Israel: how Hamas won

No matter how and when the conflict between Hamas and Israel ends, two things are certain. The first is that Israel will be able to claim a tactical victory. The second is that it will have suffered a strategic defeat.

Israeli tanks

Israeli tanks outside Gaza strip [photo : Courtesy Reuters]

At the tactical level, the success of the Iron Dome missile defense system has kept Israeli casualties near zero and significantly reduced the material damage from the rockets fired from Gaza. Israel’s ground invasion, launched on Thursday, will also reap rewards. Indeed, it already has: Israeli forces have exposed and destroyed several Hamas tunnels, including some that were intended to allow cross-border activity into Israel and others that facilitated the movement of goods, ammunition, and militants within Gaza itself.

Such tactical achievements should not be minimized. But they do not equal a strategic victory. War, as Clausewitz famously taught, is the continuation of politics by other means. Wars are fought to realign politics in a way that benefits the victor and is detrimental to the loser. But the Israelis have lost sight of this distinction.

Between 2001 and 2004 through wave upon wave of suicide attacks in the heart of Israel’s major cities, which caused Israeli citizens’ confidence to buckle and ultimately persuaded them to support a unilateral withdrawal of citizens and settlements from Gaza. They hoped the move would appease Palestinian wrath. It did not.

In fact, Israel has a history of claiming victory when in fact it has suffered defeat; the October 1973 war is the best example. Israel claimed that it had won because its forces ended their war on the western side of the Suez Canal with Egyptian forces partially encircled behind them. The reality is that Egypt achieved the strategic victory. All along, Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat’s objective was to seize and hold some territory in order to dislodge stuck political negotiations and, ultimately, recover the occupied Sinai Peninsula for Egypt. Sadat got what he wanted.

Israelis might believe that, even though they are not likely to see a political realignment at the end of this war, at least Hamas won’t have achieved its own strategic objectives. The absence of large numbers of Israeli fatalities, the thinking goes, is a mark of Hamas’ failure. But Israelis are wrong there, too. Killing large numbers of Israelis would be a treat for Hamas, but it is not vital to the group’s definition of strategic success.

Hamas’ strategic objective is to shatter Israel’s sense of normalcy. It is only possible for Israel to exist as a flourishing and prosperous democracy under the garrisoned conditions of persistent conflict when its citizens are able to maintain the illusion that their lives are more or less similar to what they would aspire to have in London, Paris, or New York. With that illusion destroyed, several outcomes are possible, none of which are good for Israel.

Despairing of the possibility of peace, small numbers of Israeli Jews may decide to emigrate. More likely is that disagreements over how to handle the Palestinian problem will deepen, sowing discord within Israeli society and undermining the core Israeli narrative based on the justice of Zionism. Cohesion around that narrative has been a key motivating force for making the sacrifices and facing the dangers that life in Israel often entails, including the long, compulsory military service that is a fact of life for most Israeli Jews. Although these internal fissures will not bring Israel to its knees, any erosion of Israeli power — including the power of the population’s will — is a win for Hamas.

 

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