The current round of fighting between Israel and Hamas feels utterly, totally pointless. Yet according to Hussein Ibish, a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and one of the most respected voices in on the Israel-Palestine conflict in Washington, both sides are playing a deeper strategic game.
Israel is fighting only for appearances, says Ibish: it already struck a major blow against Hamas when, under the pretext of searching for kidnapped boys it already knew were dead, it arrested hundreds of leading Hamas operatives in the West Bank. Meanwhile, Ibish thinks Hamas knows it can't beat Israel or extract major concessions, and is fighting to try to pressure Egypt into giving it a freer border and more money.
This theory came up during a conversation between myself and Ibish on broader issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What follows is a transcript of the relevant portion of the conversation, edited for length and clarity. And if you want to read more of Ibish's thoughts on the Gaza conflict, check out his new column in The National.
Zack Beauchamp: What do you think the effect of the current round of the fighting will be on the unity deal?
Hussein Ibish: That we don't know for sure. Hamas has been desperately trying to get out of this morass that it's found itself in; it really feels trapped and desperate. And they tried to foment trouble in the West Bank, and it didn't succeed. They didn't get anything out of the unity agreement, so it's falling back on what it knows sometimes gets results — which is rocket attacks.
What they are hoping for, this time, is concessions not from Ramallah or from Tel Aviv, but from Cairo, Egypt. I don't think that most people understand that — it's all about Egypt.
What Hamas can get can only come from Egypt. From Israel, they're demanding the release of prisoners that were part of the shahid squad [a Hamas military group] that was arrested when Israel was pretending they didn't know the teenagers were dead. Israel tracked them down and dealt Hamas a serious blow. Which is why Netanyahu isn't so interested in getting into an artillery/aerial exchange with Hamas — the Israelis frontloaded their retribution. It was all done in the West Bank, before the bodies were found.
ZB: I hadn't appreciated the degree to which the Israeli incursion before the bodies were found was effective.
HI: It was a massive, crushing blow against Hamas in the West Bank. They got a lot of their people arrested, a lot of their cells disrupted.
They had the phone call. They already knew the kids were dead. But how do you explain to the Israeli public — look, we already did it?
ZB: Back to Egypt. What does Hamas want from Cairo?
They're hoping to get Rafah [the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt] open, and they're hoping to get the Egyptians to allow the transfer of Qatari and other money, which the Egyptians have been blocking.
In order to do that, I think they're kind of playing on Egyptian public sympathy. Because the Egyptian government is not in any particular mood to charge to the rescue of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood of Palestine. No way. However, Egyptian public opinion has been highly affected — as has public opinion all over the world — by these terrible images of innocent people being killed in Gaza. The context is much less important than the fact that it's happening, and Israel is doing it.
Basically, the sole purpose of this war with Israel is to force Egypt to change its policies. That's what it's about.