The Challenge of Gaza: Policy Options and Broader Implications

Daniel L. Byman and
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

Gad Goldstein

July 1, 2011

Executive Summary:

Although both the United States and Israel devote tremendous attention to the Middle East peace process, the Gaza Strip and its Hamas government have continued to vex American and Israeli policymakers. With the most recent incarnation of peace talks between the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority at a standstill, and turmoil and political change spreading throughout the Middle East and North Africa, it has become even more important for policymakers in Jerusalem and Washington to understand the factors shaping developments in Gaza. This understanding is critical for policymakers to assess options, determine the benefits and drawbacks of the alternative policies, and make strong, informed decisions.

Factors Shaping Israeli Policy

The most obvious, and the most immediate, factor shaping Israeli policy toward Gaza is the threat of mortars and rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. Hamas has not only launched these rockets, but has conducted cross-border shootings and kidnappings, and has placed improvised explosive devices near the security barrier along the border. Beyond furthering Hamas’s goal of causing pain to Israel, these attacks help Hamas preserve its credentials as the leading Palestinian resistance organization and enable it to retain the loyalty of militant members of its own organization. Rockets are also meant to deter Israel from killing Hamas leaders and pressure Israel into changing its policies to ones Hamas prefers, such as having the border crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip opened.Hamas draws on many resources to stay in power. Most notably, Hamas has long exploited its infrastructure of mosques, social services, and community organizations to raise money and attract recruits. Hamas has also constructed a large tunnel network to circumvent the Israeli blockade. In addition to smuggling commercial goods into Gaza, tunnel operators bring in ammunition, rockets, and people, including militants returning from training in Lebanon and Iran. While most of the tunnels run between Gaza and Egypt, Hamas has tried to maintain tunnels into Israel, as the 2006 kidnapping of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit demonstrates.

But Hamas’s strength is a result of more than its control of smuggling operations and raising of funds. Hamas officials, in contrast to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah, have an image of honesty among many Palestinians. Moreover, many Palestinians admire the resistance model Hamas champions, believing that the peace process with Israel has not stopped settlements or ended the occupation.

Despite Hamas’s strength, Israeli and international economic pressure threaten Hamas’s position, as it must provide services and maintain its image in the face of the harsh pressure in order to stave off political foes. Politically, Hamas is beset from all sides. Fatah has been waiting in the wings, and rivals like Palestine Islamic Jihad challenge Hamas by advocating for more attacks against Israel. The emergence in Gaza of jihadists who look to al-Qa’ida for guidance (though they are not directly tied to al-Qa’ida itself) has also increased pressure on Hamas.

In addition to Hamas’s poor fiscal and political positions, it is organizationally weak in the West Bank, and does not possess the level of military strength it desires. Indeed, Israel’s 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead humiliated Hamas on the battlefield. Because of the outcome of that war, and because of Gazans’ lack of appetite for confrontation with Israel, Hamas has largely stopped rocket attacks in the months following the operation. In other words, for now, Israel’s deterrence has proven stronger that Hamas’s firepower.

However, Hamas may become stronger in the years to come. The size of Hamas’s rocket and mortar arsenal, and the range of its rockets are likely to grow. Hamas is also likely to increase its roster of trained fighters, courtesy of Hizballah and Iran.

In addition to these developments, factors outside of Gaza affect Hamas and the way in which Israel and the United States should deal with the group. The political change sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, particularly the fall of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, has tremendous reverberations in both Gaza and for President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian moderates who seek peace. Though often uneven, Mubarak’s moves to keep Hamas’s strength in check were a critical part of President Abbas’s efforts at challenging the group’s rule of Gaza. Because President Abbas and other moderates remain weak, some observers believe that the PA would not be able to squelch a Hamas takeover should Israeli forces depart the West Bank (though successful efforts to improve law and order in the West Bank have begun to bolster moderates there).

The status of the peace process has been and continues to be a fundamental factor in affecting policy toward Gaza. If the peace process is robust, Israel would likely draw down its presence in the West Bank, and the stature of President Abbas and moderate voices would rise. If there is no prospect of a peace deal, many Palestinians would question the legitimacy of those who champion talks.

The relationship that has developed between Tehran and Hamas has had a considerable influence on developments in Gaza. Hamas has turned to Iran in part due to the isolation and financial crisis it faces, and Iran has looked to Hamas as an ally it can cultivate against Israel and use as a bridge to the broader Arab and Sunni world. The danger for Israel is that Iran’s growing influence is a force against Hamas’s moderation. At the same time, the attitudes of U.S. allies shape events in Gaza; Hamas has made progress in terms of public opinion in Europe, and has improved ties with Russia and Turkey.