The Hamas Rope-a-Dope

It's going to be a long fight -- but Hamas has weathered the Israeli barrage thus far. And that counts as a win.


As July 27’s Israeli air and artillery strikes demonstrate, the deadly confrontation in Gaza is far from over. Cease-fire proposals seem to come and go. But neither side is in the mood for sustainable de-escalation; each believes there is still much to gain from continuing the fight. Or perhaps to be more accurate, both worry about losing an advantage if they call an end to the bloody proceedings.

It’s impossible to predict a winner or loser at this stage. Israel is determined to prevent a Hamas victory or even a stalemated outcome that might appear to represent one. The situation is, as they say, remarkably fluid. But three weeks in, if I had to do a tally now, I’d say Hamas has taken round one in what is likely to be an ongoing struggle. And here’s why:

Survival counts as a win: As in previous confrontations, the organizational imperative dominates Hamas’s tactics and strategy. Against a militarily and technologically superior Israel, Hamas can afford to waste a couple of thousand rockets and lose a few dozen tunnels, but the main goal is keeping both its military and political leadership intact, and not giving into Israel’s superior firepower. Indeed, in a way Hamas wins just by not losing.

In previous confrontations, particularly during the Second Intifada, Israel succeeded in eliminating top Hamas officials, including the founder of the organization, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. Even in 2008-2009’s Operation Cast Lead, Israel managed to kill a few key leaders. This time around — at least so far — the organization appears to have weathered the storm with limited loss to its key cadres. In 2008-2009, Hamas lost as many as 600 fighters. We can’t be sure of Hamas’s losses during the current crisis, but with an estimated 10,000 fighters, even the loss of hundreds is hardly a stunning victory for Israel. Indeed, Hamas fighters exacted a higher price on the Israelis this time around, tripling the number of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) casualties than in both previous confrontations combined.

Israel’s nerves are rattled: Of all Israel’s achievements so far in Operation Protective Edge, the success of Iron Dome has to be the most significant. Hamas’s vaunted arsenal of high-trajectory weapons has failed to cause significant casualties or fundamentally shut down normal life in most of the country — as opposed to Hezbollah’s missiles in the summer of 2006, which effectively shut down the northern half of the country.

But Hamas has clearly got Israel’s attention this time around. By launching rockets of greater range with a daily consistency over a sustained period of time, there has been significant disruption. Governments are responsible not just for the direct physical security of their citizens but for a sense of security and normalcy too. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s temporary suspension on U.S. flights into Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport and its ongoing review of security deeply affected Israel’s national morale and pride. Every time there’s a siren, it’s a reminder that Hamas has reach. Indeed, Hamas doesn’t have to kill Israelis to get their attention. It’s a classic demonstration of the power of the weak in an asymmetrical conflict.

And here is where the Hamas attack tunnels come into play. Israelis have been dealing with these infiltrations since the early 2000s; after all, the 2006 kidnapping of Gilad Shalit was a tunnel operation. But what the Israelis discovered was a sophistication, reach, and complexity to the tunnel structure that surprised them. That the necessary tools for kidnappings — handcuffs, tranquilizers, IDF uniforms, and plans for major terrorist attacks — were discovered there suggest an ambition that should unnerve the Israeli security and intelligence establishment, not to mention the public, particularly those living in communities close to Gaza.

Abbas looks feckless: Once again, Hamas has proved that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to give back most of the West Bank, he’d go see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But for most everything else, you go to Hamas. If you’re Israel and you want a cease-fire, you go to Hamas; if you want a prisoner trade, you go to Hamas. If you’re Palestinian and you want to feel pride about resisting the Israelis, you root for Hamas — however much death and destruction it brings down upon your head. All of this tends to weaken Abbas, the good, nonviolent Palestinian who wants to negotiate a peace deal and buck up the bad Palestinians who don’t. Abbas may well play some role in post-cease-fire Gaza, or at least he would like to. But in the end, he has very little to show for his presidency. He has not ended the Israeli occupation, created a Palestinian state, isolated Israel, or served as a force to unify Palestinians. Indeed, without some success in the peace process, Abbas is perceived as failing to advance — or even stand up for — Palestinian rights. Indeed, his latest speech has him sounding like he endorses Hamas’s demands.

Hamas has attained nearly co-equal status: Think about it. A week or so ago, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and half the international community was chasing after Hamas in an effort to get it to agree to a cease-fire and then to include it as a party to the negotiations to deal with the underlying cause of the Gaza confrontation. This alone constitutes a remarkable achievement for a pariah organization that two months ago seemed on the ropes, broke, and pressured by Egypt. In Operation Cast Lead, there were no real negotiations over how to deal with Hamas’s demands in Gaza; nor in 2012 after Operation Pillar of Defense. Now it’s just possible that Hamas has hooked itself into what could amount to an international process in which it may well play a central role.

This sequel to the long-running Gaza movie is far from over. And there will be many twists and turns in store along the way that might change the score. Israel is trying to marshal support to demilitarize Gaza or at least close tunnels, and to get the Egyptians, backed by the international community, to stanch weapons flows. And unless Hamas can produce real economic gains from the current struggle, its popularity in Gaza will diminish. Despite its demands, Hamas doesn’t seem to have much of an endgame. But at least for now, I’d put Hamas in the win column.

The asymmetrical nature of the casualty count and the scenes of suffering in Gaza have quite predictably made the Palestinian narrative more compelling than that of the Israelis in many parts of the globe. And while Hamas may be hurting badly, it’s still up and running. On July 27 alone, 10 Israeli soldiers were killed in various Hamas attacks. Indeed, Hamas may well be on its way to validating a depressingly familiar conclusion: If you can’t get what you want through phony unity agreements and tough talk, try violence and terror. It doesn’t always work. But right now, it sure looks as if it might have.

Aaron David​ Miller is a geoeconomic and strategy senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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