by Paul Pillar
Applying a familiar label or phrase can be a substitute for good analysis, or for any analysis at all. The application activates a set of presumptions associated with the label or phrase while brushing aside any other relevant facts that may contradict those presumptions. The current conflict in Gaza has stimulated a surge in application of such rote phrases to one of the belligerents: Hamas. Besides the familiar label of “terrorist group,” which ignores other dimensions of Hamas as well as ignoring who is applying most lethal force against civilians, there also is the catchphrase that Hamas is “dedicated to the destruction of Israel.” It is not just the Israeli government that keeps uttering that phrase, or even commentators seeking to justify Israel actions; one sees it in mainstream press in what are supposed to be objectively reported articles.
In assessing the validity of the phrase, let us set aside some related issues that also are very important in assessing what is going on today in the Gaza Strip. One concerns the origin of this conflagration, which began when the Netanyahu government seized upon a kidnapping and murder in the West Bank, blamed it (falsely, we now know) on Hamas, launched large-scale raids and arrests, including detentions that reneged on a previous agreement with Hamas, and applied lethal force both in the West Bank and along the Gaza Strip that killed at least nine Palestinians—all before Hamas fired a single rocket or sent a single fighter through a tunnel in this round of fighting. A second concerns how the slaughter of innocent civilians has reached wholesale proportions far beyond what can be justified by even the most nefarious intentions imputed to the adversary or by excuses about difficulties of targeting in close quarters. A third involves how given the misery that had already been inflicted on Gazans in their open-air prison, it would be astounding if many did not hold intensely hostile attitudes toward Israel; if somehow Hamas could be made to go away it would just open space for groups more radical and unyielding than it.
Hamas does not have anything close to a capability to destroy Israel, and never will. The imbalance of strength is so lopsided as to make any talk of destruction of Israel, which has one of the most able military forces in the world, ludicrous. This is reflected in the results of the current fighting—and especially in the killing of innocent civilians, which is supposedly the chief focus of worries about Hamas. Hamas is probably giving everything it has got to the military effort, but the latest tally of civilians killed is three in Israel and probably more than a thousand in the Gaza Strip.
Moreover, Hamas leaders are certainly smart enough to realize their group will never have anything close to a capability to destroy Israel, even if they wanted to do so. Remember, these are the same leaders who currently are being given much credit for cleverness with regard to use of the tunnels. Hamas is not dedicated to something it knows it could never do anyway.
Most important, Hamas now has a substantial track record that contradicts the catchphrase. A recent article by John Judis reviews some of the relevant history. Hamas has repeatedly made it clear it will accept a long-term (meaning decades)hudna or truce with Israel, and who knows how much can change in decades, especially if there were such an agreed-upon peace. Hamas has repeatedly made it clear it would accept a comprehensive peace accord with Israel if approved by a majority of Palestinians in a referendum. In its recent pact with Fatah (destruction of that pact evidently being the main purpose of the Netanyahu government’s aggressive moves leading to the current fighting), Hamas agreed to surrender power to, and to support, a Palestinian government in which Hamas was given no portfolios and which explicitly accepts all the usual Western demands about recognizing Israel, adhering to all previous agreements, and adhering to non-violence. If this is the record of a group dedicated to the destruction of Israel, then the term dedicated has some new and unknown meaning. Hamas certainly does have a longer term goal, more attractive to it; that goal is to wield power over Palestinians in a Palestinian state.
Reference keeps getting made to extreme language in a party’s charter (just as it was for years to the PLO’s charter) and to Hamas leaders not uttering explicitly some phrase such as “I recognize Israel’s right to exist”. Why should they, when Israel clearly does not recognize any right of Hamas to exist, and has given no hints that it ever would? Rather than saying Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel, it would be closer to the truth to say that Israel is dedicated to the destruction of Hamas—although even that statement is not entirely true, because the current Israeli government implicitly relies on Hamas to police the Gaza Strip and explicitly relies on it as a bugbear and excuse for not negotiating seriously about Palestinian statehood.
Acceptance of statehood on the other side is indeed the critical comparison. In contrast to Hamas making it clear it would accept a two-state solution, the current Israeli government has not. Some members of the ruling coalition have been explicit in rejecting it and talking about their objective of an Eretz Israel from sea to river. Netanyahu, who in many respects is one of the most moderate members of his own coalition, has given lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state but more recently, and evidently more honestly, has talked about Israel continuing a military occupation of the West Bank permanently. In assessing barriers to a complete peace settlement, let alone to a truce to end the current hostilities, one question to ask is: which side’s ambitions, or dedication to objectives, is the larger impediment? A second question is: which matters more, words (even if they are either empty promises to the other side, or high-flown rhetoric to one’s own side) or deeds?
It will be hard enough to obtain even a short-term ceasing of the ongoing bloodshed, without feeding the fire with familiar but false phrases about who supposedly is dedicated to the destruction of whom. One of the main reasons it is hard is that Israel appears dedicated to giving Hamas no reason to stop fighting. Part of the background to this problem, which Nathan Thrall summarizes in a new article, is the last Hamas-Israeli ceasefire agreement in November 2012, which Hamas did its best to observe but Israel did not. Violent acts in the first few months after the agreement, including gunfire at farmers and fishermen, were almost all committed by Israel, which also did not fulfill a commitment to end the blockade of Gaza and to initiate indirect talks with Hamas about implementation of the agreement. As Thrall observes, “The lesson for Hamas was clear. Even if an agreement was brokered by the US and Egypt, Israel could still fail to honor it.”
Photo: Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers operating in Gaza on July 31, 2014. Credit: IDF
This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright the National Interest.