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Israel: Tactical Winner, Strategic Loser

The events in Gaza since July 7 have shown, not for the first time, Israel’s difficulty in coping with the challenges of asymmetric warfare. The problem first became apparent in Lebanon exactly eight years ago (July-August 2006), when Hezbollah – the weaker party by several orders of magnitude – was able to exploit Israeli political and psychological weaknesses and thus to offset its own military deficiencies. As a Jerusalem Post columnist has noted in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War, “If you fail to win, you lose… Hezbollah survived, it won the war.”

This verdict applies even more starkly today, following the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza strip earlier this week at the end of Operation Protective Edge. It was the fourth such withdrawal in a decade, the previous three being the 2005 final evacuation and the aftermath of IDF operations Cast Lead in 2008 and Pillar of Defense in 2012.

The IDF performed inadequately in southern Lebanon in 2006, showing itself ill prepared for the “fourth generation warfare” against an elusive non-state opponent like Hezbollah. Its poor performance “on multiple levels – leadership, coordination, logistics, and fighting capabilities – undermined Israel’s much-prized deterrent factor, and led to the perception of defeat.” The same problem occurred in Gaza in late 2008: back then, like today, Hamas could be beaten but not defeated. The Gaza flotilla raid in 2009 was another case in point, the political costs of which far exceeded the utility of keeping the enclave under tight naval blockade.

MILITARY SCORE – Yet again the maxim “If you fail to win, you lose” is applicable to the outcome. The 25,000-strong military wing of Hamas – the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades – is still intact because it has avoided pitched battle with the IDF, which it would have lost. They killed 64 Israeli soldiers – a significant casualty rate for one of the world’s most advanced armies. As a Washington Post commentator has noted, “Every single time Israel has decided to ‘mow the grass’ – as the chilling euphemism goes – in Gaza, Hamas’s main base of operations, it has hurt the militants, but the grass and weeds have always grown back.”

Operation Protective Edge has certainly damaged Hamas’s operational capabilities, destroyed tunnels into Israel and killed hundreds of supposed al-Qassam fighters. It has not destroyed the group’s command and control structure, however, and the morale of its rank-and-file remains high. Its modest manpower losses will be easy to replenish with fresh volunteers. The alleged kidnapping by Hamas of three young Israeli settlers in the West Bank in June – the claim that triggered the attack – remains unproven. Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy told The Jerusalem Post on August 6 that a sharp divide has opened up between the “moderate” Arab governments – which want to see Hamas destroyed more than Israel does – and Arab publics, which see Israel as the primary aggressor and sympathize with Hamas to varying degrees:

What everyone can probably agree on though is that Hamas turned out to be a much more effective fighting force than was expected, and, of course, that Hamas wasn’t destroyed. Hamas’s survival will be spun by its leaders as evidence of victory and this is always the challenge in asymmetric warfare: how do you deny victory to groups that don’t conceive of victory in conventional terms?

POLITICAL SCORE – The end result of the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip is that Hamas’s political dominance has been restored. It seemed undermined by last April’s agreement with the PA, which created a government of technocrats in Gaza and denied any power-sharing role to Hamas. Its chronic financial weakness, which had become acute well before the Israeli attack, is now likely to be more than offset by private donations from the Arab world and from the oil-rich Qatar and. Earlier anger among many ordinary Gazans, caused by Hamas’s mismanagement of fiscal affairs and the strip’s bloated bureaucracy, has been redirected at Israel. “We won,” its political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, declared on August 5. If Israel’s goal was to delegitimize Hamas, whatever it achieved during these weeks came at the expense of its own reputation.

Close to two thousand Palestinians have died, but true to the principles of asymmetric warfare Haniyeh has reason to claim that was the price worth paying considering the political fallout: “The image of destruction seen by the world is the proof to the extent of the IDF’s defeat and its failure in fighting the brave resistance.” In the West Bank itself Hamas has earned credit for standing up to Israel, in contrast to the pliant PA leadership under Abbas which is seen in “the Street” as a tool of U.S. policy in the region. Hamas flags were flying in Nablus and other West Bank towns last month, a sign of Palestinian frustration with Abbas. Hamas is aware that it stands no chance against the IDF in open battle, but its asymmetric warfare strategy now opens the possibility of converting its survival and defiance into political advantage in the West Bank.

After the Gaza operation the Palestinians in both territories have reason to believe that time is on their side. The young – one-half of the population – are angry, disillusioned, more radical than their parents. They see the Palestinian Authority pegged down at bare subsistence levels, without state authority or geographical contiguity, an undeveloped economy totally dependent on Israel and foreign donors, and a Palestinian elite accorded VIP status in reward for its collaboration in maintaining the status quo. Hamas is now in the game too. The young generation sees Abbas and his people at a loose end, with no practical program or longer term vision. These “New Palestinians,” increasingly drawn to Hamas in preference to the corrupt old Fatah elite, will present a greater threat to Israel’s future than their stone-throwing predecessors. They will never accept Israel’s West_Bank_barrier as a permanent fact of life. They will also be even more inclined than their elders to view the conflict in ontological terms – as a struggle not only for Palestinian rights and viable statehood, but also for the divinely ordained claims of the Ummah against the usurping unbelievers.

DOMESTIC SCORE – The Israeli society has been reminded – after several years of deceptive calm – that it exists in a state of perpetual war. This is certain to encourage further thousands of young Israeli professionals to emigrate, and likely to re-polarize the Israeli society on the issue of how to deal with the Palestinian problem. In the aftermath of Gaza there is no domestic consensus in Netanyahu’s strategic vision of permanent conflict management which in reality no longer entails any form of the two-state solution.

Netanyahu’s vision of a Greater Israel and his open-ended strategy of military containment, as reasserted in Gaza last month, do not take into account the shifting environment and changes within Israel. They make his approach unsustainable in the long term. From its inception Israel has faced numerous threats, but its ability to cope with them in the past does not mean that it will be able to do so indefinitely. The issue is not whether Israel should survive, but whether it has the wherewithal to survive on the basis of the flawed grand strategy to which its ruling political elite subscribes. Demographic trends are an alarming aspect of Israel’s long-term geopolitical position, which is shaped by the implacable determinants of land and population. The number of Israeli citizens living abroad is estimated between 800,000 and one million, representing up to 13% of the population. Consistent with the latter figure is the estimated one million Israelis in the Diaspora reported in January 2011. Up to 60 percent of Israelis had approached or were intending to approach a foreign embassy to ask for citizenship and a passport.

REGIONAL SCORE – The regional balance has tilted in Israel’s disfavor. Hamas is reasserting its de facto independence vis-à-vis the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Its choice was not so much between peace and war, “as between slow strangulation and a war that had a chance, however slim, of loosening the squeeze.” Since Israel has now agreed to a formula for negotiations with Hamas, it may have been a risk well worth taking: “Long term, there has to be a recognition that Gaza cannot sustain itself permanently closed off from the world,” President Obama said in Washington on August 6. This is an important admission.

Following the Israeli attack, Hamas’s relative isolation in the region is no longer assured – Egypt’s hostility under President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi notwithstanding. Significantly, during the Israeli campaign Hamas has rebuilt its close ties with Iran after three years’ estrangement caused by its support for Bashar al-Assad’s Sunni enemies in Syria. If in accordance with Obama’s statement, if Hamas obtains U.S. support for an easing of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade and a subsequent improvement in living conditions in Gaza, the credibility of its claims of “victory” will be enhanced.

GLOBAL SCORE –Israel lost the media war. The videos of women and children killed by Israeli missile strikes and shelling in Gaza’s densely populated areas (including the disastrous UN school incident) could not be countered by routine statements listing largely ineffective missile attacks by Hamas, neutralized by the Iron Dome system. In the end, the lasting image this war will leave the world “is of four boys on a beach, playing soccer and then running for their lives, hurtled from a carefree moment of childhood to oblivion in the blink of an eye. There is no Iron Dome that can protect Israel from images like that.”

Israel’s political and diplomatic standing in the world is arguably at the lowest point since the founding of the Jewish state. This will have major consequences in the months and years to come. It is far more perilous to Israel’s security than anything Hamas can or will do.

Srdja Trifkovic

Srdja Trifkovic

Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, Foreign Affairs Editor of Chronicles, is the author of The Sword of the Prophet and Defeating Jihad.

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