By fighting Hamas once again to an apparent draw, Israel proved it needs fresh thinking. Photo: Flash90

Game Over, Score Posted Later

Israel’s Input, Hamas’ Output

By Amir Oren

When George Armstrong Custer’s 7th U.S. Cavalry regiment fought Sitting Bull’s Sioux in Little Bighorn, in the fourth week of June 1876, it took some nine days for information regarding the results of the battle to reach Washington, D.C. On the first Centennial, July 4 of that year, the capital learned of the total wipe-out of Custer and his unit, less one survivor.

Times and technology certainly changed. Wars are televised live. One camera captures the launch, another the impact. There is no shortage of data, instantaneously. As for knowledge – this is another matter altogether.

The 10-day plus several hours (by popular demand it will be counted as 11 days) exchange of blows between Israel and Hamas ended May 20. This is a fact. As for the score, the jury is still out. Deadly game over, score to be posted later, perhaps much later.

In a polygraph test, one can be considered by the expert administering it to be truthful, lying or “inconclusive”. Of course, political and military leaders would always claim that their exploits were successful. Very rarely, it is beyond dispute. World War II. Six-Day War. Entebbe. In many other cases, the claims may be sincere, but too hasty. The real result is inconclusive, and it has to be double-checked. The most obvious example is Kissinger quoting Zhou en-Lai as withholding comment on the French Revolution, 180 years later, because it “was too soon to tell”. Upon closely probing the transcript and context it turned out that Zhou probably referred to the 1968 riots which shook France several months earlier. Indeed, it took about a year for President De Gaulle to resign, seemingly abruptly.

All of this history is essential to digest the morning after the ceasefire. The fighting ended, for this particular round, but the significance of what took place is yet to sink in, as it needs perspective and patience. And speaking of patience, patients who recover from treatment to remove malignancy know that they are considered only in remission, not healed, for several years of anxiously waiting to see whether the life-threatening illness returns.

With this essential caveat, and until enough time passes for hindsight, the fight must be considered a draw, and thus more in Hamas’ favor than Israel’s. By input, Israel was vastly superior, but the important parameter is output.

The Israel Defense Forces is a superb military machine. Its Intelligence Corps, Air Force, Operations Division and Command and Control functions are second to none. Its defensive systems and protocols, notably the Homefront Command and the anti-missile Air Defense units, are world-class, if there are even others in that league.

Yet military means should be employed in the service of political goals, and because Israel’s governments have chosen not to choose, regarding the Palestinian problem, there is no policy to be implemented by the IDF, in its lane along with diplomatic, economic and humanitarian ones.

This is in contrast with Israel’s clear and determined campaign against Iran’s efforts to use war-torn Syria as a base of operations against it. There, since January 2013, the IDF has been executing a persistent cycle of surgical strikes, blocking the Quds Force dream of a Syrian sanctuary from which to hit Israel with impunity. The professional excellence demanded from the IDF in Gaza was honed in Syria.

But regarding Palestine, the de-facto two-state solution (West Bank and Gaza Strip), lines are blurred. Israel is against the extremists, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. This is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough, into the twilight zone of cutting a deal with the moderates, currently and presumably not for much longer led by Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.

Over the last dozen years, Israel conducted four major campaigns, and countless minor battles, with the Hamas-ruled Gaza. The first one, Cast Lead, under Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni, the next three under Binyamin Netanyahu with various partners. Two of the campaigns, Pillar of Defense in 2012 and now Guardian of the Walls, were strictly stand-off, with missiles and bombs and shells but no ground formations raiding Gaza. The other two, Cast Lead and Protective Edge, did involve some mechanised infantry manoeuvr. But whatever the tactics, the upshot was similar, buying time only to waste it.

Ideally, Israel would like the Palestinian security forces, under Majed Faraj and his colleagues (and competitors), all reporting to Abbas, to reassert their authority over Gaza, where from they were expelled by Hamas in 2007. They are not up to the job, have no Air Force (one can imagine Hamas missiles launched at Ramallah and Hebron, with Iron Dome protecting them), and even if they could overpower the resistance, there is zero incentive for them to start a Palestinian Civil War to benefit an Israel which refuses a sensible West Bank and East Jerusalem comptomise. Short of that, and because Israel – wishing to maintain its quality of life and economic growth – is reluctant to either occupy Gaza in an open-ended war of attrition or pre-empt the restoration of the Hamas arsenal it degraded in the previous campaign, it is doomed to replicate its muscle flexing every few years. This round’s metro would be the next one’s retro.

There is no escaping the laws of nature in the Middle East. If Israel does not want the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in the West Bank (and Gaza), fine, the Jordanians will disengage and leave Israel with the PLO. If Israel refuses any tangible concessions to Abbas, because Netanyahu is beholden to the settlers, so be it – but then into the vacuum, including in Jerusalem, jumps Hamas.

By publicly proclaiming Mohammed Deif its enemy number 1 and admitting at least two failed assassination attempts over the last 10 days, in addition to those severly crippling him earlier, Israel has enhanced the Deif legend – almost Deifying him – and gave him veto power over less militant elements in the Hamas leadership, such as Yahia Sinwar. The IDF managed, defensively and offensively, to take out several domains out of the Hamas order of battle – attack tunnels, missiles (still disrupting, but much less effective), the subterranean spiderweb of passages used for logistics and launching troops. But this only serves to depict Gaza, or Hamas, as a metaphorical Deif, losing limbs, disabled, but still standing, or limping, but living to fight another day. For the Muqawama mythology, the resistance narrative, it is a net gain, whatever the cost. 

Israel is in dire need of reassessing its policies and problems, including the Jewish-Arab rift within it. A new government should be established promptly, bringing fresh thinking. Guardian of the Walls already had the unintended – and for Netanyahu, unwanted – result of drawing a reluctant Biden Administration back into the conflict it wished to stay away from, with Israel’s prowess in Washington considerably diminished.

Ahead of this weekend, calm returned to A-Shati and Ashkelon, Sajayeh and Sderot, much to the relief of parents, children, the elderly and whoever feared the next strike or siren. This is of course a relief to all, but only a respite unless a major effort is undertaken to solve the conflict, though even then success is far from assured. Without a serious follow-up, calm is no balm.