Saturday, January 03, 2009

Hamas: Hezbollah Redux?

So, now that Israel has begun a ground offensive into the Gaza in response to Hamas rockets fired at Israel, the obvious question is whether this will this be a repeat of the 2006 war against Hezbollah. I believe the overall war will be similar but, unlike the 2006, there is not a stable and basically acceptable status quo ante to return to. This may make for some variation.

So far the script has been remarkably familiar. Hamas/Hezbollah fires rockets at Israel that are alarming but do limited damage. Israel responds with a much heavier bombardment of Lebanon/Gaza, but fails to stop the rockets. Israel invades and meets with resistance. In both cases, Israel is trying to militarily root out an organization so deeply intertwined with the local population that can be removed only by all-out ethnic cleansing. In both cases, both Israel and its supporters appear to be willfully blind to this uncomfortable reality.

The difference is in military capacity. Although Hamas has presumably had time to build up its forces while it power, it is still not as formidable a fighting force as Hezbollah. Although all paramilitaries in the Middle East now aspire to be Hezbollah, it takes a lot of time, practice and training to build a force of that caliber. Hezbollah is a highly disciplined, secretive force with quality arms, an eleborate physical infrastructure of underground bunkers and communications networks, and a command structure as tight and centralized as a conventional army. Hamas is a shoddy, amateurish organization by comparison.

This is bad news -- for Hamas and for Israel (to say nothing of the long-suffering people of the Gaza). It is bad for Hamas and the people of the Gaza because it means that they cannot offer sufficient resistance to deter any future Israeli attacks. It is also bad for Israel because it means that they do not have a strong enough authority to make a deal with.

And, although hawkish types may not like to admit it, Israel can and has made successful deals with Hezbollah. During the prolonged guerilla warfare while Israel occupied southern Lebanon, the sides had a tacit agreement. Hezbollah would limit its fighting to north of the border and not fire any rockets into Israel, and Israel would not bring the full force of its firepower to bear on Lebanon. From Israel's withdrawal in 2000 until the 2006 war, both sides maintained a quiet truce. During the 2006 war, when a 48 hour aerial cease-fire was ordered, it was mutually observed. And since the end of the war, the two sides have kept their peace. And, significantly, during the current war on the Gaza, Hezbollah had staged rallies and made threatening noises, but it has not fired any actual rockets into Israel, no doubt because it learned the hard way the sort of retaliation Israel is capable of. These silent deals have held despite Hezbollah's stated dedication to the destruction of Israel because Hezbollah understands what its fate will be if it actually tries to destroy Israel and has a strong enough central command to ensure that there are no rogue elements who do not understand.

I believe Hamas, which now holds the responsibilities of government of Gaza, is generally rational enough to prefer foregoing its stated commitment to the destruction of Israel over facing the sort of destruction Israel is capable of unleashing. But it is by no means clear that Hamas has that type of control and can reign in its rogue elements. Thus the sort of modus vivendi Hezbollah has reached with Israel does not appear possible. Depending on how far Israel is willing to go, this leaves four options.

Option 1: Israel can repeat its experience in Lebanon -- launch a punitive expedition and withdraw. As with Hezbollah, Hamas is too deeply entrenched to be rooted out by a punitive expedition. As with Hezbollah, this will mean a return to the status quo ante. The difference is that the situation in southern Lebanon was generally acceptable to both sides. Hezbollah was control of southern particular with no interference and therefore had reason to want to attack Israel, and northern Israel could function perfectly well next door to Hezbollah. On the other hand, the status quo ante in Gaza was utterly unaceptable to either side. Gaza was under blockade by Israel and Egypt with conditions gradually deteriorating. Hamas regularly fired rockets at southern Israel and made normal life there impossible. Thus a return to that situation will not be stable. Israel appears to hope that if it inflict enough pain and/or seizes enough weapons, it can deter further attacks, as it was able to do with Hezbollah. But Hamas will have a constant incentive to attack Israel so long as the blockade remains in place. Nor is it clear that Hamas is strong enough to prevent the rocket attacks (see above).

Option 2: Israel can go for regime change. It can remove Hamas from power and install a more compliant government. The Israelis have denied such an intent, presumably because they recognize it cannot be stable. Any government installed by Israel will be seen as collaborationist and have very little popular support. Hamas, in the mean time, had entrenched itself well and will certainly resist. Without Israeli troop to support their puppet, Hamas will simply take back power, and things will return to where they were before.

Option 3: Israel can re-occupy Gaza and place it under military occupation. The trouble is, of course, that Israel originally withdrew from Gaza because this was not working very well. Israel will reoccupy Gaza with comparative ease and then find itself facing escalating guerrilla resistance, just like the US in Iraq, Ethiopia in Somalia, Israel during its first invasion of Lebanon, etc, etc. All evidence is that the Israeli government understands this, because it has disclaimed any intent to reoccupy the Gaza.

Option 4: Israel can go for all-out ethnic cleansing. In 2006, Israel did sometimes appear to be seeking to drive the entire population from southern Lebanon. It dropped leaflets warning people to flee and then indiscriminately bombed. Ethnic cleansing failed in southern Lebanon because in order to keep the Shiites from simply moving back, someone else would have to move in. It would be pointless for Israelis to move in because Hezbollah would have continued to attack any such Israeli settlements and the quarrel would not be ended, but merely moved 30 miles north. And no one else was going to volunteer to be a buffer.

So far there is no evidence Israel is attemting anything so drastic in Gaza. It has shown greater restraint so far, presumably knowing there is nowhere for the residents to go. It is true that if Israel forced the residents of Gaza into Egypt, many Israelis would be happy to move into the Gaza strip, and the government of Egypt could reasonably be expected to be strong enough to keep Hamas from attacking Israel. But, of course, Egypt is hostile to Hamas and would therefore not be willing to accept displaced Gazans. That rules out ethnic cleansing. And even if Israel did undertake such a drastic action, it would somehow have to finish the job by January 20, when Barack Obama becomes President and (presumably) would not let it go that far.

In short, the current conflict resembles the 2006 war in that Israel is cannot succeed militarily except by extremely drastic measures that the international community will not allow. It differs in that there is no basically acceptable status quo ante to return to. Which leaves only one final, desparate measure. Diplomacy.

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