Guardian of the Walls: the war that did not end 

Commentary: A month after the cessation of hostilities, operation "Guardian of the Walls" appears to have been the first round of a war that is expected to resume in the coming months with even greater intensity, writes Michael Milshtein, an Israeli expert on Palestinian affairs

By Michael Milshtein

Both Israel and Hamas are in a kind of predicament. The two sides understand that the operation did not bring about great change in the reality as they had hoped. Israel did not succeed in establishing complete calm and deterrence vis-à-vis Hamas, which continues to challenge Israel using incendiary balloons. The launching of the balloons was stopped during the last few days, but it is clear that they are likely to be used again because of developments inside or outside the Gaza Strip.     

On its part, Hamas has started to internalize that not only did it not succeed in establishing a new equation vis-à-vis Israel as it had hoped, but it has also started to pay a heavy price, which it did not expect, for the wiping out of the civilian assets it gained as part of the arrangement that took place until the war broke out. The movement attributes great importance to Israel's gestures toward Gaza in recent years, and the loss of them deepens its concern over the worsening of the civilian hardship and a lack of public calm that may destabilize its rule in Gaza.   

The position that the two sides have assumed since the end of the operation raises the likelihood of an additional outbreak of hostilities. Israel understands that the operation signified a failure of the doctrine of "arrangement" that is based on the assumption that the improvement of the civilian situation in Gaza will reduce the motivation of Hamas to initiate violent actions.   

In light of this, over the last month, Israel has expressed a tough stance that, in an unprecedented manner, connects the improvement of the civilian situation in Gaza to progress on the issue of MIAs and Israelis held prisoner in Gaza. Hamas rejects this new equation, saying that it will not agree to concessions, and threatens to return to armed struggle.   

Israel must not only prepare for the scenario of a renewal of hostilities, but also develop action plans in which it will be the initiator, as was the case in all of the wars until "Guardian of the Walls" in which Hamas initiated the hostilities. By taking the initiative, Israel may be able to achieve goals that it had difficulty achieving in the last round of fighting, first and foremost striking the military command and the senior leadership of Hamas. In the past, these kinds of strikes had a great impact in making Hamas understand the cost of its actions, and in strengthening the deterrence by Israel.      

It is possible that following such a round of hostilities, Hamas will understand the seriousness of Israel's intentions on the issue of prisoners and MIAs. It may also increase the perception in the ranks of the movement and among the wider population of Gaza of the high price being paid for continuing to take a hardline position on the issue.  

Israel should not consider the current stubborn approach of Hamas as fate that must be reconciled with, but rather a human decision that can be changed according to circumstances and compulsions. And of course, Israel should not set its policy based on deterrence from threats by Hamas to return to armed struggle if its demands are not met, or from the unwillingness of Hamas to make concessions.     

One of the lessons of operation "Guardian of the Walls" is that Israel must prepare for the possibility that a future war in Gaza will affect a variety of fronts, first and foremost Israel's Arab society in which there is much tension. It has become clear to the Arab public in Israel, as in the case of Gaza, that the events in May were the first chapter in a series of clashes. Hamas sees its incitement of the Arab society as a strategic achievement from operation Guardian of the Walls, and will likely try to do so again in the future.      

To prevent a war in Gaza from having such a negative affect, and mainly to ensure strategic stability on the domestic front, the new government in Israel should make one of its top priorities the establishment of calm in Arab society and between the Arab and Jewish societies.

For that purpose, it will be essential to take initial and determined steps to deal with the scourge of crime and violence in Arab society and to improve life in the society overall. In this way, it will be possible to prevent or at least limit the ability of Hamas to transform every struggle in Gaza into a multi-domain conflict for Israel.   

 

Dr. Michael Milshtein serves as Head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, and as a senior analyst at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.  

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