Israel-Hamas Conflict Locked In by Both Sides’ Strategic Assumptions.
By Steven Metz, July 16, 2014
World attention is riveted by the ongoing violence between Israel and Hamas. After the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers and a retribution killing of a Palestinian youth, Israeli airstrikes on Gaza were followed by Hamas rocket barrages that reached as far as Tel Aviv. The two desperate enemies continue to pummel each other, seemingly seeking revenge rather than discernible political objectives. "The damage is already gruesome," as Natan Sachs put it, "and bound to get worse." Calls have arisen for a new Intifada across the Palestinian Territories on one side, and an Israeli ground invasion of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on the other.
Whatever happens during the next few weeks will not be the finale of the two sides’ long conflict or even the beginning of the end. The reason lies with the strategic assumptions that drive the two antagonists. Assumptions are the foundation of any strategy, at times explicit but more often unspoken or implied. Yet much depends on them. When the surface layers of anger and passion are peeled back, the strategic assumptions accepted by Israel and Hamas show why their conflict is intractable.
Israeli strategy is based on the assumption that the will of the Israeli public and security forces to support a military approach to dealing with Hamas can be sustained indefinitely. But it also assumes there is no possibility for a permanent, sustainable political agreement with Hamas that preserves core Israeli interests. The leadership of Hamas, Israeli strategists believe, gains more by sustaining the conflict than by resolving it. The most effective strategies combine carrots and sticks. But Israelis believe they have no feasible and effective carrots. Hence they assume that all Israel can do is try to deter escalation by delivering crushing punishment whenever Hamas crosses certain red lines. Israel's strategy has only a stick. But it is a conditional stick. Israel knows that the only thing that could radically change the power balance in its conflict with Hamas is a loss of American support. However unlikely this is, it is not wholly inconceivable. This means that punishment of Hamas must be kept within the limits of American toleration.
Hamas also assumes it can sustain the conflict indefinitely. Neither its core constituency among the Palestinian people nor its supporters and sympathizers in the Islamic world and within the political left in Europe and North America expect or demand a negotiated peace with Israel. Hamas and its backers believe they are on the side of justice. Decisive victory is not only attainable, it is inevitable. But the leaders of Hamas know that they cannot directly cause the will of the Israeli people and security forces to collapse, at least not in the immediate future. The only way they might win in the near term is by exploiting Israel's reliance on American support. Because of this Hamas uses a common insurgent technique: provoking Israel into using force and then publicizing the human costs of the escalated violence to try to impact American and global public opinion.
However much this makes strategic sense in the abstract, it has major flaws. First, Israel is well aware of its need for American support and will stop short of actions that might undercut it. Second, the global rise of al-Qaida eroded the viability of the Hamas strategy. Even though Hamas is not overtly allied with al-Qaida, many Americans lump them together since both rely heavily on terrorism. In American eyes, any justice in Hamas' cause is overshadowed by its use of terrorism. Moreover, al-Qaida's campaigns have convinced Americans, particularly on the political right, that extremists will invariably dominate revolutionary Islamist movements. This, plus the political backing of the religious right in the United States, has made support for Israel the most passionate foreign policy issue for Americans, perhaps even the only remaining one. As a result Hamas cannot achieve the one thing that might lead to a decisive shift in its favor: undercut Israel's support in the United States. Yet, its political leaders cannot rein in their own militants lest the organization lose its appeal. Thus the very radicalism that attracts angry young Palestinians to Hamas renders it strategically ineffective.
That the leaders of Hamas benefit from the conflict further adds to its intractability. It allows them to portray themselves in heroic terms. Peace would leave them the administrators of a weak, corrupt, overpopulated, poor and insignificant little nation. The conflict allows Hamas' leaders to demand a degree of sacrifice and tolerance from their constituents that they could never get in peacetime. It keeps outside contributions flowing. If there was peace, donors would find other causes with a veneer of heroism to sate their dissatisfaction with the status quo. For Hamas, as James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation wrote, "The struggle is not about winning and losing, it's what justifies the group’s existence. The casualties, the destruction, the deaths of innocents on both sides, all are secondary in the group’s strategic calculus. At its core, the Hamas strategic culture calls for constant conflict."
The only glimmer of good news is that so long as both sides believe that time is on their side in terms of their long-term objectives, neither has the incentive to undertake desperate action or allow the violence to escalate to the point where it might genuinely endanger their immediate grip on power. Neither is inclined toward a bold throw of the dice. The conflict remains locked in strategic suspension, neither resolvable by diplomacy nor by an outright military victory by either side. Neither can lose but neither can win.
While outsiders can see the assumptions and strategic structure of the Israel-Hamas conflict, it is not clear what they can do to alter them. The combination of a motivation for violence and constraints on any resolution of the conflict gives no hint that the leaders on either side are inclined to alter their respective strategic assumptions. Tragically, Israeli and Palestinian civilians continue to pay the price for this strategic ossification.
Steven Metz is director of research at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz.