Politicians start wars optimistic about their prospects of gaining from combat, Geoffrey Blainey notes in his masterly study, The Causes of War; otherwise, they would avoid fighting.
Why, then, did Hamas just provoke a war with Israel? Out of nowhere, on June 11 it began launching rockets, shattering a calm in place since November 2012. The mystery of this outburst prompted David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel, to find that the current fighting has “no remotely credible reason” even to be taking place. And why did the Israeli leadership respond minimally, trying to avoid combat? This although both sides know that Israel’s forces vastly out-match Hamas’ in every domain – intelligence gathering, command and control, technology, firepower, domination of air space.
What explains this role reversal? Are Islamists so fanatical that they don’t mind losing? Are Zionists too worried about loss of life to fight?
Actually, Hamas leaders are quite rational. Periodically (2006, 2008, 2012), they decide to make war on Israel knowing full well that they will lose on the military battlefield but optimistic about winning in the political arena. Israeli leaders, conversely, assume they will win militarily but fear political defeat – bad press, United Nations resolutions, and so on.
The focus on politics represents a historic shift; the first 25 years of Israel’s existence saw repeated challenges to its existence (especially in 1948-49, 1967, and 1973) and no one knew how those wars would turn out. I remember the first day of the 1967 Six-Day War, when the Egyptians proclaimed splendid triumphs while complete Israeli press silence suggested catastrophe. It came as a shock to learn that Israel had scored the greatest victory in the annals of warfare. The point is, outcomes were unpredictably decided on the battlefield.
No longer: The battlefield outcome of Arab-Israeli wars in last 40 years have been predictable; everyone knows Israeli forces will prevail. It’s more like cops and robbers than warfare. Ironically, this lopsidedness turns attention from winning and losing to morality and politics. Israel’s enemies provoke it to kill civilians, whose deaths bring them multiple benefits.
The four conflicts since 2006 have restored Hamas’ tarnished reputation for “resistance,” built solidarity on the home front, stirred dissent among both Arabs and Jews in Israel, galvanized Palestinians and other Muslims to become suicide bombers, embarrassed non-Islamist Arab leaders, secured new United Nations resolutions bashing Israel, inspired Europeans to impose harsher sanctions on Israel, opened the international Left’s spigot of vitriol against the Jewish state, and won additional aid from the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The holy grail of political warfare is to win the sympathy of the global Left by presenting oneself as underdog and victim. (From a historic point of view, it bears pointing out, this is very strange: Traditionally, combatants tried to scare the enemy by presenting themselves as fearsome and unstoppable.)
The tactics of this new warfare include presenting a convincingly emotional narrative, citing endorsements of famous personalities, appealing to the conscience, and drawing simple but powerful political cartoons (Israeli supporters tend to excel at this, both in the past and now). Palestinians get even more creative, developing the twin fraudulent techniques of “fauxtography” for still pictures and “Pallywood” for videos. Israelis used to be complacent about the need for what they call hasbara, or getting the message out, but recent years find them more focused on this.
Hilltops, cities, and strategic roadways matter supremely in the Syria and Iraqi civil wars, but morality, proportionality, and justice dominate Arab-Israeli wars. As I wrote during the 2006 Israel-Hamas confrontation, “Solidarity, morale, loyalty, and understanding are the new steel, rubber, oil, and ammunition.” Or in 2012: “Opeds have replaced bullets, social media have replaced tanks.” More broadly, this is part of the profound change in modern warfare when Western and non-Western forces fight, as in the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Clausewitzian terms, public opinion is the new center of gravity.
All this said, how fares Hamas? Not well. Its battlefield losses since July 8 appear higher than expected and worldwide condemnations of Israel have yet to pour in. Even the Arabic media are relatively quiet. If this pattern holds, Hamas might conclude that raining rockets on Israeli homes is not such a good idea. Indeed, to dissuade it from initiating another assault in a few years, it needs to lose both the military and the political wars, and lose them very badly.
July 11, 2014 addenda: (1) Great minds think alike and Caroline Glick has an article just out, “Hamas’s (and Iran’s) fail-safe strategy,” that asks the same question I do above:
What is Hamas doing? Hamas isn’t going to defeat Israel. It isn’t going to gain any territory. Israel isn’t going to withdraw from Ashkelon or Sderot under a hail of rockets. So if Hamas can’t win, why is it fighting?
Her answer is somewhat along the same lines as mine: She contrasts the generally favorable conditions Hamas enjoyed when it took over Gaza in 2007 (“All was good”) with the many problems it faces today, mentioning the governments of Egypt and Syria, the Palestinian Authority, ISIS, and even the Arab Bank. Given these difficult circumstances,
it was just a matter of time before Hamas opened a full-on assault against Israel. Jew-hatred is endemic in the Muslim world. Going to war against Israel is a tried and true method of garnering sympathy and support from the Muslim world. At a minimum it earns you the forbearance, if not the support of the US and Europe. And you get all of these things whether you win or lose.
In other words, Glick and I agree on the political goals; but she places more emphasis than me on Hamas’ problems. I prefer to see war with Israel as a standing option that Hamas chooses to take up for its own internal reasons whether circumstances are good (as in 2008 and 2012) or bad (as in 2014).
(2) Confirmation about Hamas engaging in a political war from the Christian Science Monitor: It finds that “The movement’s popularity is skyrocketing” despite a long list of woes, which it enumerates.
All that is forgotten amid the bursting of rockets. “Even those, like me, who were all the time criticizing Hamas … now we have to raise up our hats,” says Talal Okal, a political independent who pens a column for the Al-Ayyam newspaper.
Fadwa al-Lolo, a 30-something hair stylist with a villa, fancy car, and three salons, is an unlikely cheerleader for Hamas – especially since she says she is opposed to wars and the death and destruction they bring. But she applauds the Islamist movement for its unprecedented challenge to Israel’s presence in historic Palestine. “I feel proud that after 60 years of [Israel] raping our lands we have an army, an army that can hit Israel,” says Ms. al-Lolo, who lives in Gaza City. “None of the Arab armies could do what we have done to Israel.”
July 12, 2014 update: Avi Issacharoff, the Times of Israel‘s outstanding Middle East analyst, asked an unnamed “pundit who resides in Gaza” what Hamas hoped to achieve when it started the current round of fighting with Israel. The reply complements and amplifies my point above about it being a political war:
First and foremost, [Hamas leaders seek] to forge new relations with Cairo. They have named this war “The Tenth of Ramadan.” Do you know which other war had the same name? The Yom Kippur War. “This is a gift for the Egyptian army,” they said. They even demand that the injured be evacuated to Egypt for treatment. At the end of the day, they want the Rafah crossing to open and to build a new relationship with the president, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. Until now, Hamas has been isolated. They can’t leave Gaza at all. There are no more tunnels [for smuggling material in the Strip, which have been closed down by Egypt]. The prices just rise and rise, and the reconciliation has hurt them.
Now, this is their way of changing the equation. Since the Israeli strikes began, they have won great popularity on the Palestinian street: they have managed to shoot at Tel Aviv, as only Saddam Hussein had done before them. They have fired at the Dimona reactor, at Haifa. Little Hamas has been able to drive five million Israelis into bomb shelters. In the eyes of the average Gazan, this is a huge achievement. In the meantime, they go on doing whatever they want. Even the Palestinian Authority officials (whose salaries are paid by Abbas) have been afraid to approach the banks after armed militants shot at the ATMs and banks from which they collected their salaries. … They [Hamas] will want to set up a new government, after it is all over. They want to be on the map again, not to be those who surrendered to Abbas and Israel.”
Reprinted with author’s permission from National Review Online