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When Winning is not the Goal: Why Israel did not Defeat Hamas

The Israeli operation in Gaza and its ambiguous result has left many observers puzzled as to whether Israel won or lost. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon echoed the sentiments of many supporters of Israel when he claimed that his country had won since it had destroyed a great portion of Hamas’s rocket inventory, offensive tunnel capability and assassinated some of its leading commanders. Indeed, with approximately 900 combatants killed in action and 3,000 rockets destroyed, the military capabilities of Hamas took a serious hit. Politically, Ya’alon said Israel “received, in practice, a ceasefire as we wanted it — without conditions.” Some would also add that the destruction and havoc wrought on the Gaza Strip by Israeli forces are also indicative of an Israeli victory. However, if sheer destruction were the best metric for victory, we can retroactively declare the United States the winner of the Vietnam War.

For supporters of the Palestinians, the fierce resistance that Hamas evinced in the face of the vastly superior Israeli military constitutes a moral victory. Haneen Zoabi, the Arab Israeli Member of Knesset expressed this sentiment, “the will of the Palestinian resistance was not broken, and the people of Gaza stood strong. Israel did not achieve any of its political or military aims. When bombarded by one of the strongest armies in the world, that is an undoubted victory.” Hamas managed to kill a relatively high number of IDF soldiers, close Ben-Gurion airport to international flights and keep up a steady pace of rockets fired at Israel for fifty days. This follows Kissinger’s notion that “the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”

Neither of these formulas are particularly useful. If we follow the Clausewitzian notion that war is a continuation of policy by other means, Israeli success in the operation should be judged according to its goals and the role the conflict plays in wider Israeli strategy. The dissatisfaction amongst many Israelis stems from the Israeli inability or unwillingness to destroy the capabilities of Hamas, demilitarize the Gaza Strip or topple the Hamas government. In fact, most prominent members of the Israeli government have touted the strategic advantages of toppling the Hamas government. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman has said “Hamas cannot be the ruler of Gaza.”

In an earlier incarnation as a head of opposition rabble rouser, Netanyahu exclaimed that “At the end of the day there will be no alternative but to bring down the regime of Hamas, a terrorist organization pledged to our destruction.”

Even Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni, the most moderate member of the government, exclaimed in 2008 that if she were elected Prime Minister, “a government under me, will make it a strategic objective to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza.”

However, if toppling Hamas is Israels ultimate strategic goal, why didn’t Israel pursue that goal in “Operation Protective Edge?” There is no need to expound on the overwhelming military advantage Israel enjoys over Hamas. Furthermore, on the face of it, the timing could not be better. Hamas has never been more isolated in the Arab world, with Egypt in particular turning wildly against it. In March, Hamas activities were outlawed by a Cairo court and all of its offices in the country were closed. The relations between the organization and its Iranian patron cooled down following fundamental disagreements on the Syrian civil war. The only true supporter Hamas has is Qatar, a tiny city state whose main weapon is a television station.

The common wisdom would suggest that Israel did not topple the Hamas government because it would then face two undesirable options. The first option being to reoccupy Gaza with its 1.8 million inhabitants and face an endless insurgency. This would lead to a Third Intifada, an apartheid state or possibly the appearance of the three-horsemen of the apocalypse. The second option would be to withdraw and leave Gaza in a state of chaos. This would allegedly lead to either a Somalian Hobbesian nightmare or the emergence of an Islamic State type of government in Gaza.

However, there is a clear and simple solution to the problem of what to do with Gaza after the Hamas government is toppled. The area could be handed over to Fatah, a solution which most of the international community and the Arab world would support. Hamas has been designated by the United States, European Union, Japan, Australia and other Western countries as a terrorist organization, and their rule in Gaza has not been recognized by the international community. More importantly, Egypt has been pushing for greater Fatah responsibility in the strip throughout the conflict.

This is particularly significant since Egypt is both the only other country neighboring Gaza and the cultural and political center of the Arab world. The ceasefire proposed by Cairo called for Palestinian Authority control of the passages between Gaza and Israel as well as PA control over fishing rights and the repair of infrastructure. To a great extent, the Egyptian designed ceasefire is intended to undermine Hamas control and set the stage for an eventual Fatah takeover. Fatah for its part would be delighted to re-establish its dominance in Palestinian politics. Therefore there would be little resistance to the move from anyone aside from Iran and its regional allies.

However, while Israeli rhetoric called for the removal of Hamas from government, its ceasefire demands evinced a completely different goal. The major Israeli demand was of a demilitarization of the Gaza Strip. This was the primary demand, even though the Israeli Foreign Minister admitted it was “not realistic.” In fact, members of the government opposed an increased role for the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett even preferred a unilateral opening of the passages, with no security supervision, to a deal coordinated with Fatah. The end result of the issuing of unrealistic demands and an unwillingness to substantially change the political balance of power in Gaza has meant that the status quo has been maintained. Why is there such a discrepancy between the stated policy and Israeli actions?

The continued rule of Hamas in Gaza presents Israel with a strong rationale, not to say an excuse, to avoid concessions to the PA. The existence of a Hamas government in Gaza, and therefore the lack of full authority in the hands of Abbas makes negotiations with the PA unlikely to succeed. Liberman explained that signing an agreement with the PA now would be like “signing on ice” since “I want to know that the person on the other side has the authority and is able to make decisions.” As pro-Israeli commentator Jeffrey Tobin has noted, “so long as Hamas is still left in charge there, any talk of a two-state solution in the West Bank is also effectively shelved.”

The problem, as far as Israel is concerned, is that while Hamas is a tactical threat to Israeli interests, Fatah presents a much deeper strategic threat. Hamas rockets are a major irritant to individuals, particularly to lower income residents of southern Israel, but they do not present an existential danger to the State of Israel. The Fatah plan to demand a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders is conversely, a much greater threat. If Israel goes against the UN resolution promoted by Abbas, it will find itself opposed by the international community. Furthermore, Jerusalem does not trust the Obama government to veto any resolutions to that effect due to the shaky status of bilateral relations. Opposition to a Security Council resolution could lead to economic sanctions. Due to the utter dependence of the Israeli economy on exports, this could have immense consequences for its economy.

In theory, Israel could circumvent those problems by agreeing to the plan. However, the reality of coalition politics would not allow Netanyahu to entertain this notion. The coalition in its current structure is dependent on Bennett’s pro-settler “Jewish Home” party. But more importantly, most members of the Likud would oppose and possibly depose Netanyahu if he supported a motion to evacuate significant settlement blocs. The aforementioned difficulty will be compounded when the time comes to divide Jerusalem.

The continued rule of Hamas in the Gaza Strip means that Israel can postpone having the conversation on what the final borders of a Palestinian State will be. The Netanyahu government finds it much easier to have a conversation on rockets hitting Israel than on the occupation. Israel has designed it’s best talking points for the international consumption around questions like “what would you do if your country was under constant rocket fire?” and “how is Hamas different from ISIS”? These are much easier questions to answer than “what will be the final borders of Palestine?,” “when will the occupation end?” and “what is a fair and equitable solution for the refugee problem?” The reason these questions are so vexing is because no single answer to any of them would come close to satisfying both Israeli and Palestinian public opinion.

This explains the harsh Israeli objection to the Palestinian unity government formed in June of this year. Israel objected to the inclusion of Hamas in the government irrespective of the principles of the government. This position reflects an honest suspicion of the intentions of Hamas, but also Netanyahu’s fear of having to honestly negotiate with a legitimate Palestinian interlocutor. In order to survive, the Israeli government must decide not to decide between international sanctions and the collapse of the coalition. With this in mind, we must not take the stated goals of Israeli strategy for granted. For Netanyahu Hamas is certainly evil, but it is an evil of the utmost necessity.