Breaking the Cycle in Gaza

The bloody war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza this past summer left both Israelis and Palestinians fearing that another war sometime in the not-too-distant future is all but inevitable. Israelis believe they must deter Hamas from conducting additional attacks and keep it weak should a conflict occur. For their part, Hamas leaders remain hostile to Israel and feel politically trapped by the extensive blockade of Gaza—and all the while, Gaza lies in ruins. The combination is explosive. 

In a recent article in The Washington Quarterly, I argue that now is a good time to explore alternatives that would break us out of the cycle of provocation, response, and war. Below I briefly describe Israel’s current approach to Gaza and sketch out some new approaches. As I discuss further in the longer article, each of these options has flaws and limits (some quite deep), and many are difficult or costly to implement – or even unrealistic under current conditions.

The Current Approach: Mowing the Grass

Israel’s current approach is often considered part of a strategy labeled “mowing the grass.” As the label suggests, Israel considers Hamas and other terrorist groups a constant danger, but one that is almost impossible to uproot. The approach, then, is to strike regularly to keep the danger limited (or the grass mowed), recognizing that, on a regular basis, additional strikes will need to be carried out. Israel has successfully kept Hamas from governing Gaza successfully, and its military threat to Israel, while real, is limited.

This approach has many hidden costs. Deterrence works at best fitfully, and Hamas rockets have longer ranges than in the past. The casualties Hamas has inflicted are a high number for a small state, especially one as casualty-sensitive as Israel. In addition, the rocket attacks, and the constant risk of them, impose a psychological burden. Some Israelis living near Gaza are reluctant to return, and rates of trauma are high.

Israel also pays a cost internationally. Mowing the grass also hurts more moderate Palestinians. Whenever Israel attacks Gaza, moderate Palestinians’ cooperation with Israel, and dislike of Hamas, are on full display. The current approach also increases Hamas’s reliance on Iran. Although Syria remains a bone of contention, Iran still needs allies in the anti-Israel struggle, particularly a leading Sunni group like Hamas, and Hamas has few other choices if it wants to maintain its ability to use violence and gain access to external funding. Finally, the current approach puts the conflict in stasis: Hamas is weak and off balance, but politically and militarily still a potent force.

Four Alternatives

Option One: Crush and Occupy

Israel has the military power to reoccupy Gaza and subdue Hamas there, an approach that conservative Israeli leaders like Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman have suggested. Once in charge, Israel could rule directly or try to install its preferred proxy and, as it did in the West Bank after retaking territory there in 2002, gather the intelligence and develop the security presence necessary to identify and arrest the Hamas cadre. The task would take months, as Hamas has a vast administrative and military infrastructure. However, Israeli intelligence is quite skilled, and over time Israel would crush Hamas and largely end the rocket threat. The timing for such a move in some ways is ideal given Hamas’s international isolation.

Option Two: Bring the PA Back to Gaza

Instead of attempting to impose a government on Gaza, Israel could try to help—or at least not hinder—a return of the PA to Gaza through peaceful means, particularly as part of a unity deal between Hamas and the PA. Under such an arrangement, the PA would assume responsibility for Gaza’s border crossings with Israel and Egypt as well as aspects of the economy and overall administration of the Strip; in reality, though, Hamas would continue to run much of the show. Israel’s extensive cooperation with the PA in the West Bank on security issues would be applied in Gaza to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza (and especially to get Egypt to work with the PA on the Rafah crossing) and to conduct inspections to ensure Hamas is not secretly stockpiling weapons, building tunnels, or otherwise becoming more dangerous militarily. The eventual goal would be for the PA to be strong enough to compel Hamas to disarm, or at least make it hard for the organization to resume violence. In the meantime, for a deal to be struck, Hamas must also gain politically.

Option Three: Exchange Aid for Disarmament

Another option is to combine two extremes: Hamas would make the ultimate sacrifice and disarm, effectively ending its self-styled role as a resistance organization, and in exchange Israel would provide Gazans with a massive aid package that would greatly improve their standard of living. Former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz proposed an initiative in which, in exchange for the demilitarization of Gaza, Israel would offer a “significant, economic aid package for the Palestinian population that would include a budget of $50 billion over five years for infrastructure, welfare, healthcare, education, and employment,” as well as easing restrictions on border crossings.  Other leading Israelis, such as former intelligence chief Yuval Diskin, have proposed less sweeping trades, with a more gradual demilitarization that focuses on particular types of weapons, such as long-range rockets, in exchange for “implementation of an international plan to rebuild the Gaza Strip,” among other concessions. 

Option Four: Negotiate a Lasting Ceasefire

Although Hamas is a seemingly implacable opponent of Israel and the PA embraces peace, a limited deal with Hamas over Gaza is in some ways simpler than a comprehensive one with moderate Palestinians. Emotional issues in contention in the West Bank, such as the status of Jerusalem or the fate of Israeli settlements, are not present in Gaza. And Hamas is a stronger organization than the PA: if it makes a deal, it is better able to stick to it.

A limited “like for like” ceasefire, in which Hamas ends rocket attacks and polices the Strip while Israel eases the economic vise on Gaza—but neither side goes much further—is more plausible. Hamas could claim that its long-term goals remain expansive, but that it is accepting a lasting ceasefire due to its current weakness; in fact, Hamas’s current approach has elements of this logic. Israel would have to ensure a modicum of basic economic activity in Gaza, and Egypt would have to allow Gazans some freedom to travel to and from the Strip (admittedly a difficult requirement given Cairo’s hostility to Hamas). Such a ceasefire would also help the people of Gaza, as any deal would involve lifting economic restrictions and otherwise making life easier.


Because of the flaws, limits, or political impossibility of some of these options, the status quo may be the best of a bunch of poor choices. Nevertheless, given the problems with Israel’s current approach and the paucity of good alternatives, some changes are necessary. The analysis suggests the importance of helping moderate Palestinians govern more competently and become politically stronger: currently they are on the path to political irrelevance. In addition, the world should offer pragmatists in Hamas political opportunities, giving them another path to success beyond violence. Finally, options that offer small changes in the status quo deserve consideration. Such steps would, over time, enable Israel to take more risks and allow everyone to move beyond the current stalemate.

Read the complete article, “Five Bad Options for Gaza,” in
The Washington Quarterly.