Interview | Let’s Say Israel Can Destroy Hamas. Then What?

Aaron David Miller and Robert Siegel tackle the big questions
By | Nov 01, 2023
An Arab family attends a Free Palestine rally in Columbus, OH. Photo credit: Paul Becker. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

In a follow-up to Moment’s October 9th zoominar on the Israel-Hamas war, Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller, an advisory board member for the Moment Institute Middle East Fellows program, and Robert Siegel, former host of NPR’s All Things Considered and Moment contributor, met again to discuss developments in the conflict and the broader context of the region. While the first conversation focused more on background information, such as the history of the conflict and the players involved, Part Two covered a number of second-order topics, including the hostage situation, the regional politics and where the conflict is headed. Miller likewise elaborated on the different layers of Hamas’s organization, how it is perceived by the Palestinian people, and if or how the ongoing war could lead to a lasting resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The following is an edited excerpt from their latest discussion.

Robert Siegel: Is it really possible to eliminate Hamas or sympathy for Hamas? As more and more people, especially children in Gaza, are killed, doesn’t it just elevate Hamas or the goals of Hamas in the eyes of Palestinians?

Aaron David Miller: I think in the end, however this ends, you’re going to be dealing with two traumatized communities.

When we talk about eliminating Hamas, let’s be clear what we mean. There are at least three different layers. There’s the military organization, with its high trajectory weapons, its command and control, its ammunition dumps, its rocket manufacturing facilities, its tunnel structure.

There’s also the governance and administrative dimension of Hamas. And remember, Hamas has been in Gaza since the early 1980s. It’s an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Through their “Dowa” [social service infrastructure], Hamas has reached scores of thousands of Palestinians and Gazans through schools, through educational facilities, and through the mosque to imbue them with Hamas ideology.

And then the third dimension is Hamas as an idea. Hamas is the embodiment of an organization and it’s the organizational embodiment of an idea.

I asked a Palestinian in the 1980s why there was so much support among Palestinians for [Yasser] Arafat. The answer was striking, and I use it actually as an explanation as to why certain Americans support any number of American politicians. And the answer was “we support Arafat because Arafat is a stone that we throw at the Israelis every day.” So, there is a dimension of that as well.

So, can the Israelis destroy Hamas as a military organization? Probably. Can they erode and undermine its sovereignty in Gaza? That is to say, its capacity to govern and to provide administrative services, water, electricity—everything that it takes to run a tiny state, however imperfectly and badly governed? Maybe, but all of this depends.

If you want a Gaza without Hamas then you need to deal with the underlying reasons as to why Hamas has been able to rule Gaza since 2007, when it launched its coup against Fatah until now. You need to address Palestinians’ security. Give them some sense of the prospects of prosperity. And above all—and this is where it gets even more complex—you will not be able to separate building some post-Hamas reality in Gaza from the broader problem of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because if you want Palestinian Authority participation or any participation of any Palestinians in the wake of the wreckage and disaster that we’ve witnessed (and more is coming), you’re going to have to address that dimension. And thereby you have a gargantuan, galactic task in front of whoever or whatever is going to take this on when this ends. And it will end.

What are your thoughts on a possible end result and goal, whether a one-state or a two-state arrangement, or neither?

The least-worst solution to ending this conflict is separation through negotiations. There is no other approach in my judgment. That answers the mail on the psychological, territorial, political and religious drivers of this conflict. There is no precedent in the Middle East or internationally that I can identify, of two national groups competing over territory and overlapping religious space, with a history of trauma and brutality and violence inflicted on one upon the other, living under one house, happily ever after. Cyprus? Lebanon? Iraq? Syria?

We have constructed a big tent in this country. And despite all the imperfections of this republic and all the violence, it still is striking and stunning to me how we have managed to accommodate so many different strands and strains and groups of humans with fundamentally different points of view without a complete and utter societal breakdown. I can’t imagine Israelis and Palestinians living happily ever after in a one state reality which exists now, or in one state solution.

If you want to end the Israeli Palestinian conflict, you need four things. You give me two of these things and I’ll give you a fighting chance to succeed.

Number one: Leaders who are masters of their political houses, not prisoners of their ideologies and their own politics. We do not have such a leader or leaders on either side of this line.

Number two: A sense of ownership among Israelis and Palestinians. They have to care more about solving this than any external party. You’ve heard the old expression “in the history of the world, nobody ever washed a rental car.” People don’t wash rental cars because they care only about what they own. And there’s insufficient ownership.

Number three: Effective U.S. mediation. The last time we were effective mediators (and I have voted for and worked for both Republicans and Democrats) was the Bush 41-James Baker administration. That was a four-year run. My own view on the U.S. piece of this: Had [Yitzhak] Rabin not been murdered, and had George H.W. Bush gotten four more years, it has been my contention all along that between Rabin, Baker and Bush, we would have had an agreement—either between Israel and Syria or Israel the Palestinians—and the two of us would be having a very different conversation right now.

And finally, number 4: You need an agreement with the Arab parties in tow on what the end state is. What’s the point of these negotiations? Even though people I respect greatly believe the two-state solution has gone the way of the dodo, I defy anybody to come up with anything that even remotely resembles a feasible, practical alternative. This is a critically important point.

I’ll say one other thing: The other day President Biden said, “We cannot return to the status quo.” I’m not sure whether he was aware of what he was implying. I can tell you what that means to me. It means, forget Gaza as an open-air prison. This crisis has generated enough pain and horrors, and we’re not even a third of the way through it. It means that the future of Gaza needs to change.

Top photo: An Arab family attends a Free Palestine rally in Columbus, OH. Photo credit: Paul Becker. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

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