Hamas Came Out Ahead in the Gaza War. Here's How Israel Can Turn Adversity Into Victory

If Netanyahu were no longer at the helm, Israel could undo the damage he caused with yet another failed policy. It is high time for him to pack up and go

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A Muslim worshipper wears a Hamas flag during a protest following Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, earlier this month.
A Muslim worshipper wears a Hamas flag during a protest following Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, earlier this month.Credit: Mahmoud Illean,AP

After 11 days of fighting, a welcome calm prevails once again. Much to our regret, however, we cannot but conclude that the overall outcome of this round leans in Hamas’ favor.

Many walls fell during Operation Guardian of the Walls.

After Gaza, an Israeli-Palestinian struggle for identity: Aluf Benn, Noa Landau and Anshel Pfeffer

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Hamas achieved its primary objectives during the first few days of the fighting and every day that passed merely served to reinforce them further. Militarily, Hamas succeeded in firing 4,400 rockets against Israel’s home front, disrupted life in much of the country and undermined the public’s sense of security. Strategically, Hamas gained the lead in the struggle for control of the Palestinian arena, at the expense of the Palestinian Authority (PA), created a linkage between Gaza and the Jerusalem issue, positioning itself as the “defender of al-Aqsa” (mosque), fomented riots in Israel and the West Bank, and exposed a growing rift between Israel and the United States.

The IDF’s capabilities proved even stronger and more precise than in the past and important military objectives were achieved. They include, but were not limited to, the damage to Hamas’ underground tunnel system and rocket manufacturing capabilities, prevention of various offensive operations that Hamas had planned and, of course, the remarkable defense provided to Israel’s civilian population by the Iron Dome anti-rocket system.

A number of well-known problems from the past were, nevertheless, manifested once again.

First, some three decades after the rocket threat first appeared, Israel still does not have an effective offensive response to Hamas’s limited capabilities, let alone Hezbollah’s infinitely greater ones. Moreover, Iran has deployed missiles in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and, of course, its own territory.

Second, in asymmetric conflicts such as these, against sub-state actors, decisive victory cannot be achieved from the air alone and ground operations are necessary. In the case of Gaza, decisive victory would require a weeks-long operation, toppling Hamas and numerous casualties. Even if Israel were willing to pay the price, we do not know how to install the PA in place of Hamas and an even more radical player might come to power. Israel has thus repeatedly made do with operations designed to strengthen deterrence and gain time, without trying to address the long-term problem. 

Third, as absurd as it may sound, Netanyahu’s intrepid and gung-ho right-wing governments have become de facto partners of Hamas in perpetuating its rule and the status quo. Once again, the prime minister and his courageous sycophants are busy regurgitating the same vacuous bravado about the severe blows that Hamas has suffered, the lessons we have taught them and the warnings we have given them not to dare mess with us anymore. The only problem is that they do dare, grow stronger from round to round and the threat becomes worse.

Fourth, wars cannot be won by defense alone, no matter how good it may be. Even worse, we are not winning offensively either, because we are (correctly) unwilling to pay the price in lives and international standing. Consequently, we keep repeating the same mistake and end up squandering truly remarkable capabilities, developed at great cost for objectives of even greater strategic importance, in recurrent deterrent operations. One is reminded of Einstein’s famous saying about the definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different outcome.

Fifth, exquisite intelligence and successful tactical operations are not replacements for coherent strategy. Israel continues to act, in defiance of all logic and the repeated recommendations of various special commissions and experts, without clearly defined strategic objectives. As a result, we keep finding ourselves embroiled in overly protracted operations, have difficulty identifying the appropriate timing to end them and experience a recurring sense of national disappointment.

Indeed, Israel had already achieved its primary military objectives some days before the cease-fire and the ongoing operations were generating diminishing returns. In the United States, this is known as “mission creep,” and Israel has had its own experience with this on more than one occasion. We were also fortunate that the nearly invariably errant missile or bomb, which has often turned partial successes into failures in the past, did not miss its target this time around.

Sixth and, arguably, worst of all, even if the operation did end with some important achievements, public faith in the national leadership and efficacy of the government were further undermined, and the rift with the Arab population was greatly exacerbated. While this may prove reparable over time, the same may not be true of the damage to Israel’s relations with the American Jewish community and the U.S. as a whole.

Even before the latest round, there already was reason to doubt whether Israel would, indeed, be the beneficiary of another 10-year arms package, when the current one expires. For the first time since the 1970s, we may now face some difficulty in getting congressional approval even for next year’s annual assistance.

Fundamental change is needed.

Israel should strive to stabilize the cease-fire, including through programs designed to promote long-term infrastructure development, economic growth and employment in Gaza, along with an exchange of prisoners, hostages and the bodies of fallen soldiers. This is not a favor to Hamas, but an attempt to place the onus where it belongs, on Hamas, redirect attention back to the primary issue, Iran’s ongoing nuclear program; save our relationship with the United States; and minimize damage to relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. (With Jordan the damage has already been done).

In exchange, Israel should insist on a true American and European commitment to prevent a renewed Hamas (and Hezbollah) arms buildup, cease-fire violations, including incendiary balloons and kites, and a concrete effort to bring about the return of Israel’s hostages and the bodies of missing soldiers.

Israel should seek to create a political horizon for the Palestinians. Instead of working to perpetuate the split between the West Bank and Gaza, along with Hamas’ rule, as means of avoiding the need for negotiations, we should strengthen President Mahmoud Abbas to the extent possible, even now, at the twilight of his rule, and especially try to strengthen rising moderate elements in the PA.

To this end, we should insist that international aid for the reconstruction of Gaza be provided only via the PA, or such countries as the UAE and Bahrain, not Hamas. Concomitantly, we should seek to renew substantive negotiations with the PA. It is not at all clear that a diplomatic solution is feasible for the foreseeable future and possibly beyond: what is clear, however, is that the current course has failed abysmally.

Israel should further strengthen its rocket defenses, including existing systems, such as Iron Dome, and new laser systems now under development, and build and upgrade shelters, both public shelters and in people’s homes. The fact that two thirds of the public do not have a shelter in their apartment and 20 percent lacks any access to shelters at all, is simply a scandal. When compared to the costs to Israel’s societal resilience, economy and international standing, the price is cheap.

Israel should place preservation of our relationship with United States above almost all else. Little is more critical to its national security.

Finally, we should do everything we can to restore the cohesion of Israeli society, including an end to incitement by Netanyahu and his accomplices, and true integration of Israel’s Arab population. The ultra-Orthodox Jewish population must finally be brought under the sovereign authority of the State of Israel.

Operation Guardian of the Walls did achieve some important results. The bottom line, however, is that it constitutes yet another in a long list of the Prime Minister’s severe failures, including the damage to the public’s sense of security and well-being, collapse of his policy towards Iran, catastrophic year-long failure to address the COVID crisis (until the vaccination program, for which he should be warmly commended), economic crisis, severe damage to Israeli democracy and the rule of law, damage to the ties with the U.S. and more.

Tragically, many of the above recommendations are unlikely to happen as long as Netanyahu remains in the premier’s residence. It is high time for him to pack up and go and leave the rest of us with the duty to restore Israel’s liberal democracy and build a just, free and peaceful society that serves all of our people.

Major General (ret.) Yair Golan was the IDF deputy chief of staff and commander of the northern and home front commands. As deputy chief of staff he conducted a strategic review of Israel’s defense strategy. He is now a Member of Knesset from the Meretz party and serves on the Foreign and Defense Affairs Committee.

Prof. Chuck Freilich was a deputy national security advisor in Israel. He now teaches political science at Tel Aviv and Columbia universities and is the author of a number of books on Israeli national security, including “Israeli National Security: a New Strategy for an Era of Change” (2018).