While a definitive assessment of Israel’s recent Operation Breaking Dawn cannot be made without the passage of some time to determine whether the ceasefire holds and what the aftermath will bring, it is safe to say that it stands as one of Israel’s most successful confrontations in Gaza in the past 15 years. The IDF completed its military objectives of striking Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s top leadership and rocket facilities while limiting Palestinian civilian casualties, no Israeli civilians were killed despite over 1100 rockets fired by PIJ, and Israel’s political leadership ended the operation after deeming it a success and without risking a wider and longer conflagration. It was a demonstration of impressive Israeli military and intelligence capabilities and responsible political decisions, but the operation’s success is also attributable to the fact that Hamas stayed entirely on the sidelines.
Hamas’ absence was not a coincidence. It is partially the result of the policy that the Bennett-Lapid government embraced to ease restrictions on Gaza and improve its economy. The policy was in some ways an extension of the Netanyahu government’s approach of increasing economic concessions to Hamas in an effort to buy quiet, but rather than buy off Hamas itself, the Bennett-Lapid version—with credit to Defense Minister Benny Gantz as well—was to improve the situation for ordinary Palestinians in Gaza as a way of raising the stakes for Hamas. When the economy in Gaza is effectively non-existent and electricity is only available for four hours a day, Hamas has nothing to lose by shooting rockets into Israel and Palestinians in Gaza have no incentive to do anything other than encourage violent and armed resistance against Israel. Alongside the moral imperative of improving the lives of Gaza’s residents, the theory is that opening up Gaza for greater freedom of movement and more economic opportunity puts Hamas in a more difficult situation when deciding whether to escalate with Israel, since it now risks rolling back tangible gains for Gaza’s residents and in turn its own standing.
Over the past year and change, the Israeli government increased the entry permits into Israel for Palestinian workers in Gaza from 500 to 14,500, with reports that the government is planning on expanding that number to 20,000. While that seems like a drop in the bucket given Gaza’s population of over two million, each worker is estimated to support another ten Palestinians with the money earned inside Israel. Electricity supply in Gaza has increased to between eleven and fifteen hours a day, and the desalination and waste sewage plants have resumed operating due to the increased electricity and because Israel allowed the import of necessary parts for repairs. One year ago, just over one hundred trucks exporting goods left Gaza monthly, a number that had increased eightfold by January and February of this year and was still quintupled last month. This is not to suggest that this is adequate or that much more should not be done, but it helps to explain why the past year has been the quietest along the Gaza border since the Hamas takeover in 2007, and why Hamas elected to sit the most recent round of fighting out. Some of it was due to Hamas still recovering from Operation Guardian of the Walls in spring 2021 and some of it was due to ongoing friction between Hamas and PIJ, but it is strikingly obvious that the policy of loosening restrictions on Gaza in order to force Hamas into a more difficult political calculus was a major—if not the decisive—factor.
Hamas remains a terrorist organization, and while it may behave more pragmatically when it has something to lose, there is little evidence that it has abandoned its core ideology or that it is prepared to live with Israel. The shift that the PLO made in 1987 has not yet arrived in Hamas headquarters, and it may not arrive at all. But Israel spent over a dozen years making things easier for Hamas by providing it with an excuse to always choose the violent and escalatory option, as there was no shift in Israeli policy no matter what path Hamas took. If the aim was to force a Hamas collapse, it failed spectacularly, and if the aim was to alter Hamas’ behavior, there was no chance of that happening either absent some incentive for the group to shift course. Providing Hamas with a clear choice that carries with it clear negative consequences should it use violence runs the risk of strengthening Hamas, as it benefits alongside ordinary Palestinians from Israeli policies that ease the living situation in Gaza. But providing that choice also brings the benefit of Hamas choosing to sit on its hands if it feels like it has too much to lose.
Acknowledging the inherent downsides in giving Hamas more opportunities to divert construction materials and to tax money that are now coming into Gaza, there are two strong arguments not only to maintain the course that the Israeli government has taken over the past year but to ease things even more. One, expanding the number of Palestinians in Gaza who benefit from Israeli entry permits, easing access to basic materials and goods, and providing more reliable electricity will make it even harder in the future for Hamas to risk having all of it rolled back for the sake of being able to assert its resistance credentials with rocket volleys that are mostly neutralized by Iron Dome anyway. The more that Gaza becomes inhabitable, the more public pressure that will build up on Hamas to keep its behavior in check, which matters even to a terrorist group that governs in a starkly authoritarian manner.
Two, there is a clear gap between Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in terms of their relative standing, aims, methods, and responsibilities. PIJ remains a terrorist group, pure and simple, with no higher ambitions and no worries beyond that very narrow scope. Hamas, in contrast, needs to govern Gaza and deal with a wider array of international actors, and maintains ambitions to supplant Fatah as the dominant Palestinian political faction. The more that Hamas views maintaining the level of quiet that it has over the past year as a primary interest, the more tension there will be between it and PIJ, which can only redound to Israel’s benefit given PIJ’s greater extremism and stronger ties to Iran relative to Hamas. Choking off Gaza completely incentivizes similar behavior from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, whereas loosening restrictions on Gaza creates a natural wedge between the two groups.
The evidence over the past year and the evidence from last weekend’s fighting points to the success of Israel’s recent Gaza policy. If Israel continues along the same trajectory, it will not solve the Hamas problem once and for all, but it may lead to mitigating the effects that Israelis have felt from Gaza for fifteen years while undoubtedly leading to a better life for the Palestinians who live there.
And yet, this has been tried before. Hamas was simply not ready for another fight right now, so it let PIJ do it’s dirty work. After Hamas has sufficiently rebuilt its resources, it will strike again once a pretext arises. The reality is Hamas is completely incapable of running a civilized and self-sustaining country; all it can manage (poorly) is a terrorist group with the goal of “liberating Palestine.” How do you appease that? The author will be proven wrong in time as he and other liberals have been proven wrong in the past.
Don’t hold your breath!