Did Hamas really win in Gaza?

Martin Kramer posted this comment in the thread “Did Hamas Really Win in Gaza?” at Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH).

One way to approach this question is to ask whether Hamas has achieved the objectives for which it escalated the crisis, by its refusal to extend the cease-fire. Musa Abu Marzuq, number two in the Damascus office, explained the primary Hamas objective in a very straightforward way: “The tahdiyeh had become ‘a ceasefire [in exchange for another] ceasefire,’ with no connection either to the crossings and [the goods] transported through them, or to the siege. Terminating it was [thus] a logical move.” So Hamas gambled, escalated, and now finds itself, once again, in a “cease-fire for a cease-fire.” Israel’s primary objective was to compel a cease-fire by means of deterrence alone, without opening the crossings, thus serving its long-term strategy of containing and undercutting Hamas. This it has achieved, so far.

When Israel launched its operation, Hamas announced a secondary objective: to inflict significant military casualties on the Israelis. For this purpose, it had built up a network of fortifications supposedly on the Lebanon model, which it promised to turn into a “graveyard” for Israeli forces. The military wing announced that “the Zionist enemy will see surprises and will regret carrying out such an operation and will pay a heavy price. Our militants are waiting with patience to confront the soldiers face to face.” This too never happened. The Hamas line quickly folded, its “fighters” shed their uniforms and melted into the civilian population. That Hamas failed to fight did surprise many Israeli soldiers, who had expected more. But there was no battle anywhere, and Israel suffered only 10 military fatalities, half of them from friendly fire. Hamas has taken to claiming that Israel has hidden its military casualties, and has thrown out various numbers—a rather precise measure of what it had hoped and failed to achieve.

There is something perverse in the notion that Hamas “won” by merely surviving. Robert Malley has said that “for Hamas, it was about showing that they could stay in place without giving way, and from this point of view it has achieved its main objective.” This was not its “main objective” by any stretch of the imagination. Rashid Khalidi has written that “like Hizbullah in Lebanon in 2006, all [Hamas] has to do in order to proclaim victory is remain standing.” But Hamas had a specific objective—lifting the “siege”—which was altogether different from the objective of Hezbollah. This objective Hamas manifestly failed to achieve. It also failed to achieve the secondary objective it shared with Hezbollah: inflicting Israeli military casualties. It defies logic to declare the mere survival of Hamas to be a triumph, given that Hamas openly declared a much larger objective, and Israel never made the military destruction of Hamas an objective.

War is only the pursuit of politics by other means, and anything could happen going forward. Israel could forfeit its war gains by inept diplomacy—something for which there is ample Israeli precedent. Hamas could parley its setback into a diplomatic gain—something for which there is ample Arab precedent. But I think there is little doubt that at the end of the war, Israel had achieved many of its stated objectives, and Hamas had not.

A final point, on the comparison of Hamas to Hezbollah. It is always a mistake to lump these two movements together. Hezbollah’s “Islamic Resistance” deserves the name. For years, it confronted Israel militarily in southern Lebanon, and fought battles of maneuver and assaulted Israel’s fortified lines. Its cadres received serious Iranian training, and while they didn’t win a straight fight with the IDF in 2006, they were battle-hardened, fought hard, and inflicted casualties. The “resistance” of Hamas has always been a fiction. Hamas’s so-called “military wing” developed in circumstances of occupation, and it specialized exclusively in the suicide belt and the Qassam rocket, both terrorist weapons which it directed almost exclusively at civilians. The videos of masked Hamas “fighters” in elaborate jihad-chic costumes, brandishing guns and jumping through hoops of fire, were cheap posturing. Hamas doesn’t have a cadre of battle-hardened fighters; one Israeli soldier aptly described those who did pop up in Gaza as “villagers with guns.”

If the “siege” of Gaza is significantly eased or lifted (which I still think is unlikely), it won’t be because Palestinian “resistance” forced Israel’s hand. It will be because Palestinian suffering has weighed on the conscience of others. That’s a very old story, and there’s nothing new or “heroic” about it. Those who’ve promised to liberate Jerusalem and Palestine by arms are (again) begging the world for sacks of flour.

Civilians should be protected, unless…

In going back over earlier Hamas materials to which I’ve linked in years past, I rediscovered this August 2001 exchange between an interviewer and the late Hamas founder and leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin (whose image is the background to this photo of present Hamas “prime minister” Ismail Haniyeh). In the interview, Yassin offered a rather unique interpretation of the Geneva Convention. It seems relevant to the present discussion about targeting and avoiding civilian casualties, and faithfully reflects the Hamas view to this day. The relevant segment:

Question: What is the consequence of the deaths of Sheikh Jamal Mansur and Sheikh Jamal Selim (the two top Hamas leaders killed in Nablus) for your organization?

Yassin: Their deaths push us towards more resistance and increase our determination. The way the two sheikhs were killed was cowardly. They were sitting in a media office, they were not in a military base or engaged in a military operation. Military people know they risk dying in battle, but civilians should be protected by the Geneva Convention.

Question: How about Israeli civilians, shouldn’t they be kept out of the conflict as well?

Yassin: The Geneva convention protects civilians in occupied territories, not civilians who are in fact occupiers.

Question: Wasn’t it cowardly to attack young people at a Tel Aviv disco (a terror attack for which Hamas has claimed responsibility)?

Yassin: They’re the ones who are criminals. They took my house and my country. The soldier who attacks us, the pilot who shells us, where do they live? All of Israel, Tel Aviv included, is occupied Palestine. So we’re not actually targeting civilians—that would go against Islam. The crime of occupation is not more legitimate in Tel Aviv [than it is in the West Bank, seized by Israel in 1967] because it is older. If Israel stole my house in Ashkelon in 1948, does it mean it’s OK to have made me homeless? Up to this day Jews are running after Nazis and suing countries although their losses happened a long time ago.

So civilians who are occupiers are not protected, and Tel Aviv is occupied Palestinian territory. Remember this the next time you hear someone say that Hamas deserves sympathy as a movement of “resistance” against “occupation.” Accurate translation: jihad to drive the Jews from “Palestine.”

By the way, in that same interview, Yassin was asked if he was afraid Israel would try to kill him. His answer: “Please, they are welcome.” A couple of years later, they took him up on that.

A plan for surrender (to Hamas)

Israeli Yossi Alpher today publishes a piece in the International Herald Tribune, under the headline “Stop Starving the Gazans.” Alpher claims that the economic sanctions imposed on Gaza after the Hamas power grab in mid-2007 (what he calls “the economic-warfare strategy”) have failed totally; indeed, they have “produced no political or strategic benefit.” “There is not a shred of evidence,” he adds, that economic punishment or incentives toward Palestinians have ever worked. The “blockade” should be abandoned unconditionally—which, by the way, is precisely the main demand of Hamas.

Not a shred of evidence? Here’s some evidence. Hamas sank in Palestinian public opinion in Gaza after it seized power. The most reliable Palestinian pollster got these answers from Gazans (in percentages):

So something was happening in Gaza: a steady erosion of support for Hamas and its leader, benefitting both Fatah and Abbas. What caused it? No doubt Hamas did much to offend Gazans, from its violent coup d’etat to its attempts at social Islamization. But many analysts have pointed primarily to the economic sanctions and the failure of Hamas strategy to get them lifted. “Hamas was losing popularity before this operation,” says Rashid Khalidi. “It was losing popularity because it had failed to open the crossings.” Hamas could read the trend, and it’s why it refused to renew the “lull” and renewed its rocket fire. “Hamas wanted to weaken the Israeli siege,” says Hisham Milhem, “because they have been hurt politically and economically because of the siege.”

So what would the Alpher plan of unconditionally ending the “siege” mean? Hamas would gain credit for lifting the blockade, and have something to show for the war, beyond its mere survival. The opposition to Hamas would be severely undercut, and the split between the West Bank and Gaza would be made permanent. The “peace process” industry, now gearing up again in Washington, would be reduced to the hopeless task of trying to “moderate” Hamas, probably through desultory “engagement.” While we waited for Hamas to have an epiphany, the maps of various final status options might as well be folded up and put in the archives for another twenty years. And Israel might as well fly a white flag over the crossings.

Economics will be crucial when the guns fall silent and the rockets stop falling. Here, too, Israel and the international community have to remain steadfast if they want an outcome that doesn’t just stop the violence today, but also provides hope for tomorrow. When the dust settles, the people of Gaza will be desperate for a return to some normalcy—one denied to them under the rule of jihadists who fanatically tell them they must suffer on the deluded promise that Israel will be destroyed, and that Gazans will one day “return” to repossess all that they lost 60 years ago. Normalcy can be restored only if the needs of Gazans are answered by the international community and the legitimate Palestinian Authority—without the Hamas middleman.

Hamas in Gaza was a bubble. Let’s not inflate it again.