There will be no day after if Hamas isn’t dismantled

Without dismantling Hamas, the conflict will continue and there will be no unified governance for the Palestinians

Eduardo Ramon

There will be no day after if Hamas isn’t dismantled

One of the longest and most brutal conflicts in European history was the Thirty Years War of 1618 to 1648. It produced one literary masterpiece, a novel called The Adventures of Simplicissimus. The novel opens with the title character herding sheep.

He is kidnapped by a troop of cavalry, who proceed to loot the farmhouse that is his home, torturing his family and their workers, raping the women, throwing some into ovens and killing others in various gruesome ways. This mirrors the real horrors of the period: the Sack of Magdeburg by an imperial army under Marshall Tilly and the Irish massacres of Protestants by Catholics and Catholics by the troops of Oliver Cromwell are still remembered today. We saw similar brutality in the Congo in the early 1960s, in Vietnam and later the Great Lakes and Balkan Wars of the 1990s, inflamed by ethno-nationalist and religious or racial divisions.

Read more: A Middle East war motivated by destructive politics

The point is this: what Hamas did on 7 October is not in itself unusual. Sadistic brutality is common in conflict. What made it different was partly that the sadism was recorded and then posted online: this was something pioneered by Da’esh, of course, which makes the comparison not ridiculous (as some “experts in Islamism” have claimed) but apt, at least on this one point.

It is also partly that the sadism was not random but designed to make a point: as the Hamas leader, Ghazi Hamdan, subsequently explained on Lebanese TV, Hamas aims to destroy Israel and terrorising Israelis is a good place to start. And it is partly because of the distinctive history of Israel and the wider Jewish community.

If you talk to Israelis - from ordinary people right up to the senior ranks of politics and the IDF -their reaction is shaped by a shared historical memory of savage pogroms across Europe from the early Middle Ages right up to the C20th, carried out by Christian Rhinelanders, the citizens of York or the Cossacks of the Ukrainian steppes – and indeed by largely Muslim mobs in Cairo and Baghdad in the 1940s. It is also shaped – within living memory - by the deliberate humiliations of the Nuremburg Laws of the 1930s and the subsequent attempted genocide of the Holocaust.

What Hamas did on 7 October is not in itself unusual. Sadistic brutality is common in conflict. What made it different was partly that the sadism was recorded and then posted online.

All this helps to explain the Israeli response, the sustained and intensive bombardment of Gaza, particularly but not exclusively its northern districts, and the willingness of the IDF to accept that huge numbers of ordinary Palestinians will suffer in their conflict with Hamas.  It comes out of a determination not to let what they see as a history of Jewish vulnerability in the face of antisemitic violence repeat itself.

But that is only part of the story. Palestinians will point to their own undeniable sufferings as part of the explanation for Hamas' actions – the cruelly dashed hopes of Oslo, the destructive impact of sustained settlement building and unrestrained settler violence, military aggression, systematic judicial discrimination, the humiliation of checkpoints, the denial of economic development and basic human dignity.  

Eduardo Ramon

And this suggests that once you get beyond the intensely inflamed emotions of the present, you will face what is essentially a political problem: how does this mutually destructive violence ultimately come to an end?

Israelis will say that what happened nearly two months ago in Sderot, Nahal Oz and Kfar Aza has precipitated a paradigm shift not just in their understanding of the conflict with Hamas and the wider Palestinian community but also in their understanding of Israeli politics. There seems to be near unanimity about the need to prevent Hamas or any other group dedicated to the destruction of Israel from ever again exercising power in Gaza, a power Hamas used to construct not a working economy but a fortified base for offensive action – in Islamist terms a ribat for the prosecution of armed jihad against the Jews. 

Read more: Nasser Al Qudwa: If Arafat were alive, he would be in Gaza now, 'a Kalashnikov on his shoulder'

If the IDF's current campaign ends before that happens, then it will be for almost all Israelis a failure for which they will seek to hold responsible all their leaders – not just Netanyahu, whose political career is now in serious jeopardy, even after the release of a number of hostages.

That will lead to turmoil in Israeli politics. And whoever comes out on top will be forced by public opinion to find new, inventive and aggressive means with which to prosecute the campaign against Hamas while seeking to keep the United States on Israel's side and the rest of the international community off the IDF's back. That is unlikely to lead to calm. It is also unlikely to produce a government rededicated to the pursuit of a just and durable political settlement with the Palestinians.

Equally, such an outcome will be acclaimed as a victory by Hamas and its friends in Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shia militias aligned with Iran, the Houthis and their shared patron, Iran. That will not be good news for those states that think the future of the region lies in a recognition that violence is a dead end, that disputes should be settled peacefully and that mutual security and stability form the essential basis for desperately needed structural economic and social reform.

In contrast, Hassan Nasrallah, Qais al Khaz'ali, Abdul Malik al Houthi and Ali Khamenei all prefer to rely on the future promise of divine dispensation not the present reality of material progress. But look where that has left Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen or indeed Iran.  It is a recipe for endless conflict and misery.

It comes out of a determination not to let what they see as a history of Jewish vulnerability in the face of antisemitic violence repeat itself. 

It is, as many commentators have pointed out, hard to believe that Israel can in fact extirpate Hamas completely even in Gaza. Individual polls only offer a snapshot. But if you look at trends in the West Bank and Gaza over the past 20 years, it seems clear that while support for Hamas has never represented an absolute majority, is generally higher in the West Bank than in Gaza and tends to revert to the mean at times of relative quiet, it is still significant.

Some Israelis will claim it is indeed now a majority. My guess – based on what we know of support for other Islamist movements across the region – is that there is probably a core 20%-25% of the population who are committed Hamas supporters. There are also sympathisers who are attracted to Hamas in the absence of an effective or respected Palestinian Authority but could be persuaded that another option is better, if one were available.

Eduardo Ramon

And then there is probably half the population who are disillusioned but prefer to support Fatah or some other nationalist group and simply want a better life in a peaceful Palestinian state. Even in the Palestinian elections of January 2006 (which I witnessed), when Fatah was in chaos and widely distrusted, Hamas still only managed to scrape a 2% voting majority over Fatah.

That suggests that extirpating Hamas is not in fact the point. Indeed senior IDF and other national security figures in Israel will say the same. Destroying Hamas' ability to use Gaza as a weapons platform may be possible: although it will take time and Israel may need to work around ceasefires, the IDF seems committed to the task. And any Israeli government will need to be equally committed or they will not last long. But this raises the question of how you prevent Hamas simply rolling back into town after the current conflict is over – and using the agony of Palestinian civilians to rally support for a renewed effort to hurt Israel as badly as Israel is hurting them.

The urgency of dismantling Hamas

Netanyahu says that Israel needs to maintain security control over Gaza for the foreseeable future. That may be because he recognises that maintaining the current pace of military operations is not going to be possible for much longer in the face of international pressure. Perhaps the model will be the IDF's posture in the West Bank after the second Intifada, with constant military incursions to stop the emergence of threats - and at the same time a sustained and targeted effort by special forces to continue to degrade Hamas' military capabilities and perhaps pursue its leadership wherever they might be.

Read more: Will the Gaza war push the Middle East to new realism?

That, however, will take a long time. That means any ceasefire will almost certainly lead to a more protracted conflict at lower intensity – thus prolonging the agony. And in those circumstances it is very hard to see who will take responsibility for administering Gaza let alone rebuilding its shattered infrastructure.

Abu Mazen has said the PA is willing to do so only on condition that it leads to a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with its capital in East Jerusalem.  That is a reasonable aspiration which is unlikely to be on offer any time soon.

The Israeli government meanwhile speaks with different voices. Itamar Ben Gvir says Israel needs to reoccupy Gaza and reimpose military control. Prime Minister Netanyahu simply says whoever eventually administers Gaza will need to help demilitarise and deradicalise it. 

Eduardo Ramon

But it is hard to see any Arab state - alone or in combination with others – wanting to be seen to take instructions from Israel or responsibility for governance while Israel retains the right to intervene at will.  And (to adapt the famous wording of Sir Louis Bols in 1920 as he handed over control of Palestine to a civilian governor) even if Israel were to hand over "One Gaza Complete" to some unspecified authority, without an absolute guarantee that serious negotiations for a future Palestinian state would immediately resume it is hard to see even Egypt – which largely kept the peace while administering Gaza between 1948 and 1967 - agreeing to do the job.

Indeed, President Sisi has already made it clear that Egypt will not do so. Prince Mohammad bin Salman and the Jordanian Foreign Minister have also spoken publicly about the need for a genuine international recommitment to a political process.

How does this mutually destructive violence ultimately come to an end?

But someone will need to take charge. There are over two million people in Gaza, who need power, clean water, jobs, services, education and health care. UNWRA has responsibility for refugees. It also has severe funding problems.  Not everyone has refugee status. And in any case, governance involves more than simply refugee relief.

This is not to say the problem is insoluble. But it is immensely complicated, not least because so many things need to happen in the right way at the same time.  There are already many people in Israel, the US, the EU, the UN and some Arab states thinking hard about the next move.  The US in particular seem to want a reunification of Gaza and the West Bank under PA control. That makes the willing or unwilling dismantling of Hamas control more urgent than ever.

Because without that, the conflict will simply continue, there will be no unified governance and there will be no day after.  That is going to be very expensive for Israel. According to Bloomberg the conflict had already cost around $8bn by mid November – at around $250 million a day – and the cost of borrowing by the Central Bank has rocketed. It will be massively damaging to all of Israel's neighbours. And it will hit the economic reform plans of Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners very hard indeed. Egypt has already seen a slump in tourism, a sector in which the Kingdom is investing heavily. And inward investment and ambitious trade corridors are highly sensitive to political risk.

It will certainly not happen without the US - or at a minimum Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. If this conflict has taught us one thing, it is that the region needs all these states and more to work closely together to produce stability and ward off Iran and its proxies. And the US needs to listen to them carefully. They have no love for Hamas but in their own interests need to achieve a proper settlement for Palestinians in general.

And even then it is a big ask. Where it leaves the calculations of those in Hamas – and Hezbollah and the IRGC – who see the conflict with Israel as their chief purpose in life, is anyone's guess. There are signs – in the tighter coordination of Iran-backed attacks on US forces in Syria and Iraq – well over 60 so far in the past month - and the increased tempo of Hezbollah strikes into Northern Israel – that they are already preparing for the next stage of this conflict – after the current ceasefire expires.

That is a very risky game, with the US and indeed Israel clearly willing to hit back hard if a threshold is crossed.  The further away from the disasters of Gaza, the easier it might seem to ignore the cost in human suffering.  But in the interests of humanity – and the wider Middle East – we need not just peace but a new and constructive politics.  My guess is that most of the region's peoples and many of their governments would agree. The problem, as always, is how to get there.

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