Israel is right now dealing with two constant security headaches. One is Iran’s efforts to establish a permanent presence in southern Syria across from the Golan, the other is Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist activity in Gaza threatening the safety and security of Israelis in the south. Looking at the way in which Israel has been enormously successful in dealing with the first one yields some lessons for what Israel might do to mitigate the omnipresent second one.
Israeli policy in Syria has had two components. The first, and most readily apparent, one is a military doctrine that set out two red lines – transfer of advanced weapons to Hizballah and establishment of permanent Iranian bases in southern Syria – and has enforced them with hundreds of airstrikes on Iranian targets. Israeli intelligence and aerial capabilities in Syria have demonstrated Israel’s dominance, and Iran has struggled to fulfill its own military objectives vis-a-vis Israel in the face of repeated setbacks at Israel’s hands. Israel has not limited its strikes to weapons depots, but has also more recently targeted Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders, drone operators, and Iranian military personnel stationed in Syria.
This military campaign has been married with an equally important political and diplomatic campaign; equally important not only because it preserves Israel’s freedom to operate in an extremely tricky environment but because it sends a message to Syrians that Israel has a targeted purpose with its constant interventions in Syria. Israel has managed its relationship with Russia in as near-perfect a manner as possible, which allows the Israeli Air Force to hit Iranian targets and not worry about getting into a dogfight with Russian fighter jets or running afoul of Moscow, and also sends an image of buy-in for Israeli tactics from an outside power. But Israel has also taken steps on the ground in Syria to support alternatives to Assad and Iranian militias and to improve the lives of Syrians in the zone where it is operating militarily. These steps include support for Free Syrian Army rebels that are simultaneously battling Iranian proxy groups and ISIS affiliates, setting up military field hospitals right across the border that are treating both fighters and civilians, and sending food, clothing, medical supplies, and gasoline to Syrians in the border area. All of this results from a recognition that Israel is better off trying to sway Syrian hearts and minds while conducting military operations against Iran, since doing so builds goodwill and greater trust of Israeli intentions while driving a wedge between Iran and Syrians suffering the consequences of Iran’s presence in their country.
Israel has taken a different tack toward Gaza. Since Hamas’s takeover more than a decade ago, Israeli policy has been a purely military one. It has had two objectives; preventing rocket fire and terrorism against Israeli civilians and squeezing Hamas until it collapses. The first objective has been successful by any measure. Between Iron Dome, the technological breakthroughs on tunnel detection, the subterranean barrier being built, and Israeli patrols along the border fence, Israel’s military capabilities over the last ten years have transformed what was a pressing threat to Israel into a source of frustration for Hamas. Observing the events of this past week illustrate this perfectly; the close to 200 rockets and mortars fired into Israel on Tuesday and into Wednesday morning dwarfed the 80 that have been fired in the cumulative time – nearly four years – since the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and they resulted in zero Israeli casualties. It is a testament to Israel’s successful adaptation in countering the type of threat that Hamas rule in Gaza poses and also to the successful deterrence established by Protective Edge.
The second objective of forcing Hamas’s collapse, however, has been a failure, and it is here where the lessons from Syria are germane. The problem is that getting rid of Hamas requires a political strategy, yet Israel has been trying to do so with a military strategy that does not involve actually reoccupying Gaza and expelling Hamas directly. Deterrence has worked to enforce a prolonged period of quiet that lasted until Tuesday, but without shifting the underlying conditions, deterrence cannot work forever as the incentive structure will not allow it. Israel recognizes in Syria that improving Syrians’ daily lives and hitting only Iranian military targets will lead to erosion of support for Iran, and that having a military-only response that hits a wider range of civilian and infrastructure targets will backfire by making Israel the convenient and easy villain. Yet in Gaza, Israel is doing precisely what it has wisely avoided in Syria, and thus prolonging Hamas’s rule through the very same tactics it is employing in an effort to end it. When Gazans look at Israel, they have no reason to cut it any slack or buy the argument that it is Hamas that is the party actually responsible for their problems because Israel has given them precious few reasons to feel otherwise.
Enforcing the blockade on Gaza has not dislodged Hamas. Neither has limiting the electricity supply, watching as Gaza’s aquifer empties, or destroying Gaza’s infrastructure. These measures did not work when Hamas was firing rockets on a daily basis, and they have not worked over the past four years of relative calm. What may work is actively making life in Gaza better rather than allowing it to deteriorate, and demonstrating that Israel is not interested in punishing the entire population but is only interested in punishing Hamas, but there is no way of knowing unless it is tried. Rather than wait around for Hamas to go away, the last four years of quiet should have been used to experiment with something new. Instead, Hamas has been able to point to the fact that it largely ceased rocket fire and that it has absolutely zero effect on Israeli policy, and if I were a Palestinian living in Gaza, it would be tough to convince me that there has been any benefit to reducing confrontation with Israel and that an escalation of terrorist tactics will cost me any more.
The risk, of course, is that easing the blockade and improving life in Gaza makes it inevitable that Hamas will divert money and resources into rocket factories and tunnel construction. But given the enormous success of Israel in responding to these tactics and limiting the casualties and damage that they cause and the relatively weak capabilities of Hamas, Gaza is the one place where Israel can best afford to experiment with this while still minimizing the security risk. Otherwise, the same movie will keep repeating on a loop, as Hamas stays where it is and wavers between periods of rockets and periods of calm, until the humanitarian crisis overtakes everything and the entire theater burns down.