are aware of the official reason for Mr Barak’s reticence to follow the air strikes with a large-scale ground war. They have been endlessly reminded that the worst losses sustained by the army in the second intifada took place in 2002 during the invasion of Jenin refugee camp.

Gaza, as Israelis know only too well, is one mammoth refugee camp. Its narrow alleys, incapable of being negotiated by Merkava tanks, will force Israeli soldiers out into the open. Gaza, in the Israeli imagination, is a death trap.

Similarly, no one has forgotten the heavy toll on Israeli soldiers during the ground war with Hizbollah in 2006. In a country such as Israel, with a citizen army, the public has become positively phobic of a war in which large numbers of its sons will be placed in the firing line.

That fear is only heightened by reports in the Israeli media that Hamas is praying for the chance to engage Israel’s army in serious combat. The decision to sacrifice many soldiers in Gaza is not one Mr Barak, leader of the Labor Party, will take lightly with an election in six weeks.

But there is another concern that has given him equal cause to hesitate.

Despite the popular rhetoric in Israel, no senior official really believes Hamas can be destroyed, either from the air or with brigades of troops. It is simply too entrenched in Gaza.

That conclusion is acknowledged in the tepid rationales offered so far for Israel’s operations. “Creating calm in the country’s south” and “changing the security environment” have been preferred over previous favourites, such as “rooting out the infrastructure of terror”.

An invasion whose real objective was the toppling of Hamas would, as Mr Barak and his officials understand, require the permanent military reoccupation of Gaza.

But overturning the disengagement from Gaza — the 2005 brainchild of Ariel Sharon, the prime minister at the time — would entail a huge military and financial commitment from Israel. It would once again have to assume responsibility for the welfare of the local civilian population, and the army would be forced into treacherous policing of Gaza’s teeming camps.

In effect, an invasion of Gaza to overthrow Hamas would be a reversal of the trend in Israeli policy since the Oslo process of the early 1990s.

It was then that Israel allowed the long-exiled Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, to return to the occupied territories in the new role of head of the Palestinian Authority. Naively, Arafat assumed he was leading a government-in-waiting. In truth, he simply became Israel’s chief security contractor.

Arafat was tolerated during the 1990s because he did little to stop Israel’s effective annexation of large parts of the West Bank through the rapid expansion of settlements and increasingly harsh movement restrictions on Palestinians. Instead, he concentrated on building up the security forces of his Fatah loyalists, containing Hamas and preparing for a statehood that never arrived.

When the second intifada broke out, Arafat proved he had outlived his usefulness to Israel. His Palestinian Authority was gradually emasculated.

Since Arafat’s death and the disengagement from Gaza, Israel has sought to consolidate the physical separation of the Strip from the much-coveted West Bank. Even if not originally desired by Israel, Hamas’s takeover of Gaza has contributed significantly to that goal.

Israel is now faced by two Palestinian national movements. The Fatah one, based in the West Bank and led by a weak president, Mahmoud Abbas, is largely discredited and compliant. The other, Hamas, based in Gaza, has grown in confidence as it claims to be the true guardian of resistance to the occupation.

Unable to destroy Hamas, Israel is now considering whether to live with the armed group next door.

Hamas has proved it can enforce its rule in Gaza much as Arafat once did in both occupied territories. The question being debated in Israel’s cabinet and war rooms is whether, like Arafat, Hamas can be made to collude with the occupation. It has proved it is strong, but can it be made useful to Israel, too?

In practice that would mean taming Hamas rather than crushing it. Whereas Israel is trying to build up Fatah in the West Bank with carrots, it is using the current slaughter in Gaza as a big stick with which to beat Hamas into compliance.

The ultimate objective is another truce stopping the rocket fire out of the Strip, like the six-month ceasefire that just ended, but on terms even more favourable to Israel.

The savage blockade that has deprived Gaza’s population of essentials for many months failed to achieve that goal. Instead, Hamas quickly took charge of the smuggling tunnels that became a lifeline for Gazans. The tunnels raised Hamas’s finances and popularity in equal measure.

It should come as no surprise that Israel has barely bothered to hit the Hamas leadership or its military wing. Instead it has bombed the tunnels, Hamas’s treasure chest, and it has killed substantial numbers of ordinary policemen, the guarantors of law and order in Gaza. Latest reports suggest Israel is now planning to expand its air strikes to Hamas’s welfare organisations, the charities that are the base of its popularity.

The air campaign is paring down Hamas’s ability to function effectively as the ruler of Gaza. It is undermining Hamas’s political power bases. The lesson is not that Hamas can be destroyed militarily but that it that can be weakened domestically.

Israel apparently hopes to persuade the Hamas leadership, as it did Arafat for a while, that its best interests are served by co-operating with Israel. The message is: forget about your popular mandate to resist the occupation and concentrate instead on remaining in power with our help.

In the fog of war, events may yet escalate in such a way that a serious ground invasion cannot be avoided, especially if Hamas continues to fire rockets into Israel. But whatever happens, Israel and Hamas are almost certain in the end to agree to another ceasefire.

The issue will be whether in doing so, Hamas, like Arafat before it, loses sight of its primary task: to force Israel to end its occupation.

Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on January 1st, 2009 at 1:32pm #

    if over sixty yrs of butchery of pals by euros, a thousands upon thousands times a stronger econo-military side didn’t prove that pals cannot be defeated, i don’t know how long butchers must keep butchering pals to be convinced euros can’t win.
    there appears only one way euros can win: do what nazi have done and car away all the pals off into the see or to a desert.
    US/euro/isr wicked alliance does not dare to do that. and why? cuz arabs may revolt against their own despots and set fire to all of the wells. thnx

  2. kalidas said on January 1st, 2009 at 9:19pm #

    US/Euro/Isr/Saudi Arabia

  3. mary said on January 2nd, 2009 at 12:21am #


    Carlos Latuff (in Brazil) thinks the same about the oil rich Arab states who are onlookers to this massacre whilst sitting on their hands. Latuff’s output, excellent before this carnage began, has been brilliant. The second link is to his gallery.



  4. George Thompson said on January 2nd, 2009 at 11:40am #

    I’m so tired of Israel’s supporters saying that Hamas started this fight with their ragtag rockets that almost never hit their targets. Israel started this ongoing fight when they instituted apartheid and constructed the wall that is almost completed now. These are not individual skirmishes but the ongoing attempts by the Palestinians too free themselves. It is time for the third intifada. The Jews will never listen. They started the Hamatic myth that enslaved Africans for 500 years. They hold the Palestinians in a similar light and think they have the moral high ground from the German holocaust. Being a victim of a holocaust does not give you the right to perpetrate on another group of people. Israel belongs in German territory because they lost the war but Europe is known for always dumping their problems on the rest of the world.

  5. bozh said on January 2nd, 2009 at 3:48pm #

    according to genesis 10: 18 ham is ancestor of canaanites. noah was his father who cursed canaanites and wished for them to be lowest slaves.
    noah blessed the other two sons, shem and japhet.
    however, this doean’t mean that blacks of africa can’t be hamites. or?

  6. Michael Kenny said on January 3rd, 2009 at 9:09am #

    I think this is right, but what Israel “wants” is foreign, more specifically, EU, troops sent in and the reason why European leaders are saying so little is that the last thing they want to do is, precisely, to get sucked into that hornet’s nest. However things play out, though, the whole thing is a massive victory for Hamas and (yet another!) massive defeat for Israel.

    Israel is clearly scared silly of launching a land invasion of Gaza, no doubt for the reasons Mr Cook sets out. Exposing that fact to the world’s gaze is a huge propaganda victory for Hamas, most of all, perhaps, within Israel itself. Israel has shown itself to be unable to defend its territory and unable to survive unless propped up by foreign troops. A failed state, if ever there was one!

    To which, of course, must be added the humanitarian propaganda disaster. Israel has fed off the “victim” discourse for the last 60 years: the poor, downtrodden Jews, victims of all those nasty anti-semites. Now, they have revealed themselves to be monsters far worse than any of which they claimed to have been themselves victim. Deep in the depths of Hell, Hitler must be laughing his head off!

    And, of course, the foreign troops would actually help Hamas! In Lebanon the soldiers protected the population from Israeli attacks, allowing Hezbollah to re-arm quietly and freeing up its fighters for other tasks (Gaza?). Protecting the population of Gaza in the same way would prevent Israel from ever again starving people out and would free up Hamas, allowing them, for example, to turn their attention to the West Bank which, as Mr Cook says, is a far juicier morsel than Gaza.

    The status quo ante suited Israel, but they have now gone and destroyed it! Never has so much been screwed up on behalf of so many by so few!