The Internet is abuzz with theorizing about who won and lost the short Israel-Hamas duel in Gaza. Unfortunately, the standards by which victory and defeat is tallied are fairly impressionistic. How else to explain the fact that so many actors have both won and lost in different areas? The problem is that victory and defeat are difficult, if not impossible, to objectively determine above the level of tactics. Certainly this is not always the case. It can be said beyond a doubt that the Confederacy was defeated in the American Civil War, for example. Southern armies were broken and their civic masters ceased to exist as political entities. Yet this is not helpful to us because the vast majority of wars do not end with one side’s total erasure. It is more useful to observe that wars can decide political issues, sometimes to neither actor’s optimal preference. The Korean War decided that the Korean nation would remain divided for the forseeable future. This was not optimal for the United States, the South Koreans, or the North Koreans, all of whom wanted reunification on their own terms. But it was certainly acceptable enough to justify ceasing combat for all three. China of course placed a higher value on avoiding a pro-Western unified Korea than any other objective. Hence it would be better to focus on the political issue being decided through violence and the nature of Hamas and Israel’s violent relationship.
Many Gaza analyses stubbornly refuse to disentangle the respective categories of policy (the political condition or behavior favored by the polity waging war), strategy (the bridge between policy and warfare), and tactics (the strategy’s manifestation as military violence). The rationality of both Israel and Hamas is endlessly dissected, though whether or not an political decision is the expression of consistent and ordered preferece doesn’t change the fact that at the end of the day violence was required to remove obstacles to the policy’s realization. The oft-stated conclusion that Israel has no long-term strategy for Gaza may have some truth but is also somewhat misleading. Operation Pillar of Defense was governed by a fairly basic strategy to use violence to return to a political status quo that Israel has maintained through a variety of instruments of national power since Hamas emerged as the dominant actor in the Gaza strip. The Israeli contention, arrived at via a domestic political process, that such a political condition is desirable enough to fight over is the policy. The policy is a political understanding that is achieved through a structuring of violent action (the strategy).
The current state of affairs in Gaza is a kind of violent relationship that both sides dislike but nonetheless have found acceptable for varying periods of time. Given that the Hamas charter declares Israel’s destruction as the group’s paramount political goal, Israel is not happy with Hamas’ goals, Iranian sponsorship, or ability to do harm. Yet the consequences of eliminating it would entail sole responsibility for dealing with Gaza, to say nothing of the military, diplomatic, and domestic political costs assumed in a ground campaign and occupation. Plus, as bad Hamas may be, it certainly beats dealing with a fractalization of Palestinian armed groups with less discipline, organization, or capacity for strategic decisionmaking. In his essay “The Amorites Iniquity,” Israeli National Security Council official Gur Laish also points out that Israel has a political consensus that is willing to tolerate low-level violence from Gaza in return for the ability to focus on its own political and economic development. Of course, such violent peace requires a border security system and periodic standoff operations against targets inside Gaza. What Israel requires from Hamas is continue a pattern of behvior in which violent behavior against Israel–by Hamas or any other Gaza actor–is kept to a bare minimum. Having the capbility to execute a Cast Lead or another iteration of the current operation is essential, however, as the mutual interest of each actor to maintain the relationship is constantly in flux.
Hamas certainly also dislikes being hemmed up and policing and administering Gaza for Israel’s benefit. It casts its own strategy in the language of resistance (muqawama, the subheading of this blog). It derives political benefit from being seen as resisting and also must deal with other Palestinian groups competing for the same political capital. But as Laish points out Hamas can resist within what Israel considers to be accepted levels of violence–even if israel’s own violence creates political problems for Hamas’ position in Gaza. For a while, the status quo was also acceptable to Hamas, if not preferable. Then, as Armin Rosen explains, the acquisition of long-range weapons created a new incentive to try to revise the parameters of the violent relationship to its own benefit. Certainly Hamas could also potentially believe (with some justification) that the regional environment was more favorable, and also was pressed by the proliferation of more hardline competing groups that did not benefit from the status quo. Whether or not either side intended the low-level violence to spill over into war is difficult to determine but perhaps irrelevant. War happened, and the resultng Operation Pillar of Defense can be understood as a Israeli attempt to return to the status quo. Thomas Rid has observed that Israelis perceive “deterrence” as the persistence of a pattern of favored behavior, a understanding more characteristic of police dealing with crime levels than political scientists. The strategy of Pillar of Defense was to use force to return to the previous condition.
So we can state that Israel’s strategy appears to have functioned mostly as intended. Hamas’ long-range rocket stocks have likely been disrupted and Hamas has yet again lost leaders. A ceasefire has restored prominent aspects of the status quo. The big question is whether the policy is tenable. As Shashank Joshi points out, smuggling will remain a long-term problem. The political conflict between Egypt’s conflicting desires and ceasefire obligations concerning the Gaza blockade is certain to continue. The evolution of Hamas’ Iranian-supplied weaponry also suggests aspects of the military balance may be moving in a troublesome direction. The Palestinian Authority, as predicted, was undermined and Hamas also will continue to have to deal with competing Gaza-based groups after the same political role it occupies. But it unclear precisely how regional actors will proceed, offering perils for both sides trying to feel their way around a transformed regional environment. Long-term dynamics aside, there are also very real near-term incentives for the status quo to continue, if punctuated by periodic bursts of violence.
How Israel and Hamas understand their strategic position and behave is subject to a range of conflicting incentives, the power of domestic politics, the confusion endemic to high risk environments, and organizational processes. But at the end of this process lies policy, and its realization in violence through strategy. Whether or not the policy or the strategy is valid is up for vigorous debate, but it is inaccurate to argue, as Israeli analyst Alon Pinkas does, that Gaza has turned Clausewitz on his head. War is not driving policy, although each actor’s unique understanding of the set of political and military facts “on the ground” war reveals will certainly shape future policy. Rather, Pillar of Defense is an attempt to return to a political condition that enjoys domestic political favor in Israel. It is surely not the end of the struggle between Israel and Hamas, and there is no guarantee that the pattern of conflict will continue in the same manner. But both Israel and Hamas decisionmakers likely know this, and telling them that they need better plans to adapt does not guarantee they will adapt in the supposedly enlightened manner the op-ed writer desires. How they will adapt can further alter the course of a conflict that has raged since the early 20th century and is unlikely to end any time soon.