Focusing on a Victory Picture, at Any Price

Hamas’ inability to achieve a triumphant image in the latest conflict with Israel will affect any cease-fire talks and prolong the bloodshed.

No one really believes that when a cease-fire is achieved to end this latest round of warfare between Israel and Gaza, it will include anything more than a temporary cessation of violence. Each side will lick its wounds and try to present to its public some form of achievement. It’s that inevitability that is driving events right now.

The leadership of Hamas and, to a lesser degree, the Israeli government are fully aware that the moment the rocket launchings and air strikes cease, they will have very little to show for all the human and material sacrifice. They urgently need a victory picture, and it was denied them again on Saturday night when the barrage of rockets on the Tel Aviv area failed to penetrate the missile shield.

In an age where the reality of war – even for the societies that are directly suffering – is increasingly defined by images, leaders who bring war on the heads of their people need that picture to crystallize their claims to victory. And have no doubt, when this is over both Hamas and the Israeli government will both proclaim themselves the victors, just like in every previous cycle of conflict here in recent years. For an Israeli prime minister up for reelection and for the rulers of Gaza constantly challenged by a host of Palestinian rivals, it isn’t just PR, it’s existential politics.

Hamas is fully aware that some slight easing in the restriction of movement on the Gaza Strip, or even the release of some of its members arrested by Israel last month in the wake of murders of the three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, won’t be seen by the Palestinian public as sufficient return on the death and destruction caused by Israeli attacks.

That’s why their victory picture has to come now, before the cease-fire, in the shape of a signature attack, a strike on a prestigious target – something, anything, that can show they are a potent fighting force capable of more than lobbing rockets only to have them shot down by Iron Dome interceptors or fall harmlessly in open areas.

To create its victory picture, Hamas has tried to target Ben-Gurion International Airport and the nuclear reactor near Dimona, but to no avail. The rockets either lack the accuracy or have been shot down. They even reduced the quantity of explosives in the warheads to increase range, in the hope that would allow them the symbolic achievement of hitting Haifa, but so far they have reached no further than Zichron Yaakov, 35 kilometers (22 miles) from the northern city on the Carmel.

The suicide mission by Hamas frogmen on Zikkim Beach, south of Ashkelon, last Wednesday was another such attempt, but all five men were killed. Israeli intelligence believes other attempts are being prepared using tunnels, gliders and explosive-carrying drones.

So far, though, nothing has succeeded, and at least part of the hardware required for these operations has been destroyed in the air strikes. Hamas’ inability to achieve its victory picture will, without doubt, affect any cease-fire talks and prolong the bloodshed. Toward the end of the previous round, in November 2012, they succeeded for the first time in striking Tel Aviv, and although the rocket caused little damage beyond one burnt-out car, it supplied the image they needed. They hit the Zionists in their main city. But this time around, they have so far failed to do even that.

Israeli policy has also been dictated in the past by the need for a victory picture; the Second Lebanon War was the prime example. For four weeks, Israel pounded away at Lebanon and Hezbollah after the organization had captured two Israel Defense Forces soldiers from a border patrol (eight years ago yesterday). But while causing massive damage and killing hundreds of Hezbollah fighters, as well as Lebanese civilians, the IDF failed either to stop them from firing rockets on Israel or to harm the Shi’ite movement’s leadership.

Israeli intelligence pulled out all the stops, used every possible asset and called in every favor available from friendly and not-so-friendly foreign intelligence services, looking to find that one “golden detail” that would locate Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s whereabouts and enable a strike. A couple of times they thought they had him – commandos were dispatched to the Bekaa, buildings were bombed in Beirut – but Nasrallah wasn’t there.

The disastrous last phase of the ground offensive, across the Litani River and deep into Lebanon – ordered by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government despite a UN-brokered cease-fire already about to be signed – was a result of the frustration over the lack of a victory picture. It cost 35 soldiers’ lives and gave Hezbollah yet another victory picture of its own: the downing of an IAF helicopter, in addition to the destroyed tanks and captured soldiers.

“[Israel] talked so much then about achieving the victory picture,” says former one government adviser. “They wanted Nasrallah’s head, or at least a major Hezbollah base. I told them they should just make a statue of Nasrallah, put it in the middle of Bint Jbail [the south Lebanese town captured by the IDF in the war] and blow it up. No one would care that it hadn’t been there before.”

In the wake of the criticism leveled at the government for pursuing the 2006 Lebanon war without a clear objective, Olmert and his successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, have been more careful to manage public expectations in the three subsequent major operations in Gaza. Including the current one. While other politicians said that Israel must “destroy Hamas” and take over Gaza, Netanyahu was much more circumspect, saying Friday that Israel’s objective was simply to end the firing of rockets from Gaza on Israel.

But while Israel’s leaders have had to realize that searching for a victory picture can have the opposite effect than desired, Hamas in Gaza feels it has nothing to lose. It has to be a victory picture, whatever the price.