The latest round in the Gaza Strip brings into stark relief the question of Israel's strategic interest in this area, as well as the matter of relevant strategic operations. Israel seems to have found itself in a ritual of violent bouts separated by shorter-than-expected intervals, which seem to indicate that the deterrence supposedly supplied by military actions like Operations Cast Lead or Pillar of Defense is waning.
In absence of any general understanding of or agreement on the Israeli interest in Gaza, public frustration could spread, turning into a demand that the government "do something." Along with political pressure, the government could find itself backed into a corner, heading toward a large-scale military operation whose outcome would not necessarily serve the broader strategic interest.
Israel currently has a strategic interest in keeping Hamas a ruling factor in Gaza with some accountability, even if unofficial, while at the same time keeping the group weakened militarily and under deterrence. The paradox lies in the duality demanded of Israel's conduct: to keep Hamas functioning as a governing element while weakened militarily. To achieve this it is necessary to achieve a balance between taking full advantage of economic, civilian, and infrastructure-related cooperation so that Hamas can meet the needs of the local population and win legitimacy in its eyes, while attacking its military and armament capabilities and striking at its vital interests. Thus far, Israel appears to have created this delicate, complex balance, even if the last round was unusual in its extent and strayed out of bounds of what Israel sees as a legitimate game.
At the same time, an Israeli understanding of the Gaza reality, which includes players other than Hamas, is required. The number of these other players is constantly growing, and they aspire to destabilize the organization's status. As far as this goes, Hamas faces a challenge that makes Israel a default partner. Israel has a distinct interest in weakening Hamas' rival players because they, or rather their opposition to Hamas, operate against Israel though rocket terror.
It seems that in the conflicted reality in which Israel is operating there is no good option. We are talking about a reality in which Israel is forced to choose between problematic options and put the least-bad one in place. Calls to reoccupy the Gaza Strip, eradicate the terror elements, and only later think about to whom to hand it over, reflect a tendency to ignore the strategic complexity that characterizes the arena.
Escalation in Gaza and toppling the Hamas regime there will not serve the diplomatic process and will present Israel with much more complicated challenges. It is difficult to imagine the Palestinian Authority or its security forces retaking control of the Gaza Strip with the IDF calling the shots. There is also the basic fact that the PA and the Fatah do not have enough legitimacy or widespread support to operate in the Strip and govern it with diplomatic reason, with a monopoly on using strength. At this time, reconnecting the Gaza Strip to the West Bank would mean further complicating the current reality.
The Israeli challenge is becoming even more complicated these days, now that Hamas has been outlawed in Egypt. This has meaning to the group's ability to function as a ruling factor that can meet the needs of the residents.
But this difficulty could turn out to be a sort of opportunity -- again, a kind of logical paradox -- to increase civilian aid to the Gaza Strip, helping Hamas firm up its hold on Gaza and exert its authority over rebel organizations. Some might see this kind of gambit as moving away the idea of disengagement from Gaza, fulfilling the disengagement of 2005, but we have already said that Israel's choice is not between good and bad. Israel has been sentenced to improve its ability to operate in a dialectic reality, to operate in a paradoxical manner, to communicate this complexity to the public and to increase the intervals between violent clashes as much as possible.
Dr. Kobi Michael is a researcher and senior lecturer at Ariel University.