Is Hamas Winning?

An edited version of this piece first appeared at LobeLog

When Israel, or any country, engages in armed conflict with a guerilla group, even if that group controls significant territory and resources, it is a virtual truism that the longer the fighting goes on, the greater the gains for the non-state actor. In Gaza, Hamas’ quasi-governmental position still leaves it in the role of the guerilla enemy. And with the events of the past few days, it is worth asking if Israel is not losing this “war.”

Israel is pointing to several objectives, chiefly the destruction of some tunnels in Gaza that led into Israel and at having degraded and diminished Hamas’ ability to fire rockets. While the frequency of rocket fire from Gaza has diminished somewhat in the last few days, perhaps providing some evidence of accomplishment for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hang his hat on, it has obviously not stopped. And when the heat dies down, Israelis are bound to notice that the tunnels Netanyahu is making such a point out of had not been used for infiltration until after the fighting began.

By the same token, Israelis might also notice that, at this writing, 35 Israelis have been killed, three of them civilians. In the five and one-half years since the end of Operation Cast Lead, a grand total of 38 Israelis were killed by Palestinians, combining both Gaza and the West Bank, 10 of them civilians. When a sober assessment is made of all of this in Israel, the results might not look so good if Netanyahu has so little to show for it.

Hamas, on the other hand, may have quite a bit to toot their collective horns about. Yes, the death toll, which is now topping 700, is horrific, as is the number of injured, (now over 4100) the damage to Gaza’s already crumbling infrastructure, the destruction of 500 homes, some 16 mosques and two hospitals. But Hamas, despite having lost a lot of popularity over the years in Gaza, is standing up to Israel and insisting on ending the siege of the Strip, which is preventing many common goods from getting in and just about all exports from going out.

Moreover, Hamas has put all of Israel on high alert, disrupting daily life not just in the south, but as far north as Haifa, and as far east as Jerusalem. Residents of Tel Aviv are not living in “the bubble” as they did five years ago, but are repeatedly hustling to shelters when warning sirens go off. Most of all, Hamas forced U.S. and European airlines to suspend all flights to Israel for at least two days when a rocket from Gaza came within a mile of Ben Gurion International (BGI) airport.

That victory might be even more profound than anyone in Gaza realizes yet. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is about as apolitical as a federal agency can get, suspended flights to Israel for obvious reasons: in the wake of the downing of the Malaysian flight over Ukraine, a rocket coming that close to BGI made it obvious that it was too much of a risk for the FAA to take.

But in the United States, any decision that Israel doesn’t like becomes instantly politicized, even though it is self-evident to anyone who knows anything about the United States government that the President had nothing to do with this call—it is entirely within the FAA’s bailiwick. But Israel complained that the decision sent “the wrong message,” to which the State Department replied, “The only consideration in issuing the notice was the safety and security of our citizens.”

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg immediately flew to Israel and stated that he felt as safe there as anywhere. But Bloomberg’s grandstand play also serves to undermine the rationale for this entire operation by Israel—after all, if it is that safe when fire is being exchanged, how can Israel justify their own losses, let alone the far more massive toll of death and destruction in Gaza?

Republican Senator Ted Cruz, never one to let a lunatic theory pass by unexploited, went so far as to accuse U.S. President Barack Obama of using “…a federal regulatory agency to launch an economic boycott on Israel, in order to try to force our ally to comply with his foreign-policy demands.” No kidding, he really said that.

With all of this tumult resulting from one rocket, Hamas can certainly claim a major win in this regard.

Hamas has also made political gains. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been working to help find a ceasefire formula. In the past, Hamas would disavow Abbas’ authority to negotiate for them, but they have not done so this time. That’s because Abbas is arguing for Hamas’ terms for a ceasefire. That makes Abbas, rather than any Egyptian or Turkish leader, the contact point between Hamas and Israel. It also symbolically demonstrates that the Palestinians have a unified government—Abbas is presenting himself as the leader of all of Palestine, including Gaza, without saying so, without ruffling any of Hamas’ feathers. He is simply acting like it.

Israel’s goal in starting this round of fighting was to destroy the unity deal between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Thus far, the opposite seems to be the outcome. Abbas is in agreement with Hamas’ goals, and is, apparently fully representing them. That represents a major failure for Netanyahu. But that outcome is far from assured.

The statement by Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) executive committee that the Palestinians would now pursue their goals through the international judicial system seemed like a potential game-changer. It is telling, though, that after Ashrawi made her statement, welcomed by many of us who advocate for an equitable international judicial system and see its value for the Palestinians, there has been virtually no follow-up.

Indeed, going, for example, to the International Criminal Court (ICC) might have very different effects than one might imagine for the Palestinians. Unlike the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is really the one place at the U.N. that Israel’s complaints of unfair treatment have real merit, the ICC is not a politically driven body. Its unfortunate bias against poor countries, countries that do not have great power backing and, particularly, sub-Saharan African countries is based on what cases are brought before it, and that, sadly, is entirely dictated by politics.

But if the ICC were to investigate the fighting in Gaza, it might well be inclined to investigate both sides. And, if Palestine, with its new-found recognition as a state, were to go to the ICC, they would be placing themselves under its jurisdiction. The simple fact is that, while it is Israel that has devastated civilians, Hamas has been targeting civilians as well, albeit to far less effect. That, however, is also a crime. And, since Israel has not joined the ICC, it is not under their jurisdiction. The ICC could not compel any of its leaders to appear, much less answer charges.

Israel is reported to be considering a ceasefire deal that would be modelled after the one they came to in Lebanon in 2006. If that were followed, the PA would assume control over Gaza. Hamas might have a tough time arguing with that, given their defense of the unity government. The PA would have, presumably, the same armament it has in the West Bank, but all other factions would be forced to disarm, surrender rockets and dismantle tunnels under international inspection. And in exchange, Israel would end its blockade of Gaza’s coastline and ease restrictions at the border crossings.

That sort of agreement would absolutely represent a Palestinian victory, but it would also mean Hamas would no longer exercise control over Gaza. They would sacrifice their ability to re-launch an armed resistance until they could find a way to re-arm clandestinely. That might prove very difficult—they haven’t been very successful at it in the West Bank, largely due not to Israeli, but to Palestinian Authority efforts. For the group itself, it would mean a major loss. But the objectives of the current fighting would have been achieved—ending the siege and preserving the unity government.

Netanyahu would also claim victory in such an event. But in reality, it would be clear that the Palestinians were now unified and speaking with one voice. Abbas could no longer see Hamas as an opposition, but as part of his constituency, and this whole experience seems to have forced him out of his habit of going along with U.S. and Israeli diktats. The Palestinians would be strengthened politically, even as it loses the paltry military capabilities Hamas now has. Netanyahu would have utterly failed to destroy the unity government, which is what this was all about. But a nullified Hamas would be an easy image to present as a victory to the Israeli people, who have been lied to by Bibi from the beginning and are thus largely unaware of the real aims of this onslaught.

It remains to be seen if such a ceasefire agreement is actually being considered. I really can’t see Bibi agreeing to it; he is absolutely obsessed with keeping the Palestinians divided, and his stated refusal to even consider a two-state solution means he is obsessed with good reason. I’m not at all sure Hamas would accept such a deal, even though it might boost them politically. And right now, it is Hamas, not Israel, who is dealing from a position of strength. Despite the pounding Gaza is taking, Hamas seems to have gotten the issue of lifting the siege on the table, as even the U.S. keeps saying that the “underlying issues” must be dealt with, and even when the E.U. is scolding Hamas, they are also calling Israel’s acts “criminal.”

When Hamas refused the ceasefire, I understood, but I also believed that they would end up being forced to take such a deal eventually and their refusal would just lead to a lot more dead Palestinians. That latter part has proven true, and it is still possible that Israel, the United States and Egypt will eventually force Hamas to accept the terms they dictated. But it’s looking less and less likely that the Egyptian ceasefire will be the one Hamas has to accept. Is it worth the price in blood? Only the people of Gaza can answer that.