Why Israel Can't Afford to Destroy Hamas

An Israeli flag flies at sunset.

Destroying Hamas would require Israel to make a large-scale and prolonged ground incursion into the Gaza Strip.

An uneasy balance of escalatory and de-escalatory factors exists in Gaza making another round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas—a constant possibility. Judging from the statements made by Israeli defense minister Avigdor Lieberman, and following the recent state comptroller’s report on the failings during the 2014 operation, the next round of hostilities in Gaza is likely to be more intensive than the past three series of fights, which took place in 2009, 2012 and 2014. Lieberman envisions that the next conflict in Gaza will bring an end to Hamas’ control through the use of all-out military force. In an interview with the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds (October 24, 2016), he said that if Hamas were to force a new round of hostilities on Israel, then it would be its last “because we will completely destroy them.”

While Israel probably has the military capability to destroy Hamas in another round of hostilities if it wanted to, it is not clear what would replace the terror group. Israel’s strategic interests are best served by the existence of a central authority in Gaza. Therefore, destroying Hamas with no prearranged viable alternative would work to Israel’s detriment. Notionally, there are five possible alternatives to Hamas’ continued control of Gaza at the end of another round of hostilities:

Israeli Control of Gaza

Destroying Hamas would necessitate a large-scale and prolonged ground incursion into the Gaza Strip to seek out and destroy the organization’s terrorist and governing capabilities. If successful, this would, by default, make Israel responsible for the provision of civilian services and the facilitation of humanitarian aid and reconstruction, necessitating the setting up of a civil administration. This would be a very substantial economic drain and would, once again, make Israel the occupying power in Gaza.

Israel’s occupation would also probably be prolonged. The transfer of control over Gaza to someone else is not an alternative readily available and it would be very difficult to develop instantly. Consequently, the supplanting of Hamas by Israel would likely result in a lengthy, costly and open-ended occupation. The Israeli Defense Forces would be under continuous terrorist attacks by residual members of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives—as well as from Salafi terrorist cells. These attacks would spiral the military and civilian costs of occupation.

A lengthy stay in Gaza would not serve Israel’s main strategic goals. While the presence of the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza would enable it to seek out and destroy military and terrorist infrastructures, Israel would have to shoulder growing casualties, a humanitarian crisis and a heavy economic burden, making the open-ended occupation unpopular among Israelis. In addition, violence might spillover into the West Bank, which would deteriorate Israel’s regional and international standing.

Ultimately, in the absence of a viable and prearranged hand over mechanism, Israel would probably decide to exit Gaza unilaterally which, in turn, would most likely lead to internal fighting and chaos, making the consequent return of an effective ceasefire and security for Israel unrealistic.

Palestinian Authority Control of Gaza

Two main obstacles stand in the way of the Palestinian Authority taking control of Gaza as an end state to another round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas.

First, the forces available to the Palestinian Authority to regain and secure control of Gaza are clearly inadequate. The backbone of the Palestinian National Security Forces are the nine battalions of national-security forces based on the West Bank and the two battalions of presidential guards that have been trained in international assistance under the guidance of the U.S. security coordinator to the Palestinian Authority. These forces (approximately six thousand personnel) are barely sufficient for the maintenance of security in the West Bank. To date, no forces for a mission in Gaza have been built.

Once given control of Gaza, it would be theoretically possible for the Palestinian Authority to build a new indigenous force. However, this would be a very time-consuming process that would require substantial vetting, recruitment, training and arming. That means that even if the Palestinian Authority was willing to control Gaza following the destruction of Hamas by Israel, then the transfer of control would significantly prolong the period of Israel’s occupation.

The second substantial obstacle to Palestinian Authority control of Gaza is the illegitimacy with which the regaining of control on the bayonets of Israel would be held—both within and without the Palestinian arena. The diminishing standing of the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, impede even more the prospect of this happening.

Given these obstacles, the chances that the Palestinian Authority would take control of Gaza, as a direct inheritance of an Israeli occupation, is negligible.

Regional Control of Gaza