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Hamas Wins by Losing in Gaza

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May 2021 Scott Ritter


A strictly military assessment of the latest 11-day Gaza conflict, based on casualty ratios and levels of infrastructure destruction, strongly suggests an Israeli victory. The Gaza conflict, however, has a political dimension, too. On that front, the results helped legitimize the Palestinian cause at the expense of Israeli security in the eyes of much of the world. Critical constituencies in the US were affected as well, underscored by the fact that the Biden administration is talking about a new paradigm when speaking of Palestinian rights. This political shift in favor of the Palestinians is the most important outcome of the Gaza conflict, making it a victory for Hamas and a defeat for Israel.

In many ways, the latest Gaza conflict was a battle of military delivery systems and the means to defeat them. For Israel, the primary weapon of choice was the fighter-bomber, using precision-guided munitions on targets carefully selected by the Israeli High Command. Armed drones and field artillery also played a major role. For its part, Hamas relied on a range of military rockets, from short-range indigenously produced models capable of ranges between 12 and 50 kilometers to more sophisticated variants supplied by Iran and capable of hitting targets up to 250 km away. What Hamas lacked in precision, it made up for in numbers, firing salvos as large as 100 rockets at a time to overwhelm Israeli defenses. It is here that Israel both won and lost the war. Thanks to years of joint development with the US, Israel has a defense system specifically designed to defeat the kind of rockets employed by Hamas and, to a lesser extent, Hezbollah. Known as the “Iron Dome,” Israel’s rocket shield performed as advertised, intercepting the Hamas rocket salvoes in visual displays as dazzling as they were effective -- with around 90% of the Hamas rockets launched at Israel destroyed.

But even the most effective weapons system is limited by the availability of ammunition, which in the case of the “Iron Dome” means interceptor rockets. Israeli protocol called for two interceptors to be launched at each incoming target -- at a cost of $72,000 each. After a week of rocket launches, Israel had to alter this protocol to one interceptor per target because it was running out of missiles. Underscoring the seriousness of this situation, the US has committed to an emergency military aid package for Israel that includes hundreds of millions of dollars to produce new interceptor missiles. Had the Gaza conflict continued, the “Iron Dome” shield would have run out of interceptor missiles, forcing Israel to undertake more drastic actions -- such as a ground invasion -- to stop the rocket launches.

The biggest problem for Israel was not the “Iron Dome,” but rather the failure of the Israeli Defense Force to stop Hamas from continuing to launch rockets. As the political pressure from Israeli citizens ratcheted up due to the attacks, the Israeli military redoubled its effort to neutralize Hamas’ military capabilities. There were some dramatic successes -- 16 senior Hamas military leaders, including the head of the Gaza Brigade, the commander of Hamas’ cyber system, and several heads of projects involved in Hamas’ rocket program, were killed in Israeli precision strikes against secret hide sites throughout Gaza. All in all, Hamas admits to losing some 80 military personnel during the fighting. In addition to killing senior officials, Israel was able to neutralize significant parts of Hamas’ underground tunnel network. What Israel was not able to do, however, was stop Hamas from firing rockets into Israel. The more Hamas kept firing, the more Israel kept bombing. The world stopped counting Hamas dead, and focused instead on the increasing number of innocent civilians dying in Gaza. To the untrained eye, these attacks looked purely retaliatory.  

This political dimension is where Israel lost the war. According to the Gaza Health Ministry, at least 230 Palestinians died during the 11-day conflict, more than 60 of whom were children. When one subtracts the 80 admitted military combatants from this figure, the number of civilian dead is around 150 or 65% -- a ratio of around 1.9 civilians dead for every combatant killed. That rate of civilian casualties is less than the 90% rate often cited in the media and in keeping with statistics from other conflicts in the past 50 years. Perception, however, creates its own reality. The visual images of an all-powerful Israeli military pounding a helpless Palestinian citizenry were what drove the news cycle — and the Hamas rockets, in comparison, were easily dismissed as legitimate self-defense.

Kushner Peace Plan

Prior to the Gaza conflict, the Palestinian cause was in tatters. The prospects of a viable Palestinian state were all but dead following the so-called “Jared Kushner Vision for Peace” -- named after former President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, who headed the negotiations that produced the deal. From the Kushner peace plan -- which partitioned the Palestinian homeland in a way that was impossible for any Palestinian leader to accept -- the US and Israel were able to craft the Abraham Accords, which brought about the normalization of relations between Israel and several Arab states. The cause of a Palestinian homeland, or even Palestinian rights, seemed completely moribund.

Enter Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s embattled prime minister, who has on many occasions over the years traded on national security fears to sustain his domestic political viability. In a series of ham-fisted moves, Netanyahu simultaneously green-lighted the forcible removal of Palestinian families by Israeli settlers, backed by Israeli police, from Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, as well as a crackdown on worshippers at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s most venerated sites. The Palestinian Authority, which has political control over the West Bank, appeared impotent to stop the Israeli actions, but Hamas, whose political fiefdom is limited to Gaza, fired rockets into Israel in retaliation, thereby initiating the 11-day conflict.

This response from Gaza has revived the Palestinian cause, with Hamas now promising to resume its strikes if Israel continues evicting Palestinians from their homes and harassing worshippers at the al-Aqsa Mosque. The political fortunes of Hamas among the Palestinian people have risen in comparison to the less militant Palestinian Authority. There is no question that this increased stature of Hamas among Palestinians is a serious setback for Israel.

But the consequences go beyond Palestinian politics. The once untouchable notion of Israel’s inherent right of self defense has been seriously undermined by the Gaza conflict, with the UN Human Rights Council calling for potential war crimes investigations against the Israeli military for its actions in Gaza, and the Irish Parliament passing a motion declaring Israel to be occupiers of Palestinian land, paving the way for the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador. Even in the US, once steadfast supporters of Israel in the US Congress are questioning the ongoing US underwriting of Israel’s military establishment -- to the tune of some $3 billion per year. Moreover, in a turnabout from the policies of the Trump administration, President Joe Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made it clear that the issue of a Palestinian homeland is far from dead.

The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously described war as the continuation of politics by other means. Israel may have won the military conflict with Gaza, but it has lost the much more important political contest to Hamas. Despite the one-sided military result, Hamas’ claims to be the victor in the Gaza conflict ring true.

Scott Ritter is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer whose service over a 20-plus-year career included tours of duty in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control agreements, serving on the staff of US Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War and later as a chief weapons inspector with the UN in Iraq from 1991-98.

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