Before the demise of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the Gaza Strip at the hands of Hamas last June, the U.S. Department of State unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the PA to end the rocket fire into Israel. State now believes Hamas, the new rulers of Gaza, can be persuaded to end the attacks. Indeed, despite seven years of rocketing, the current ceasefire between Israel and Hamas appears to have Foggy Bottom convinced that persuasion can work.
While the strategy has met with some recent success, its long-term viability will come in to question as soon as the current period of relative calm in Gaza comes to an end.
Pressure on the PA
After rocket attacks began in October 2001, the State Department initially held the PA responsible for actions taken in its jurisdiction, while correctly viewing Israel’s military actions in Gaza as self-defense.
In February 2002, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, “Chairman Arafat and the [PA] need to act now to halt this kind of dangerous and provocative escalation.” In October 2003, deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said, the PA “must move against” those launching rockets… if the Palestinians would take steps on security, as we have urged, then perhaps Israel would not feel the need to act unilaterally.” In May 2004, Boucher reinforced the fact that the Palestinians, “have to take real security responsibility in Gaza in a way that they have not.”
Throughout 2004 and 2005, State expressed varying levels of satisfaction with the PA’s efforts, while also repeating expectations that it do more. In October 2004, Boucher said the “Palestinians have a responsibility for ending violence and terror, and particularly for ensuring… no area is used for attacks on Israel with rockets.” In mid-January 2005, State praised PA President Abbas’ decision to deploy troops in northern Gaza to stem rocket attacks. Boucher said, “We are encouraged by the steps that Abbas has taken… We have always stressed how important it is for the Palestinians to organize themselves to end the violence… it is concrete action by the Palestinian leadership that…will send a clear message that terror will not be tolerated.”
By mid-2005, however, State grew impatient with PA efforts to stem rocket fire, but stopped short of spelling out the consequences of its failure to act. After a rocket attack killed an Israeli civilian, Department spokesman McCormick said, “The [PA] needs to take actions to prevent [rocket attacks]. We are not going to prescribe exact things that they might do… the [PA] understands what they need to do. They need to act against terror and we need to see the results of those actions.”
The State Department’s continued frustration with persistent rocket fire seemed to have little negative effect on its support for Abbas, however. In November 2006, McCormick said: “We believe Abbas is… doing what he can to stop the rocket attacks that have emanated from Gaza. Abbas is acting in good faith.”
From Pressure To Persuasion
The takeover of Gaza by Hamas in June 2007 prompted an end to the State Department’s strategy of pressuring the PA to stop the rocket attacks. In February 2008, after the first reported casualty from a rocket since the Hamas takeover, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “we will continue to state clearly that the rocket attacks against Israel need to stop.” Rice, however, declined to direct her message to a specific party.
Since then, State has sought to stress that continued rocket fire is contrary to the best interests of the Palestinian people, perhaps hoping to prompt public opposition to the tactic, and to build pressure on Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza. Accordingly, in February 2008, Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey reiterated, “our clear insistence that these rocket attacks stop. They are a situation that is absolutely unacceptable. They are not aimed at anything other than randomly targeting innocent civilians in Israel. They do nothing to serve the interests of the people in Gaza.”
State’s strategy, however, has since been consistent. It seeks to convince Hamas to act against the rockets by suggesting that not doing so will hurt its credibility. In fact, Casey appealed to Hamas in February by stating that rocket attacks detract from Hamas’s preferred image as a legitimate political movement.
“Not only is Hamas not trying to stop [rocket fire], Hamas is encouraging it. And it’s pretty hard to say that Hamas has a legitimate role to play in this [political] process if their main policy is to promote terror,” Casey said. He added that Gaza “continues to suffer as a result of Hamas’ misrule and of Hamas’, not only toleration, but active support and promotion of [rocket] attacks on Israel.”
State’s policy may have led Hamas to alter its media strategy but not its military strategy. The Department’s most recent annual report on terrorism, released in April 2008, noted that Hamas has stopped claiming responsibility for rocket attacks from Gaza, probably to deemphasize its ongoing military activity.
Employing Regional Actors
Increasingly, State wants to see regional players leverage their influence with numerous Palestinian groups to stop rockets from being launched out of Gaza. In February, Department spokesman Sean McCormick said, “we are going to do everything that we can to urge any states in the region that may have influence with the Palestinians in Gaza to cease… those rocket attacks.” As of April, Egypt “was talking to Hamas” in an attempt to end rocket attacks.
State even reached out to Syria, a designated state sponsor of terrorism. In July 2006, McCormick said Syria’s role was to “go down the street in Damascus to the headquarters or offices of some of these terrorist groups… and put pressure on them to have their compatriots… stop pushing the buttons on the rockets.”
With Hamas in power in Gaza, State appears to understand that persuasion cannot be the only strategy to counter Palestinian rockets. It continues to give Israel a long leash to act against rocket activity with military force. Last December, McCormick passed up an opportunity to criticize Israel’s military response to rocket fire from Gaza. Asked by the press for his “thoughts” about Israel’s actions, he said, “You can talk to the Israeli Government about that. One thing that is troubling is the continuing rocket attacks.” Occasionally, however, when hostilities in Gaza escalate and the media looks to State to rebuke Israel’s military actions, State has counseled Israel to consider the effects of its actions on the “overall political process.”
State is likely to continue principally to rely upon regional allies to appeal to Hamas to maintain calm in Gaza, and will almost certainly seize upon the calm to re-energize what remains of the political process. As Department spokesman McCormick said last October, in reference to continued rocket attacks, “There are going to be events that transpire… that may complicate the diplomacy. But the key is to try to keep the focus on pushing the [political] process forward.”
Hamas has demonstrated a tendency to adjust its military tactics as conditions dictate. For example, in 2002, the group stepped up its suicide bombing campaign in order to claim a leadership role in what became known as the “second intifada,” but later resorted to rocketing after Israel erected high-tech fences around the West Bank and Gaza. For this reason, the State Department’s strategy of persuading Hamas to abandon rocket attacks may prove successful – at least in the short term. It is important, however, that if and when the current calm dissolves, if and when hostilities in Gaza heat up once again and the rocketing resumes, State does not stand in the way of Israel’s defense forces doing what they must to neutralize the Hamas threat.
Jess Sadick served as a Middle East terrorism analyst at the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research from 1999 to 2003. He publishes ClearedCommunity.com, an educational website about federal security clearances.