Israel’s ‘divide and conquer’ Palestinian policy does not serve its interests

Two months have elapsed since the military operation in Gaza, but the situation there remains volatile and dangerous. Negotiations on a return of Israeli prisoners and MIAs are stuck and Gaza’s rehabilitation remains a pipe dream, somewhat like the idea floated in recent years of building a seaport or an artificial island off the Gaza coast. Despite the heavy blows it sustained in the latest fighting, Hamas has emerged looking like a winner.

Hamas has never been this popular since the crucial 2006 Palestinian Authority (PA) elections, especially in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Gaza’s residents continue to pay the price of its popularity as they struggle with four to six hours of power a day and very little potable water in the stifling summer heat.

This dangerous blend of unusual admiration on the Palestinian and Arab street, on the one hand, and the ongoing humanitarian disaster in the Strip, on the other, poses a clear and imminent threat to the latest Egyptian-mediated ceasefire.

Cocky, self-assured Hamas officials walk the streets of Gaza, some even becoming Arab media and network stars, but they know time is not on their side – they must obtain significant funding to rebuild the Strip or plunge into another escalation unless their demands are met, as they promised their supporters. International donors are not in any rush to hand Hamas the $500 million required to rebuild the ruins of Operation “Keeper of the Walls”.

Israel, for its part, wants to avoid another escalation, which could undermine political stability and even dismantle the Bennett-Lapid government. Since the end of the May fighting, Egypt has been sending in significant quantities of building supplies and aid – and Israel is not kicking up a fuss although it is unclear what has been going in and how much of it. In recent days, an arrangement is being finalized for Qatari funding to reach needy Gaza residents – but not in cash. However, Israel keeps the crossings into Gaza closed, it has not expanded Gaza’s fishing zone and is not responding to the incendiary balloons launched from the Strip. On the other hand, everyone realizes that the calm achieved in May is extremely fragile and the IDF continues to prepare for a potential renewal of fighting. It’s the same old refrain.

Given the current stalemate, with a terrorist organization applying a chokehold on Gaza and stopping its rehabilitation and development, Israel, along with the US, European Union and Arab states must recalibrate its course on Gaza. For the past 12 years, Israel has assumed that the split between the West Bank and Gaza and Fatah and Hamas and a “divide and control” approach toward it serves its interests.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believed Hamas could be contained and even be bought with economic goodies in return for extended ceasefires, if not peace. None of this panned out, and Israel realized during Operation Keeper of the Walls that Hamas cannot be contained nor understandings reached with it because of its underpinning ideology and clear goals, the first of which is breaching the Gaza borders. Hamas wants to expand its control to the West Bank, it has linked itself naturally with Jerusalem, and even with some among the Israeli Arab public, and is brings together diverse pieces of the puzzle despite Israel’s best attempts to divide them. Hamas wants to control the PLO and achieve international recognition, but its overarching goal is to inflict ruin on Israel. It has not abandoned this goal, especially under the ideological fundamentalist leadership of Yahya Sinwar.

Therefore, the next round of fighting with Hamas is inevitable. It could occur now at the height of the heavy summer heat or at another point in time, but we must understand that Hamas will use the time to accelerate its rocket production, restock its depleted arsenals and re-dig its destroyed tunnels. Israel, along with its external partners, must adopt a new ideology vis-à-vis both Gaza and the West Bank in order to prevent the entrenchment of Hamas in the PA.

These days, with the world taking on the Muslim Brotherhood, it makes little sense for Israel, of all countries, to let its offshoot Hamas gain power in the arena between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. A return to a dialogue with pragmatic elements in the PA is a must, as is preventing the collapse of the PA (despite the recurrent mistakes it makes, it is still the better default option) by implementing confidence-building measures. At the same time, optimal international pressure must be exerted on Hamas in Gaza, cutting off its funding sources and eventually stripping it of its control of Gaza.

Israel must define clear targets and formulate a new policy on the Palestinian territories and their future, and abandon the useless and harmful “divide and conquer” principle. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in an endless loop of rounds of violence at shorter and shorter intervals.

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