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Nine lessons for Israel following Gaza operation

Two former Israeli national security officials reflect on lessons learned from the Israel-Hamas conflict.
An artillery unit soldier walks near an artillery unit near the border with the Gaza Strip, in Sderot, Israel, May 20, 2021.

One of the first challenges for the new Israeli government will be the ongoing crisis in the Gaza Strip. As Hamas’ behavior is not expected to change much in the future, and following the lessons learned from the recent Operation Guardian of the Walls, in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes and expecting a different outcome Israel should draw up a to-do list that includes the following items.  

Lesson #1 Negotiate, discreetly, with the preferred mediator as soon as possible. Regionally, there were two contending parties attempting to mediate the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. The Egyptians, who have been speaking to both sides in previous escalations, and the Qataris, who for years have supported Hamas openly, by providing it with funds — either with Israeli consent or covertly by facilitating money transfers.

Despite Egypt's resentment of Hamas as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the conflict in Gaza created a rare opportunity where both Egypt and Hamas have a common interest in ending the fighting, each for its own reasons. Egypt sees every armed conflict between Israel and Hamas as a potential trigger for internal unrest. This derives from the contentious peace agreement with Israel and from the possibility that the conflict could buttress the position of the Muslim Brotherhood, Cairo’s archenemy. But it does not mind Israel giving a bloody nose to Hamas.

On the other hand, Qatar — a patron of the Muslim Brotherhood — perceives the confrontation between Israel and Hamas as an opportunity to position itself as a peace mediator, while simultaneously preventing further damage to Hamas. Having said that, Egyptian — and Qatari — efficiency was not put to the test at the early stages of the recent conflict when Hamas openly threatened to target Jerusalem. Utilizing its leverages over Hamas could have helped in creating an Arab front against the Hamas-led escalation and preventing — or shortening — the 11-day armed conflict.

Lesson #2 Don’t be blackmailed. Every time Hamas wanted to increase its cash inflow, it started shooting at Israel. Qatari cash began arriving to the Gaza Strip — with Israel's consent — following a major bombardment of the Israeli population in November 2018. As Hamas realized its success, it repeated this procedure. Israel must demonstrate to Hamas that any breach of the cease-fire will be answered by a massive show of force focusing on military installations, research and development facilities, rocket production factories, command and control centers, and political and military leadership, all the while adhering to the strict principle of preventing, as much as possible, collateral damage.

Lesson #3 Don't expect Hamas to keep its promises. Following Operation Protective Edge in 2014, Hamas committed to stop smuggling weapons into Gaza and not to rebuild military infrastructure in exchange for Israel's consent and assistance to the rehabilitation of the enclave. The ongoing barrages on Israeli civilians since then have proved otherwise. It should be taken into consideration that the justification for the existense of Hamas is the resistance narrative, and it will do whatever it takes to pursue this narrative.

Lesson #4 Explore opportunities to undermine Hamas. For years, Hezbollah and Hamas were hostile to each other following Hamas' support of Syrian Sunni opposition groups during the Syrian civil war. Hezbollah fought on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's side. Israel did not exploit this opportunity in order to widen the rift between Hamas and Hezbollah, as it didn't explore the possibility to reach indirect understandings with Hezbollah, via international interlocutors such as Russia. The benefit of such understandings from an Israeli perspective would be quiet along its northern border by setting a temporary, yet restrictive "rules of the game" that would minimize provocations from Lebanon's territory and the likelihood of having to address two fronts at the same time.

Lesson #5 Don’t take your regional partners for granted. When it comes to regional support, diplomatic efforts are required to foster cooperation. These include communication between senior decision-makers and regional partners in order to explain and coordinate policy choices. Not conducting, at least not publically, such talks with overt new allies like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Morocco during the recent round of fighting, does not bode well for the formulation of pro-Israeli regional narratives or for future cooperation in the security realm.

Lesson #6 Don't take your friends' support for granted, either. The United States — though publishing counterproductive, ambiguous messages at first ("all sides") — came out as a firm supporter of Israel by preventing an anti-Israeli decision in the United Nations Security Council, by promising to renew its arsenal of Iron Dome missiles and by stressing, first and foremost, Israel's right to self-defense. This policy should be nurtured, especially when in the background there are growing (not only) progressive calls to reevaluate the bipartisan support of Israel. In order to secure backing for future Israeli military efforts against Hamas in Gaza (and the West Bank), Israel should  forge a common vision with the United States on the required immediate steps for strengthening the Palestinian Authority's (PA) eroding legitimacy among Palestinians.  

Lesson #7 Understand what hurts Hamas. For example, the Israeli electricity company refused, at first, to fix electricity lines to the Gaza Strip in order to promote the return of missing Israeli soldiers and civilians. Footage of Gazans without electricity is a propaganda tool for Hamas. This is a higher priority for Hamas than to help its own people. Moreover, the common narrative in Gaza — and for that matter also in the West Bank and Jerusalem — is that Israel was defeated by Hamas. Despite this narrative, shared by the majority of Gazans, it is not about being soft or hard on Hamas. It is about understanding what can really inflict pain to the organization, first and foremost with a focus on the covert channels that finance its military wing.     

Lesson #8 Kill two birds with one stone by severing any linkage between Hamas and Jerusalem and stressing the relevance of moderate Arab states to preserving the well-being of Muslim and Christian holy places in the city. The moderate Arab states are highly important for Israel and they are highly sensitive to changes in the status quo in Jerusalem. Israel should stress that Jordan — as stated in the peace agreement of 1994 — is the guardian of the Muslim holy places in the Holy Basin, not Hamas (and neither is the PA). Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Morocco and others need to be portrayed to their domestic audiences as preserving religious interests while Hamas is harming them. Moreover, all face growing Hamas and Turkish toxic influence.

Lesson #9 Take initiative. Despite the decline in the regional importance of the Palestinian question over the past few years, this issue will not go away and will continue to create tensions between Israel and its neighbors. Israel should not only respond to Palestinian international actions but initiate measures that would improve the lives of Palestinians and increase the potential for future arrangements with the State of Israel.

Micky Aharonson and Aiman Mansour are researchers at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

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