Israel-Hamas Conflict Locked In by Both Sides’ Strategic Assumptions

Israel-Hamas Conflict Locked In by Both Sides’ Strategic Assumptions
Smoke rises after an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, July 15, 2014 (AP photo by Adel Hana).

World attention is riveted by the ongoing violence between Israel and Hamas. After the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers and a retribution killing of a Palestinian youth, Israeli airstrikes on Gaza were followed by Hamas rocket barrages that reached as far as Tel Aviv. The two desperate enemies continue to pummel each other, seemingly seeking revenge rather than discernible political objectives. "The damage is already gruesome," as Natan Sachs put it, "and bound to get worse." Calls have arisen for a new Intifada across the Palestinian Territories on one side, and an Israeli ground invasion of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on the other.

Whatever happens during the next few weeks will not be the finale of the two sides’ long conflict or even the beginning of the end. The reason lies with the strategic assumptions that drive the two antagonists. Assumptions are the foundation of any strategy, at times explicit but more often unspoken or implied. Yet much depends on them. When the surface layers of anger and passion are peeled back, the strategic assumptions accepted by Israel and Hamas show why their conflict is intractable.

Israeli strategy is based on the assumption that the will of the Israeli public and security forces to support a military approach to dealing with Hamas can be sustained indefinitely. But it also assumes there is no possibility for a permanent, sustainable political agreement with Hamas that preserves core Israeli interests. The leadership of Hamas, Israeli strategists believe, gains more by sustaining the conflict than by resolving it. The most effective strategies combine carrots and sticks. But Israelis believe they have no feasible and effective carrots. Hence they assume that all Israel can do is try to deter escalation by delivering crushing punishment whenever Hamas crosses certain red lines. Israel's strategy has only a stick. But it is a conditional stick. Israel knows that the only thing that could radically change the power balance in its conflict with Hamas is a loss of American support. However unlikely this is, it is not wholly inconceivable. This means that punishment of Hamas must be kept within the limits of American toleration.

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