What Hamas Wants, What Israel Needs

Neither side can gain from this war of attrition. But is Benjamin Netanyahu willing to risk a ground invasion to stop it?

The war of attrition that's ebbed and flowed between Israel and Hamas since the Islamic radical group forcefully took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 has returned with round three: Operation Defensive Edge.

The damage is already gruesome, and bound to get worse. Millions of people are facing constant fear of attacks from the air: a broad swathe of Israelis are seeing Hamas rockets targeted at them (and Iron Dome defensive missiles being launched to counter), while massive airpower over the small and crowded Gaza Strip is killing scores of innocents, as well as the combatants at which it is aimed.

Without in any way diminishing the severity of suffering, reports on the conflict can give the impression that it's to be perversely celebrated. Social media in particular seem to be saying one thing, in two voices: My enemy is evil. Israelis repeatedly point to the moral asymmetry between those who try to kill civilians and those who try to avoid hitting them. Palestinians repeatedly point to the numbers of their civilian casualties, ready to accuse Israel of anything, even, preposterously, "genocide" -- in the words of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. 

But if we are interested in preventing the suffering rather than using it for political purposes, the real question is not whether Israel is stronger than Hamas (it is, and feels no need to apologize for that fact), nor whether Hamas spends its energy stoking terror (it does, and does not even claim otherwise) rather than on governing and developing Gaza. Faced with the terrible consequences of war, the real questions we face now are: How can this round of violence end? And what are the sides really after? 

The special tragedy of this round of fighting is that neither side had clear or attainable objectives going in. Israel, from the start, didn't want this escalation in Gaza; it hoped to isolate the events in the West Bank and Jerusalem from the Gaza front and attempted Egyptian mediation before the official operation began. In rare overtures to Hamas, Israel conveyed its desire for de-escalation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite criticism from his right flank, has made clear that his primary goal is to end the fighting. And yet it relentlessly continues, with increasing numbers of civilian casualties. 

The modest Israeli goal of restoring calm may now evolve into something wider and more deadly. With no end in sight to the fighting, Israel is now contemplating entering Gaza with ground forces. Israel would likely aim to sever the Strip in two or three parts, limiting Hamas's freedom of action while degrading weapon stockpiles. Israel has -- and will continue to -- try to strike at the Hamas tunnel infrastructure. While the Egyptian military has dealt a heavy blow to the tunnels between the Gaza Strip and northern Sinai, there are continued attempts by Hamas to dig beneath the Israel border. (One such tunnel was targeted early in the fighting, when Israel, which had intelligence on the its construction, feared the passageway would be used to infiltrate and attack Israeli troops or civilians.)

An Israeli ground incursion risks far greater casualties, however, especially on the Palestinian side. In Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009), Israel, then led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, entered Gaza in what became, predictably, a gruesome and internationally condemned operation. In 2012, during Operation Pillar of Defense, led by Netanyahu, Israel called up very large numbers of reservists, signaling its readiness to enter Gaza, yet refrained from doing so. Despite criticism from the right and frustration by thousands of reservists for being used in the bluff, Netanyahu chose caution. As many have noted, Netanyahu, Israel's second longest-serving prime minister (after the founder of the state, David Ben-Gurion), has only engaged in two relatively small military operations: the air operation in 2012 and the current one. Despite his hawkish rhetoric, Netanyahu is actually a cautious, conservative leader -- in war as well as in peace. This operation may turn out to be his first major use of ground forces across Israel's borders.

Why then did Hamas refuse the Israeli overtures for de-escalation? Or, as Mahmoud Abbas said to Hamas: "What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?" 

The political leadership of Hamas seems to have been dragged into this conflict by the events that preceded it and by its own militants, not always under the control of the political wing. As Khaled Mashal, the head of the Hamas political bureau, claimed: "Yes, we want calm. We don't like escalation, and we didn't make an escalation. Netanyahu imposed this aggression upon us." Hamas now demands the opening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt (ostensibly not even a demand from Israel, directly) and the release of prisoners recently swept up in Israeli police actions.

Hamas finds itself in a very difficult situation, and has for a couple years now. Since 2012, when Egypt was governed by a president from the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas's parent organization), Hamas's fortunes have declined precipitously. The current regime in Cairo despises the Brotherhood and has only slightly more tolerance for its Palestinian offshoot. Around the region, the apparent ascendancy of actors friendly to the Muslim Brotherhood, including Qatar and Turkey, now appears reversed. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries (save Qatar) have taken a harsh stance against the Brotherhood, in support of the new regime in Cairo. The Egyptian military has gone to lengths to destroy the vast network of tunnels that connected Gaza to Sinai, through which both civilian goods and weapons were transferred. Hamas regulates and taxes these tunnels, providing it with an important revenue source.

Cornered by Israel's naval blockade of Gaza and the new Egyptian regime, Hamas is strapped for cash. Even the recent formation of the unity government with Abbas's Fatah party hasn't helped: The deal provided funding to the official Palestinian Authority (PA) employees in Gaza but not to Hamas employees, to which banks would not transfer for fear of Israeli sanctions. 

Hamas operatives inside Gaza (Mashal resides in Qatar) may have been searching for a way out, feeling they had little to lose. More likely, they lost control of their own cadres.

Unintended war is hardly new. This round of violence came on the backdrop of a brutal four weeks in which three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped by Hamas operatives (to be fair, Hamas claims its leadership did not order the kidnapping -- but went on to praise the operation); an Israeli operation to recover them that left several Palestinians dead and scores of Hamas sympathizers in jail; hate crimes against Arabs by Israelis that culminated in the horrific murder of a Palestinian teenager; and widespread low-level violence among Palestinians and Israeli Arabs in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Some have even spoken of the start of a Third Intifada.

The horrible events ongoing have been a reactive mess. Neither Israel nor Hamas has much to gain from it, which only adds to the tragedy. There may be some room for a deal involving the Rafah crossing, but Israel and Egypt will likely insist that the PA man that border point -- as was the case before the Hamas takeover in 2007 -- to avoid renewed smuggling or rewarding Hamas for its violence. In any case, negotiating such a deal appears far off at present.

In the meantime, each side is striving to prove its resolve and restore deterrence against future infractions and interventions. Even if Israel were to enter Gaza with ground forces, it's unlikely to try and topple the Hamas regime, for fear of the immense cost of such an operation to the local population and to Israeli troops. Instead, Israel prefers a weakened, deterred, but effective Hamas. With the tunnels from Sinai now closed, a hit to the Hamas stockpile stands some chance of lasting longer than previous attempts, since it would be harder for Islamists to replace the lost weaponry.

But even if its weaponry were degraded, Hamas's motivation to prove "resistance" to Israel will remain. Most acutely, this round of violence has the potential to reinforce the unrest -- which had subsided -- in the West Bank and in Jerusalem. A full blown Intifada, possibly coupled with attacks from Lebanon or elsewhere, could make this round of violence seem tame by comparison.

And yet, the lack of true objectives for either side in this confrontation also offers some hope. With little to gain, a ceasefire, if reached, might hold. If Hamas could be brought to stop firing its rockets, Israel would likely reciprocate. The formidable challenge, however, is to find channels through which to credibly mediate with a splintered Hamas, as the United States is now reportedly trying to do. 

But without a fundamental change to the regime in Gaza -- one which Israel would like to avoid carrying out itself -- the dismal cycle of this war of attrition will likely continue. Today, generations of Israelis and Palestinians grow up suffering a brutal reality for which they blame only the other. Meanwhile, two populations have become desensitized to human suffering and are increasingly prone to wish vengeance upon the other. This, sadly, is attrition at its most pointless and brutal nadir.



Revenge of the Kurds II

Can the Kurds prevent Maliki from sabotaging the country's oil infrastructure?

NOTE: This story was updated late Friday.

Iraqi Kurds capped a week of steadily increasing tension with Baghdad by sending troops to seize oil fields near Kirkuk before Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could take the extraordinary step of destroying some of his own country's oil installations. The move raises the specter of armed conflict between the restive northern region and the central government and seemingly accelerates the very disintegration of Iraq that the United States seeks to avoid.

Relations between Baghdad and Erbil were already in free-fall after Maliki labeled the Kurdistan region a haven for terrorists earlier this week. The Kurdistan Regional Government lashed out, calling the Iraqi prime minister "hysterical" and quitting day-to-day cooperation with the Iraqi government. Preemptively seizing the oil fields to forestall what the Kurds say was a concerted sabotage campaign marks a major escalation in the increasingly acrimonious relation.

Friday morning, July 11, Kurdish military forces seized a pair of Iraqi North Oil Company (NOC) fields near Kirkuk. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said that it stepped in because the Iraqi Oil Ministry planned to disrupt a new pipeline connecting the fields to Kurdish export pipelines; the Kurds built the pipeline after occupying the city of Kirkuk last month to give the country a northern route to export oil.

"This morning's events have shown that the KRG is determined to protect and defend Iraq's oil infrastructure whenever it is threatened by acts of terrorism or, as in this case, politically motivated sabotage," the KRG's statement read. The KRG accused Baghdad of ordering NOC staff to "dismantle or render inoperable" valves on the new pipeline, which the Kurds say is crucial to keeping oil exports flowing in the violence-battered country.

The Iraqi Oil Ministry called the allegations "ridiculous," Bloomberg reported. Because of damage caused by earlier terrorist attacks on a separate export pipeline and the shutdown of a nearby refinery, the fields are producing only a fraction of their 500,000-per-day barrel potential. The KRG produces 360,000 barrels inside its territory.

The big questions now are: How much more will the move strain the unity of an Iraqi government still struggling to push back against a spring offensive by Islamist insurgents? And how will the Kurds actually sell the additional oil they now control? As a solely regional government, the KRG has hit major obstacles in finding international buyers for its crude since it began trying to sell abroad earlier this year -- largely because of Baghdad's threats and diplomatic pressure.

The Kurdish seizure will aggravate U.S. goals of getting Iraq's Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish populations to work together to fight the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS. Coupled with strident talk of an independent Kurdish state, it further complicates efforts to broker a truce between Baghdad and Erbil, especially regarding international oil sales.

"The Kurds are playing an increasingly bold hand and it limits their options in terms of any kind of compromise with Baghdad or backing down from the path that they're setting off on," said Richard Mallinson, a geopolitical analyst at Energy Aspects in London. "But there are no guarantees that they'll be successful in going down that path in securing political and financial independence from Baghdad."

The United States still wants the KRG to work with Maliki's sectarian and divisive government, even after Kurdish forces were the only ones that stood up to the Islamic State's initial advances last month. Brett McGurk, the State Department's top Iraq official, is in Iraq cajoling all sides to work together.

State Department spokesman Eddie Vasquez said in an email Friday that the United States urges all Iraqis to equitably determine how to share their national oil resources. "Iraq’s energy resources belong to all of the Iraqi people," he said, reiterating U.S. calls for Iraqi political unity in face of the threat posed by ISIS.

"As we have said, we support a unified and federal Iraq as defined in the Iraqi constitution, and the Kurds’ participation in the government formation process is essential. We urge all parties in Iraq to continue working together toward that objective," he said.

But for Kurds, the future of all that oil is at stake. Erbil said it hopes to meet local shortfalls in refined products with output from the seized fields, but that area lacks refinery capacity. And claiming that Baghdad has not handed over the Kurdish share of national oil revenue, it also hinted that it would try to sell the crude.

That won't be easy. Even though the KRG opened its own pipeline to Turkey to jump-start its exports, international buyers remain leery of snapping up Kurdish crude. That's because Baghdad insists that oil produced in Iraq must be sold through the central government. For months, Baghdad lobbed legal threats at the regional government in the Kurdish area and in Turkey to forestall the oil sales; the morning ISIS captured Mosul, Iraq's second-biggest city, Baghdad was threatening action at the United Nations over Kurdish oil.

The pressure seems to have worked. Although the Kurds have loaded four tankers with crude, only one has found a buyer. Several have been at sea for weeks.

"The problem for the Kurds now is that the dominoes aren't falling -- they filled up these tankers and they've only sold one," said Matthew M. Reed, vice president at energy consultancy Foreign Reports.

Broadly speaking, there are two obvious paths the Kurds can pursue: finally reach a deal with Baghdad to remove the legal ambiguities, or declare independence. But, Mallinson said, the more the Kurds inch toward the latter, the more they rule out the former.

"Every move the Kurds are taking at the moment is almost calculated to create hostility amongst the other main communities in Iraq," he said.

Turkey, which is enabling modest exports of Kurdish crude, could help solve the impasse. Kurdistan has a major shortage of fuel, especially gas and diesel, after Islamic State militants surrounded the biggest refinery in northern Iraq last month. Turkey has spare refining capacity that could be reached by the existing pipeline network.

"If Turkey wants to save the day for the Kurds, they could refine the oil and sell it back to them," said Reed. The Turks could sidestep any outrage from Baghdad by presenting such a transaction as a humanitarian move to supply much-needed fuel to thousands of desperate people, he added.

Photo by Safin Hamed - AFP - Getty