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Hamas Won?

Lee Smith

A week after the ceasefire concluding Israel’s eight day campaign against Hamas, Operation Pillar of Defense, there is some debate as to who came out on top. The way one judges the outcome seems to depend on: one, what you make of the ceasefire agreement; two, what role you think that Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi played; and, three, other less tangible factors.

Not surprisingly, Hamas and its allies, especially Iran, say that the Islamic resistance won this latest round. And on the other side, senior Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and army chief of staff Benny Gantz all believe that Israel won a clear, if perhaps temporary, battle with Hamas, killing its top commanders and degrading its long-range missile arsenal, all without sending in the 30,000 troops that had been poised on the Gaza border. Moreover, with a success rate of shooting down 84 percent of the missiles destined for inhabited or security-sensitive areas, Iron Dome may have tipped the regional balance of power even further in favor of Israel.

Israeli officials appear to put little weight on the actual agreement, which called for cessation of fire and included vague language about relaxing restrictions on the movement of people and goods between Gaza and Israel. As Ehud Barak remarked, “The right to self-defense trumps any piece of paper.” That is, if Hamas doesn’t abide by an agreement that is virtually identical to the one that followed Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2009, Jerusalem will decide when to renew its campaign against Palestine’s Islamic Resistance. Therefore, the only question that matters for Jerusalem is whether or not Pillar of Defense will have won Israel quiet on its southern border, a question that will be answered in the weeks and months ahead.

Others, however, argue that the ceasefire agreement represents a win for Hamas. Gaza residents are pleased that “Israel has allowed Palestinian fishermen to fish in Gaza’s waters at a distance of 6 miles, up from 3 miles,” but surely the free enterprise of Gazan fishermen was not one of Hamas’s primary war aims. If boatmen believe it will be easier to smuggle arms into Gaza from 6 miles out instead of 3, Israel has already shown it can and will cut off Iran’s weapons supply route in two places, Sudan and Gaza.

Others who believe that Hamas won contend that the latest conflict ended Hamas’s isolation, and won the organization domestic, regional, and international recognition and respect. It’s true that a number of Arab foreign ministers as well as Turkey’s top diplomat Ahmet Davutoglu visited Gaza to show support. But if the presence of Arab foreign ministers is an index of international legitimacy it’s telling that the Arab super power, Saudi Arabia, didn’t send anyone—nor did European governments.

The conviction that the war enhanced Hamas’s prestige seems largely premised on the belief that Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi played a major role in sponsoring the ceasefire. The thinking goes something like this, since Morsi is credited with brokering the deal, there must have been a deal for him to broker. Therefore, since it was a deal, and not just a return to the status quo with dead Hamas commanders and a depleted arsenal, there has got to be something in the deal for Hamas.

The Obama administration has overstated Morsi’s part as mediator, but for a very good reason: It wants to give him a stake not only in helping to keep the peace but also in staying under the American security umbrella. The administration sought to show Morsi that his long-term interests would not be well served by siding with Hamas—whose actions in fact exposed Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government to ridicule from rivals like Iran for not standing with Hamas and taking up arms against Israel. So, in order to convince Morsi to do the right thing, to follow the path of Mubarak and Sadat before him and take the American aid package and stay out of war with Israel, the White House threw rose petals at Morsi, telling all the world that he was instrumental in brokering the deal.

However, Morsi had nothing to do with it. In terms of the actual negotiations, they went through intelligence channels, just as they did under Mubarak, when then head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate Omar Suleiman mediated between Hamas and Israel. But much more to the point, there was no message for any Egyptian to convey to Hamas except for Israel’s terms—which were nothing but a return to the status quo, absent significant Hamas assets. In other words, Morsi did not mediate or sponsor the deal, because there was no deal.

It’s true that Israel didn’t get anything out of the deal either, but the war ended with material gains for Israel and material losses—men and arms—for its opponent. Sure, Hamas achieved a sort of symbolic victory by firing rockets into Israel up until the very moment that the ceasefire went into effect. But compare that to the billions of dollars that are likely to pour into Israel’s anti-missile defense industry on account of Iron Dome’s success. Symbolic victories don’t win wars, men and weapons do.

And yet even some Israelis think Israel lost. A few Israeli officials are criticizing the operation for what seem like purely political reasons. For instance, Shaul Mofaz appeared to be positioning Kadima, the party he now leads, for Israel’s January elections when he complained that “The goals of his operation were not reached…We should not have stopped at this stage. Hamas got stronger and we did not gain deterrence.”

And yet it’s true that Mofaz seems to speak for a significant segment of Israeli opinion disappointed in the outcome. Among others, there are Israeli reservists, like this group that spelled out “Bibi Loser,” who were apparently frustrated that they were not sent in to Gaza to further weaken or destroy Hamas. As Benjamin Kerstein wrote in the Jerusalem Post, “Rather than invade Gaza on the ground, uproot its terrorist infrastructure, and place Israel in an excellent position to dictate terms for its withdrawal, [Netanyahu] relied on air power, just as his predecessors did in the Second Lebanon War, and got the same results.”

However, Israel has enjoyed more than six years of quiet on its northern border with Lebanon. If Netanyahu gets the same results on Israel’s southern frontier—in a quarter of the time that Israel spent fighting Hezbollah in the Second Lebanon War and without the mismanaged ground operation that sent dozens of IDF troops to their death days before the 2006 ceasefire—then Operation Pillar of Defense will count as an unqualified success.

And yet strangely, it seems not to register with many people that Israel won in 2006, even if Hezbollah general secretary Hassan Nasrallah underlined this fact just last week. Nasrallah threatened that the Lebanese militia could hit targets throughout Israel, “from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat,” but the most relevant point is that Nasrallah did not fire a single missile in support of his Iranian-backed ally Hamas. Why, aside from idle boasts, did he keep his head down when Israel came knocking at the door of his comrades in resistance? Because he is concerned that the Israelis might repeat their 2006 performance that killed several hundred Hezbollah fighters and caused billions of dollars worth of damage. Nasrallah has spent much of the last six years in fear of an Israeli assassination attempt. If your leader is bunkered for more than half a decade, you have not won the engagement that sent him underground. Hezbollah lost in 2006, just like Hamas lost last week.

So why do Israel’s wars, and especially its most recent conflicts with terrorist groups, seem so impervious to rational understanding? In part that’s because of pre-existing narratives that need to be redeemed after the fact, in spite of the facts. Among others, there’s the idea that violence doesn’t work. Israel can’t defeat Hamas militarily, so it didn’t. Or, because Israel’s military actions will only embolden the resistance, Israel can’t win and it didn’t.

Perhaps it is also because many people hold unrealistic, or ahistorical, ideas of war and peace. The reality is that few wars are conclusive, especially in the Middle East. If Hamas and Israel’s other enemies seek to do away with the Jewish state once and for all, Israelis would like to put an end to terror attacks permanently, live forever free from missile fire—and many of them would prefer to co-exist in comity with their neighbors. Neither prospect seems very likely at present. But in a sense Israel already has its own peace—a state, which it must defend periodically with war.

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