On May 14, 2018, at the exact moment that Israel was celebrating the opening of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, I sat across the desk from a senior Israeli official in Tel Aviv. He was in a foul mood. He looked as if he hadn’t slept much. He rubbed his eyes, scratched his stubble, and blurted suddenly, “Gaza is a problem from hell.”
Amid all the embassy fanfare, Israeli officials were beginning to realize the Gaza border protests that had erupted on March 30, celebrated on social media as the “Great March of Return,” would not soon end. And the Israelis were finding them increasingly difficult to handle.
Israel is equipped to fight a wide range of wars, but not against the so-called weapons of the weak. Gazans were sending flaming balloons across the border into Israeli territory. The terrorist group Hamas, according to an Israeli military spokesman, was paying children to skip school and rush the border. Militants then fired at Israel from behind these human shields. Unable to disperse the crowd with tear gas or other crowd-control methods, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) began to open fire.
My interlocutor let out a heavy sigh. “We don’t have creative solutions for this right now,” he said.
It’s one year later. The weekly Gaza protests have continued, with casualties and chaos mounting. Every few months a conflagration erupts. The most recent one saw Palestinian terror groups firing more than 700 rockets into Israel. Four Israelis were murdered. The Israeli response was predictably tough but measured, including the destruction of terrorist hideouts and even some targeted assassinations.
Within days, a cease-fire was reached. But it won’t last. It can’t. Every Gaza escalation brings Israel back to the same place, setting the stage yet again for more conflict. The frustration in Israel is palpable. As one Jerusalem bureaucrat told me on the eve of last month’s elections, “What good is having the strongest military in the region if we can’t get rid of an annoyance like Hamas?”
Israelis of all political persuasions now say it’s time for change. But they are likely to learn that there aren’t good alternatives to what is widely viewed as an unsustainable status quo. A major Gaza offensive could backfire and hasten a conflict with Iran. It could trigger poisonous partisan debates in Washington. It could even force Israel to do something it wants to avoid at all costs: re-occupy Gaza.
As it turns out, the problem from hell has rungs.
For Israel, Gaza has been a consistent challenge, but never quite a strategic threat, since the 1948–1949 War of Independence. Back then, it was Egyptian-backed fedayeen carrying out attacks in Israel. Gaza was later the scene of pitched battles in the 1967 Six-Day War. There was a time after the Israeli conquest of the territory when Israelis could enter Gaza and engage in commerce. But in December 1987 that came to a halt; Gaza was where the first intifada erupted.
Hamas has been firing mortars and rockets into Israel from Gaza since the breakdown of the peace process in 2001. Israel made the problem inadvertently worse when it vacated the Gaza Strip in 2005; disengagement ended Israeli occupation but granted Hamas more operational freedom. That problem became acute in 2007 when the group wrested control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in a brutal civil war. Hamas soon began to import more weapons and develop new capabilities. Israel and Hamas have engaged in significant conflict a half dozen times since then, with many other minor skirmishes. While Hamas has developed commando tunnels and other capabilities, rockets remain the group’s weapon of choice.
For Israel, necessity bred invention. In 2011, the Israelis rolled out one of the most remarkable military accomplishments of the 21st century: Iron Dome. The system makes crucial split-second decisions. It either shoots short-range rockets out of the sky when they hurtle toward population centers, or it allows rockets destined to hit unpopulated areas to simply remain on course. The success rate for these combined functions is somewhere between 85 and 90 percent.
Even as Hamas attacks have dramatically increased in volume, Iron Dome has protected Israel’s citizens. IDF brass rightly notes that the system grants officials time and space to make rational decisions about war. And those decisions, given the low casualty numbers, have often meant that Israel could respond in a limited and proportional fashion. In fact, the Israelis have never sought a larger conflict because they see Hamas as a tactical threat, not an existential one. Hamas simply doesn’t rank high enough on the list of threats to justify the kind of war that would be required. This has allowed Hamas to live to fight another day, time and again.
Some argue that Israel now has a false sense of security about the dangers of Gaza rockets. It’s not false. Israel has largely inoculated itself from the rocket threat, along with every other security challenge Hamas has thrown at them, for that matter.
In truth, Hamas has the false sense of security. The group has undeniably tried to overwhelm Iron Dome, but it has failed repeatedly. Hostilities have thus settled into a predictable pattern. Hamas now fires deadly projectiles into civilian areas without the consequences of significant deaths or retaliation.
After last weekend, however, the naturally cautious Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is finding it more difficult to show restraint. The public fears that Israel has lost deterrence. If it truly had deterrence, it would have been clear to Israel’s foes in Gaza that deploying Iron Dome just once would unleash a torrential response. Instead, Israel has repeatedly absorbed blows and responded in a measured fashion. It’s possible that Israel did so this time to ensure calm during the forthcoming Eurovision song contest and Israeli Independence Day. Yet there is always a reason for the IDF not to escalate. And Israelis are growing restless.
With the Israeli public now stirring, the IDF is warily eyeing the major conflict it has forestalled for a dozen years: a vicious battle against a well-trained and well-armed non-state actor. It is also warily eyeing Iran.
Gaza is widely recognized as Palestinian territory. But it’s also Iranian. It was Iran that helped Hamas conquer Gaza in 2007. It was Iran that continued to keep “Hamastan” solvent until the rupture between the Shiite regime in Tehran and the Sunni Hamas over Syrian policy in 2012. Iranian funding since has been restored, but it has not returned to its previous levels, primarily due to crippling U.S. sanctions on the regime in Tehran. But ties today are once again strong.
The missile barrage in May was almost certainly precipitated by Iran. It began with a sniper attack by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a terrorist faction heavily influenced by Iran. Senior Israeli officials believe that the attack was likely ordered by Iran to disrupt Egyptian cease-fire mediation between Hamas and Israel.
Should Israel elect to eject Hamas from the Gaza Strip, an Iranian response would loom large. The Israelis should expect Hamas to fight fiercely, to empty its arsenal, and to get help from Iranian advisers and Iranian proxies like PIJ and Harakat al-Sabirin. Iran will not surrender this territory without a fight.
There is also a scenario in which Iran deploys its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, to preserve Iran’s interests. Hezbollah has an estimated 150,000 rockets in its arsenal, including a growing number of precision-guided munitions (PGM). Should Iran choose to activate Hezbollah amid a Gaza war, a two-front conflict would make the May barrage look like a minor nuisance.
While threats mount, time may be running out on the political cover Israel needs for the Gaza war it doesn’t want but may need to wage nonetheless. Israeli leaders are working under the assumption that President Donald Trump alone (or more specifically, his administration) would give the IDF the green light to fight the long overdue war against Hamas, or even against Iran and its other proxies.
For the Israelis, placing their trust in Trump means taking two risks. The first is that they may owe a great debt that Trump could demand in the form of peace-process concessions. However, from the little we know of Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt are not likely to squeeze the Israelis terribly hard, if at all.
The second risk, the far greater danger, is that Israel would allow itself to become a political football.
It’s not hard to understand how this could happen. The Obama administration gave the Israelis headaches like the Iran nuclear deal, support for the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring, and its abstention in the matter of an anti-Israel resolution at the United Nations. This president, by contrast, has offered unyielding support in key areas, including self-defense, the U.S. Embassy move, recognition of sovereignty in the Golan Heights, and more. Meanwhile, a vociferous gaggle of progressives in the House of Representatives is voicing anti-Israel sentiments in an unprecedented fashion. And while pro-Israel centrist Democrats have not wavered, they are warning Trump not to indulge Netanyahu’s more incendiary policy possibilities, like annexing parts of the West Bank. Republicans have exploited these fissures, with Trump leading the call for Jewish voters to end their longstanding support for Democrats and join the GOP.
If it came down to conflict, pro-Israel Democrats and Republicans alike would rally their support. They understand the gravity, even the necessity, of a war in Gaza. But critics would cast Israel as the aggressor, and one that was in league with Trump to boot. The next conflict could thus easily be cast as a politically binary one, where American politicians framed their views on Israeli security as either a pro-Trump or anti-Trump position.
The dozens of former and current Israeli officials I’ve talked to over the past three years all believe that bipartisanship has been Israel’s single greatest asset in Washington over the years. Yet they don’t truly understand the way hyper-partisanship has overtaken Washington. They do not grasp how the debates surrounding Donald Trump, fair or not, have divided our nation. Nor do they appreciate how Netanyahu’s close ties with Trump can be wielded by both sides in ways that would hurt Israel at an urgent time of need.
Let us say that Israel was able to navigate the morass of American politics, gain bipartisan support for a war in Gaza, and then successfully dislodge Hamas. Israel would then have to grapple with another big issue: what comes next.
The IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) currently facilitates the entry of thousands of truckloads of goods to enter the Gaza Strip every day, even as a military blockade remains in place to block dual-use materials and sophisticated weaponry from the Gaza Strip. In other words, Israel has two policies. One is to isolate Hamas, and the other is to allow services to be rendered to the Gazan people.
Israel, for the sake of calm, has even engaged with the Turks and the Qataris, despite both countries’ avowed anti-Zionism and support for Hamas. It has permitted them to provide funds and other assistance to the coastal enclave. Gaza’s suffering continues, however, because Hamas continues to divert funds for commando tunnels, rockets, and other tools of war. And under Hamas rule, there is not much political space to challenge these policies. Anti-Israel sentiment is the only permissible form of protest. This has only served to further radicalize a population that has for years been fed a steady diet of hate.
The Israelis since 2007, along with the Egyptians since 2013, have endeavored to reshape the political landscape in Gaza. This is the first and best choice from Israel’s perspective. But so far, they have failed. The viable alternatives to Hamas are the sclerotic Palestinian Authority, radical Salafi groups, and Iran-backed PIJ. There could be others, such as the supporters of Mohammed Dahlan, the former Gaza strongman who went into exile in the UAE after the Hamas military takeover in 2007. But we know little about Dahlan’s ability to organize politically, or whether Gaza would reject his transplanted leadership after so many years away, like an artificial heart.
The obvious alternative to all of this is re-occupation. This would be deeply unpopular in Israel. It’s unthinkable to many. Of course, the Israelis controlled Gaza from 1967 until 2005. The Israelis never coordinated their departure with Palestinian counterparts, and it looked as if they were pulling out under fire from Hamas rockets and other attacks. This perception contributed in part to the Hamas electoral victory in 2006. That election led to the political standoff that gave way to the civil war in which Hamas overtook the Gaza Strip in 2007.
Fourteen years after the Gaza withdrawal, the rockets are still falling. Twelve years after Hamas took power, the group remains entrenched. Eight years after the deployment of Iron Dome, the Israelis are arguably safer, but they are back where they’ve always been: on the Gaza border, mulling their next move.
Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.