Israel’s Hollow Victory Over Hamas

Israel is far from having lost the strategic war to Hamas. But the real cost has been to its social cohesion: violence and intolerance both domestically and toward the death of Palestinian civilians.

Brent Sasley
Brent Sasley
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A Palestinian woman walks past the rubble of a residential building, which police said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike, in Gaza City, July 22, 2014.
A Palestinian woman walks past the rubble of a residential building, which police said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike, in Gaza City, July 22, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Brent Sasley
Brent Sasley

Ariel Ilan Roth's recent article in Foreign Affairs was headlined “How Hamas Won.” He argues that Hamas can already declare victory in the 2014 Gaza war, because Israel has lost the strategic contest. In his view, Israel has won a set of purely tactical victories – the destruction of much of the tunnel infrastructure and preventing large-scale casualties among the Israeli population.

To be sure, the strategic context doesn’t look good for Israel – it can’t completely end the rocket fire or defeat Hamas by military means. But that’s not because of the war; it’s because Israel doesn’t have a long-term strategic agenda that can take it beyond regular attacks on Gaza to “mow the grass” – intermittent efforts to punish Hamas and degrade its military capacity.

In fact, though, Israel seems on the verge of winning a major victory over its enemy: Hamas’ military power has been considerably degraded already and it remains contained in Gaza, while Israel is not suffering any backlash from other governments.

Instead, the real cost to Israel has been the exposure and exacerbation of internal social tensions. And these won’t be overcome as easily as laying siege to a territory or building alliances with friendly countries.

While Hamas and the other Gaza jihadist groups survive and disrupt life for many Israelis, the trajectory of the broader regional context in which the war is playing out doesn’t work in their favor.

The outcome of the war, which doesn’t seem likely to end with any major changes to the status quo – at least none that strengthen Hamas’ credibility and capability – will rather reinforce Israel’s military superiority.

With many tunnels dismantled and rockets destroyed or spent, and its operations in the West Bank disrupted, it will be some time before Hamas can rebuild its military power. And that’s assuming the war ends soon, before more of its infrastructure is taken apart. In the meantime, it will have to deal with internal challenges to its rule from the other jihadists in Gaza.

Part of the reason for Hamas’ decision to fight has to do with the financial crisis it finds itself in. It can’t pay the salaries of civil servants under its rule, and the destruction of the tunnels has meant the loss of revenue it gained through taxing them.

The Hamas leadership will have a difficult time trying to pay its workers and rebuild its rocket arsenal simultaneously.

Hamas’ regional allies – those who can protect its interests in cease-fire talks – are few and far between these days. Ties with Iran have been strained for some time now, and though the two seem to be moving toward reconciliation, Iran has no role to play in cease-fire efforts.

Its ability to rearm Hamas – even if it wants to – is constrained by the damage to the tunnel system under the Sinai border through which Iranian arms and equipment was sent. Hamas’ traditional ally, Egypt, is, under Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and the military, more aligned with Israel’s interest than Hamas’.

Only Turkey and Qatar remain relatively close to Hamas. While they can still provide some diplomatic support and – Qatar especially – financial support, that’s not enough to bolster Hamas against Israel.

Turkey took itself out of the equation with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s anti-Semitic rhetoric, and it is Qatar’s very relationship with Hamas that causes Israel to be suspicious of its involvement.

At the same time, Israel retains considerable sympathy from world leaders because of Hamas’ refusal to accept previous cease-fire offers and its use of Palestinian civilian areas to hide its weapons, tunnels and fighters.

It’s true, as Roth asserts, that the Israeli public has suffered, particularly in the south. Millions of Israelis have been forced into bomb shelters on a regular basis. But, to put it bluntly, they are used to it. They won’t punish their leaders for it, particularly when they see how much damage was caused to the Hamas rocket infrastructure in Gaza.

While they may grow frustrated, there’s a deeper sense among much of the Israeli public that the threat surrounding the country is simply one to be accepted and dealt with on a case-by-case basis when the need arises.

None of this means that the status quo itself is not costly to Israel; it is. But that is not a function of this war, which is rather a symptom of the larger disease – the inability to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel’s other “loss” in this war is to its social cohesion, which in turn has led to the public outbreak of racism, violence and intolerance. The lead-up to the war (the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli yeshiva students) led directly to calls for revenge by many Israeli leaders and citizens, roaming mobs of violent racists and the horrible murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.

The war itself heightened these feelings while diminishing the ability to see the other side’s suffering and to tolerate those who might sympathize with it, leading to even more internal violence. Supporters of the war have attacked both Arab citizens and Jews protesting the war. Many admit to having little ability to empathize with Palestinian mothers, fathers and children who have lost family members and their homes. And there isn’t much more interest in the lack of bomb shelters for Israel’s own Bedouin citizens.

Of course, this doesn’t represent all Israelis; many have protested this behavior, and many others don’t subscribe to them while remaining at home. But it’s still too many, and there is much work to be done. The excuse that Israel is currently fighting a war and cannot be distracted by these minor issues is just that; it is precisely at this moment that tolerance and human empathy should be reinforced.

A society that cannot generate sorrow for civilians being killed elsewhere becomes inured to violence against its own members, and more sympathetic to and excusing of it. It will produce many more Yigal Amirs, Baruch Goldsteins and La Familias. That’s not the meaning of a Jewish and democratic state.

Brent Sasley is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches and conducts research on Israeli and Middle East politics and Jewish identity. He blogs at Mideast Matrix. Follow him on Twitter at @besasley.

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