Politics & Policy

Why Does Hamas Want War?

Israeli armor on the move near Gaza. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)
It knows it will lose militarily, but hopes to win at the bar of public opinion.

Politicians start wars optimistic about their prospects of gaining from the combat, Geoffrey Blainey notes in his masterly study, The Causes of War; otherwise, they would avoid fighting.

Why, then, did Hamas just provoke a war with Israel? Out of nowhere, on June 11 it began launching rockets, shattering a calm in place since November 2012. The mystery of this outburst prompted David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel, to find that the current fighting has “no remotely credible reason” even to be taking place. And why did the Israeli leadership respond minimally, trying to avoid combat? This although both sides know that Israel’s forces vastly overmatch Hamas’s in every domain — intelligence gathering, command and control, technology, firepower, domination of air space.

What explains this role reversal? Are Islamists so fanatical that they don’t mind losing? Are Zionists too worried about loss of life to fight?

Actually, Hamas leaders are quite rational. Periodically (2006, 2008, 2012), they decide to make war on Israel knowing full well that they will lose on the military battlefield but optimistic about winning in the political arena. Israeli leaders, conversely, assume they will win militarily but fear political defeat — bad press, United Nations resolutions, and so on.

The focus on politics represents a historic shift; the first 25 years of Israel’s existence saw repeated challenges to its existence (especially in 1948–49, 1967, and 1973), and no one knew how those wars would turn out. I remember the first day of the 1967 Six-Day War, when the Egyptians proclaimed splendid triumphs while complete Israeli press silence suggested catastrophe. It came as a shock to learn that Israel had scored the greatest victory in the annals of warfare.The point is, outcomes were unpredictably decided on the battlefield.

No longer: The battlefield outcome of Arab–Israeli wars in last 40 years has been predictable; everyone knows Israeli forces will prevail. It’s more like cops and robbers than warfare. Ironically, this lopsidedness turns attention from winning and losing to morality and politics. Israel’s enemies provoke it to kill civilians, whose deaths bring them multiple benefits.

The four conflicts since 2006 have restored Hamas’s tarnished reputation for “resistance,” built solidarity on the home front, stirred dissent among both Arabs and Jews in Israel, galvanized Palestinians and other Muslims to become suicide bombers, embarrassed non-Islamist Arab leaders, secured new United Nations resolutions bashing Israel, inspired Europeans to impose harsher sanctions on Israel, opened the international Left’s spigot of vitriol against the Jewish state, and won additional aid from the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The holy grail of political warfare is to win the sympathy of the global Left by presenting oneself as underdog and victim. (From a historic point of view, it bears pointing out, this is very strange: Traditionally, combatants tried to scare the enemy by presenting themselves as fearsome and unstoppable.)

The tactics of this new warfare include presenting a convincingly emotional narrative, citing endorsements of famous personalities, appealing to the conscience, and drawing simple but powerful political cartoons (Israeli supporters tend to excel at this, both in the past and now). Palestinians get even more creative, developing the twin fraudulent techniques of “fauxtography” for still pictures and “Pallywood” for videos. Israelis used to be complacent about the need for what they call hasbara, or getting the message out, but recent years find them more focused on this.

Hilltops, cities, and strategic roadways matter supremely in the Syria and Iraqi civil wars, but morality, proportionality, and justice dominate Arab–Israeli wars. As I wrote during the 2006 Israel–Hamas confrontation, “Solidarity, morale, loyalty, and understanding are the new steel, rubber, oil, and ammunition.” Or in 2012: “Opeds have replaced bullets, social media have replaced tanks.” More broadly, this is part of the profound change in modern warfare when Western and non-Western forces fight, as in the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Clausewitzian terms, public opinion is the new center of gravity.

All this said, how fares Hamas? Not well. Its battlefield losses since July 8 appear higher than expected, and worldwide condemnations of Israel have yet to pour in. Even the Arabic media are relatively quiet. If this pattern holds, Hamas might conclude that raining rockets on Israeli homes is not such a good idea. Indeed, for Hamas to be dissuaded from initiating another assault in a few years, it needs to lose both the military and the political wars, and lose them very badly.

Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum. © 2014 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.

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