Is Hamas winning the Gaza war?

Credit: Zoriah/Flikr

By James M. Dorsey

Israeli destruction of Gazan infrastructure has turned the strip into a modern day Dresden. But returning Gaza to the Stone Age has not stopped Hamas, the Islamist militia in control of the territory, from inflicting significant political and psychological damage on Israel. Israeli military and intelligence sources fear that fundamental Israeli intelligence failures have put Hamas in a position to increase Israel’s political cost and determine when Israel’s longest war against the Palestinians will end.

Already, Israel’s almost two-month old war against Hamas has shifted from a sledgehammer approach intended to shock the Islamist militia into accepting Israeli demands for demilitarization into the one thing Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu had wanted to avoid: a war of attrition that would strengthen his right-wing critics at home and risk Israel losing control of ceasefire negotiations in which Egypt did Israel’s bidding.

Hamas’ refusal to bow to Israeli military superiority as well as its uncompromising insistence on a lifting of the eight-year old Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip and the right to furnish it with an airport and sea port caught Israel by surprise. Hamas’ steadfastness leaves Israel with few good options: continuation of a war of attrition that works in Hamas’ favour; unilaterally declaring an end to the war that would be rendered meaningless by the continued launching of rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza; and/or accepting in the face of failure of Egypt’s biased mediation a shifting of efforts to end the fighting to the United Nations where Israel is likely to get a less sympathetic hearing.

The effects of Hamas’ strategy are already evident on the ground. Beyond having been forced into a war of attrition, Israeli towns and settlements adjacent to the Gaza Strip have turned a majority of their residents into internal refugees. “This is a strategic achievement on a par with Hamas’ success in closing (Tel Aviv’s) Ben Gurion international airport for a couple of days last month,” commented DEBKAFile, a news website with close ties to Israel’s military and intelligence establishment. 

Hamas is likely to cement its achievement with the war threatening the September 1 opening of the school year in chunks of Israel. Parents in cities beyond Gaza’s immediate parameters have warned that they will not let their children attend school as long as the Palestinian threat persists. In addition, Israel’s international standing has been significantly dented highlighted by US and British suggestions that they may review arms sales to the Jewish state more stringently. A recent Israeli newspaper headline read: After seven weeks of Gaza war, Hamas: 1, Israel: 0

Israeli military and intelligence sources attribute their failure to predict Hamas’ ability to stand up to punishing military strikes to a decision in the last decade to focus the country’s intelligence resources on gathering tactical intelligence and its military on ensuring weapons and training superiority rather than on understanding the enemy’s strategy, mindset and evaluation of the local and international environment in which it operates. As a result, Israeli intelligence and security agencies have cut back on personnel seeking to understand the broader picture in which Hamas and other groups operate.

Proponents of the shift in focus point to Israeli successes in recent years including the 2008 assassination in Damascus of Imad Mughnieyh, a widely respected Hezbollah and Iranian operative, who masterminded attacks on Israeli and US targets as well as a host of kidnappings of foreigners in Lebanon, including the CIA’s station chief. They also list the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists in Iran and elsewhere, the Stuxnet cyber-attack on Iranian computer systems related to the Islamic republic’s nuclear program, and the 2007 destruction of a Syrian plutonium reactor built with the help of Iran and North Korea. They further argue that Israeli forces involved in Gaza benefitted from superior tactical knowledge.

Those successes notwithstanding Israeli intelligence was unable to provide Netanyahu and members of his security cabinet with the necessary strategic analysis to pre-empt what has become a classic example of Machiavelli’s pursuit by Hamas of diplomacy by other means. Israeli intelligence’s inability was already evident in faulty analysis of the popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen as well as of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strategy of allowing the Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq, to emerge as the major rebel group so that he could substantiate his claim that he was fighting a terrorist phenomenon that threatens not only his regime but also the region as a whole and the West.

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon appeared to concede that Hamas had succeeded in imposing a war of attrition on Israel by insisting that the Gaza war would only end “when quiet returns to southern Israel” and that Israel preferred a diplomatic rather than a military resolution of the conflict. “This approach leaves the initiative in Hamas’ hands and Israel ignorantly navigating its military moves towards a ceasefire instead of winning the war. Despite its inferiority in fighting strength and weaponry, Israel’s enemy uses this ambivalence to retain the element of surprise and keep the IDF moving without direction,” DEBKAFile said.

It has also made Netanyahu more vulnerable to criticism that Israel will be unable to militarily defeat Hamas in a war of attrition that takes an increasing toll on Israel’s population and that only full disarmament of Hamas will restore Israeli security. Ironically, some of the prime minister’s critics, including former defence minister Moshe Arens, would be willing to cut short the war of attrition and concede to some of Hamas’ demands in the absence of a military campaign aimed at complete disarmament on condition that the government prepares for another round of fighting which they view as inevitable at some point in the future.

Even that seemingly conciliatory approach could backfire in the absence of a bold Israeli initiative to sincerely negotiate an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The war in Gaza and the failure of Egypt to politically undercut Hamas in the ceasefire negotiations have raised the spectre of internationalization of the conflict. Palestinian factions are making it increasingly difficult for Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to avoid filing war crime charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court. In addition, European efforts to shift ceasefire talks from Cairo to the United Nations in New York are more sympathetic to Hamas’ demands for a lifting of the siege and international supervision of border crossings and reconstruction of Gaza – the very steps that could reduce Israeli control of the process.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title


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