Israel has been fighting the wrong war against Hamas. Everyone should be happy about the cease-fire that was agreed to and hopeful that it will hold. Yet Israel — and everyone else for that matter — has been playing by Hamas rules; it is a game Israel cannot win, and that is why some Israeli officials describe the Israel Defense Forces’ own efforts as “mowing the grass,” because no matter how short you cut it, the grass will inevitably grow again.
When Israel fights this wrong war, it loses ground in the only war it can and must win against intractable enemies: the war of ideas.
Listen to what Israeli government and military officials say about Hamas tactics in its endless jihadist struggle to destroy the Jewish state. Repeatedly and accurately, Israeli leaders affirm that Hamas both targets Israeli civilian population centers and hides behind its own Palestinian population centers in an effort not only to terrorize Israelis but also to put its own people in the line of fire. Hamas does this either to deter an Israeli response or to garner international support when Israel does strike back to defend its citizens from incessant rocket fire that no nation should have to tolerate.
But for the foreseeable future, the likelihood of Hamas inflicting heavy Israeli casualties by launching hundreds of mostly primitive rockets at Israeli civilians is inversely proportional to the likelihood that Israel will inflict heavy Palestinian civilian casualties as collateral damage when it responds.
All should applaud the cease-fire negotiated by the Egyptian and American governments. But that effort will also be akin to mowing the grass unless Israel and its allies improve their ability to combat Hamas using the tools available to vibrant democracies.
These tools center on a war of ideas, and make no mistake about it; these ideas will save both Israeli and Palestinian lives. The West — through its two most significant entities, the U.S. government and the European Union — has deemed Hamas a terrorist organization. Israel and the West, then, must loudly broadcast that message and bring pressure to bear on Hamas for its never-ending targeting of civilians. This needs to occur at least as relentlessly as efforts to ward off any upcoming Iranian threat. It must be continuously pushed to the forefront of media and international attention.
If President Barack Obama, EU heads of state and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stay on this message, the media and Israel’s enemies will be forced to listen to what emanates from their bully pulpits. No longer will they be able to imply a moral equivalency by use of euphemisms such as “militants” or “fighters” toward those who unabashedly violate the laws of armed conflict.
But the time for such an effort is not after more than 100 rockets fall on Israel in less than four days, it is when any rockets fall. More than 600 rockets were launched on Israeli civilians this year before Hamas ratcheted up its barrage this month. While zero tolerance is not a viable military strategy, it is a realistic and pragmatic strategy in the war of ideas. Why does the West not get this? Why does anyone who cares about the lives threatened in this conflict — Palestinian or Israeli — not understand this and act accordingly?
Israel ended its occupation of Gaza in 2005. In 2012, there is no Israeli occupation of Gaza; if there were, there would not have been concern about a possible Israeli incursion into Gaza as Israel would already be in Gaza. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said exactly that in an interview with Lebanese TV last March.
Why was Israel unable to widely disseminate and echo Haniyeh’s sentiments? Why was this not picked up by both the administration and Congress, most of whom were forced to address this foreign policy issue in the course of this year’s election campaigns?
The cease-fire agreement affirms that Hamas is in control of Gaza. There are indications that the terms mean there must be no rockets emanating from Gaza toward Israel whatsoever. This would mean Hamas is responsible for violent actions not only from its own brigades but also from smaller groups such as Islamic Jihad, which are not party to the agreement.
If this turns out to be the case, Israel will not only have to ease its blockade of Gaza, it will have to be even more proactive to demonstrate its interest in resolving its conflict with the Palestinians. The Israeli government must do more to repudiate settler violence and to alleviate the discomfort Palestinians face when passing through checkpoints in the semioccupied West Bank between towns under the rule of Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority. Apologizing for the security realities that require checkpoints is not some liberal, bleeding-heart position; it goes to the heart and soul of the state of the conflict today.
Israel has publicly committed to a two-state solution in which it will cede the vast majority of the West Bank to a Palestinian state. Israel must absolutely stay on this message and do its utmost to make this vision a reality if it wants to win the war of ideas and bring lasting security to its citizens.
Daniel Kamin teaches about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at DePaul University in Chicago.