TEL AVIV—In Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton’s account of her career as diplomat in chief, the likely two-time presidential candidate dedicates a chapter to her mediating of a Gaza cease fire. This was not long ago—2012—when Clinton convinced President Obama that her involvement was needed to prevent Israel from launching a ground operation in the Gaza Strip, following days of Palestinian rocket fire, and Israeli retaliation from air and sea.
Much had changed since that cease-fire: Clinton is no longer secretary of state. Obama’s worry that failure in securing a cease-fire “would sap America’s prestige and credibility in the region” is no longer a worry, as that prestige is also long gone. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi, favorable to Gaza’s Hamas government, was toppled, and the current Egyptian government is not close to Hamas. Israeli–Palestinian peace talks were launched, and later collapsed. Fatah and Hamas formed a unity government of Palestinians, but no one believes it has much chance of surviving. Netanyahu was re-elected, but has a different coalition than the one he had in 2012.
Much had changed, yet, on the other hand, everything’s the same. Here we are again, for the we-lost-count time, dealing with a painfully familiar round of violence. As you read this article, Palestinians are bombing Israel with rockets and Israel is retaliating from air and sea. Israelis are running for cover in their shelters as sirens wail, and Palestinians in Gaza are dying in growing numbers. Israel is threatening to add a ground operation, and Hamas is vowing to open “the gates of hell” on Israel.
What Hamas thinks it can achieve is a mystery. The comparison might seem condescending, but Hamas feels like a nagging child that periodically gets a stick and is picking a fight with the stronger grown-up next door. Surely, even a grown-up is hurt when hit with a stick, so he has to do something about it. At some point, he has to discipline the irritant child. But a grown-up’s heart is never in this fight. The battle is repetitive, it is boring, it is predictable.
When rockets began raining down on Israel yet again a week ago, the government responded the way you’d expect a grown-up to respond. It was calm, it took its time, sending messages to Hamas, waiting for its leadership to reconsider, willing to take a pass on retaliation and have Hamas be the one to say the last word, provided that its sentence was short. Government experts were saying that Hamas, having lost its sponsors in Tehran, Damascus, and Cairo, is currently weak and can’t possibly want to get in even more trouble by engaging in a long fight with Israel’s much stronger military. Still, Hamas wouldn’t budge. It wanted another extended round of violence. Ask the experts about it today, and you will get the same answer from five days ago, in reverse: Hamas is currently weak, and has no other way of making itself visible except getting in trouble.
So much has changed, yet so little. Clinton’s cease-fire lasted for less than two years. That is about the standard cycle around Gaza: Following Israel’s Cast Lead operation in Gaza in 2008–09, there was a period of relative calm (and of course, “relative calm” is a relative term. In 2008 more than 3,000 rockets were fired from Gaza, and in 2010 the number fell to 231—that is still an average of more than one rocket every other day). Following the 2012 operation came 2013, the quietest year in a 1½ decades, with just 41 rockets. When the 2012 conflict ended, Clinton writes in her book, it “boded quite well for Israel.” Yet, “thousands of Palestinians celebrated” as Clinton notes with some astonishment. In Gaza, Hamas has made it so that it’s possible for war to be considered peace and defeat considered victory. Already this time around, the number of casualties in Gaza far exceeds the number of hurt Israelis. That’s exactly what Hamas expects and is happy to embrace. From an Israeli viewpoint, this doesn't make sense.
The Gaza Strip, a highly dense, highly radicalized, highly miserable area, is a complicated puzzle that will hopefully be salvaged one day by Palestinians themselves, or when much greater forces then a local skirmish will force it to transform. But I don’t have a lot of hope for it now. Rereading all previous articles I wrote for Slate about the Gaza conflict, I was not surprised to find that low expectation for any change is a reoccurring theme. Forgive my petty complaint, but writing about Gaza without boring readers is becoming an immense challenge.
Here is an article from 2008, during the Cast Lead operation:
Anyone who expects this to be the last round is delusional. Anyone who hopes that the days of Hamas rule in Gaza are numbered is unrealistic. Only those who think Hamas will learn a lesson that might make it less likely to permit the shelling of Israeli citizens—while maintaining its power and its ability to cause trouble whenever it chooses—might be right.
And here’s how I’d write the same paragraph today:
Anyone who expects this to be the last round is delusional. Anyone who hopes that the days of Hamas rule in Gaza are numbered is unrealistic—and should think again about having such hope. Only those who think Hamas will learn a lesson that might make it less likely to permit the shelling of Israeli citizens—while maintaining its power and its ability to cause trouble whenever it chooses—might be right.
So there is a notably small change here—a small change in the direction of even less expectation for change: Israel might not be able to fully understand why Hamas behaves as it does, yet prefers the unreasonableness of Hamas to other alternatives. It no longer hopes for Hamas to fall, as it did in 2008.
That is because Israel’s goals are not at all mysterious. Israel is long past its era of hopeful thinking about its neighbors. It is well aware that Gaza isn’t going anywhere, and neither is Hamas. So what does it hope to achieve? It wants Hamas to be militarily weaker. It definitely wants Hamas to have a smaller number of rockets, and if a ground operation is launched in the coming days, the mission of many of the forces will be to target the piles of ammunition that are stored, well hidden among Gaza’s crowded civilian population. Israel wants Hamas to be less cocky. But Israel isn’t likely to set the bar higher than that. It isn’t likely to want Hamas completely gone. Not even if the price for it to stay is having a round of mild violence every now and then. Because Hamas, illogical and violent as it is, is the only force that even wants to rule that miserable area. It is currently the only force preventing Gaza from turning totally chaotic. And chaos, as recent Middle East developments keep teaching us, is worse than even despotism. So I’ll see you in approximately two years for this same column again.