Hamas and Israel Face the Limitations of Brute Force

Both sides realized during the Gaza conflict that the military and political fantasies cultivated over recent years - of 'game-changing’ weapons and tunnels, of annihilating Hamas - didn't stand the test of reality.

Hamas operatives inside an underground tunnel in Gaza on August 18, 2014.
Mohammed Salem, Reuters

"Operation Protective Edge" is entering its second phase – that of shaping images and perceptions. Politicians claim victory, journalists grade the two sides for their humanity or lack thereof, and everyone debates the identities of the fatalities. The battle over perceptions is crucial, but before we slip into it we should assess what happened in the war itself.

In a nutshell, Hamas and Israel became painfully aware of the limits of their power. Both sides realized that the fantasies that they cultivated in recent years have crashed against the rocks of reality.

In an interview given approximately a decade ago by Raed al-Attar, the man who stood behind Hamas's tunnel strategy and the Gilad Shalit kidnapping, he described a meeting of Hamas members who came together to discuss a "new weapon" against Israel. In this meeting it was decided to embark on the offensive tunnels strategy. In the course of Operation Protective Edge the tunnels terrified the Israeli population, but caused little damage.

In other words, Hamas invested millions of hours of manual labor, large sums of badly needed money, and the lives of men who died in work-related accidents. In return it got a handful of military operations, most of which were thwarted by soldiers guarding the borders with long-range binoculars. It is obvious that the tunnels did not produce the "quality" attacks that Hamas hoped for, and it is uncertain that in the future they will attain this goal. Operation Protective Edge exposed the inefficacy of the offensive tunnels, and for the time being the Hamas dream of "many Gilad Shalits" remains unrealistic.

Another offensive measure that raised Hamas expectations to wreck havoc inside Israel were long-range missiles. However, the Iron Dome system quickly cut those dreams to size. Shooting at Israeli cities sent half of the country scrambling for shelter, but the damage was marginal and it did not jolt the population. Long-range missiles were found to be ineffective and Hamas’ hopes to paralyze Israel during the days of fighting came to nothing. The only weapon that delivered a limited military achievement were the far lower-tech mortars fired at towns and kibbutzim close to Gaza - a very modest achievement considering Hamas's military goals.

More than anything, Operation Protective Edge demonstrated that Hamas's military wing has very little to show for itself, since it is not capable of developing weapons that leave a mark on the battle field. The ability to disrupt the daily routine around Gaza and kill a few individuals after fifty days of fighting is much less than what the Hamas was banking on. Militarily speaking, Hamas's poor offensive performance buried, literally and metaphorically, ten years of intense efforts in the sands of Gaza.

If Hamas came face to face with its military shortcomings, Israel rediscovered that it was unwilling to pay a high price for the temporary destruction of Hamas. It would seem that Israel has the military capacity to destroy Hamas's infrastructure and reach its leadership, but to do so it would have to pay dearly in soldiers' lives, in an economic crisis and triggering an international imbroglio. Such a steep price makes a maneuver into Gaza untenable. The press created the impression that Israel's top brass presented to Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ya’alon a number of options and highlighted the risks involved, and the two politicians, whom have made successful political careers out of hawkish posturing, actually adopted the militarily restrained option.

Apparently, Israel has the ability to wipe out Hamas's present leadership. However the realization that it does not have the ability to wipe out its future leadership, and as a consequence Israel would face a bellicose Hamas within a few years, moved Netanyahu and Ya’alon to seek a settlement that would avoid a spiraling military crisis. Clearly, they chose the mature and responsible option. Yet, their decision also revealed that Israel is not willing to bring to bear the full strength of its military when facing Hamas in Gaza. While refusing to play to the tune of Naftali Bennett's and Avigdor Lieberman's childish power fantasies, Netanyahu and Ya’alon disclosed that they are just not willing to pay the high price of annihilating Hamas.

Hamas and Israel have both experienced rude awakenings, as each had to face the limitations of its power. Diplomacy would have been a logical way to move forward and steer clear of a military dead-end. However, for the time being this is a worthless insight, since both sides clutch desperately to yesteryear's dreams, refuse to face up to their weaknesses, and are incapable of making painful concessions. Mutual hatred and distrust continue to dictate policy, and preclude taking the minimal risks required for entering the diplomatic path.

As often happens, the fate of the Palestinians and Israelis hinges upon their own inner tensions as they sway between rational analysis and emotional actings-out. For the time being, it seems that the heart continues to vanquish the brain. 

Nimrod Hurvitz teaches at Ben Gurion University of the Negev and blogs at http://canthink.molad.org/