What does Israel hope to accomplish by bombing Hamas?
Hamas has for years been carrying out terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens. A large number of suicide bombers attacking Israelis in the last dozen years or so have come from Gaza, sponsored by Hamas or Fatah. Under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel sealed the border with Gaza a few years ago and withdrew all forces from Gaza. Sharon also ordered the dismantling of Jewish settlements in Gaza. However, peace did not break out once the last Israeli left Gaza. If anything, violence against Israel intensified.
For several years, Hamas has launched explosive rockets from Gaza into southern Israel. A number of Israelis, including women and children, have been killed. These rocket attacks are indiscriminate since Hamas long ago declared that any Israeli of any age, occupation or either sex is a legitimate target. In retaliation (and contrast), Israel has carried out carefully controlled, precision attacks against key Hamas figures, especially those commanding or conducting the rocket attacks. The Israeli attacks have almost without exception been conducted using precision-guided missiles fired from Israeli helicopters with few other Gazans killed or injured.
Earlier this year, Hamas agreed to a ceasefire with Israel. However, Hamas continued to launch rockets against Israel not long after agreeing to the ceasefire. They fired dozens of rockets per day, sometimes as many as 60, causing deaths and injuries among Israeli citizens. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis were compelled to hide in shelters for many hours per day. (Some of Hamas's rockets can range 40 kilometers, about 25 miles.) The economy and social life of southern Israel was pretty much shut down.
I spent some time in the frequently-targeted Israeli town of Sederot in October 2007. Six rockets hit near the town the day I was there, although not during the time I was there. I posted a photo-essay here.
These attacks were the proximate cause of Israel's bombing of Hamas' facilities this week. While working through backchannels to get Hamas to honor the ceasefire, Israel began planning this campaign perhaps as long as six months ago, according to the UK's Guardian newspaper, which continued,
[Israeli Defense Minister Ehud] Barak said yesterday (Dec. 28) the timing of the operation was dictated by Israel's patience simply "having running out" in the face of renewed rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza into Israel when the shaky six-month ceasefire expired 10 days ago. "Any other sovereign nation would do the same," is the official Israeli refrain. Amid the storm of international criticism of Israel's hugely disproportionate response, it is easy to overlook the domestic pressure faced by the Israeli government over its handling of "Hamastan".It is, of course, the Guardian that says israel's campaign is "disproportionate," an unsurprising charge for the paper to make since it has a long anti-Israel editorial history. (British newspapers are openly partisan and don't claim to be impartial in reporting.) See my own assessment here. Actually, rumors of action against Gaza have been flying for much longer than six months. As well, the actual number of Israelis living under Hamas' gun is about 750,000, a half-million more than the Guardian says, because Hamas also has longer-range Grad rockets, based on the old, Soviet Katyusha rockets of World War II vintage.
Homemade Qassam rockets and mortars rarely kill but they do terrify and have undermined Israel's deterrent power as well as keeping as many as 250,000 residents of the south of the country in permanent danger.
Israel's attacks are intended to do four main things:
- Kill as many high-level Hamas figures as possible.
- Reduce the ranks of Hamas rank and file by causing casualties among them.
- Provide disincentives for Gazans' support of Hamas' control of their political future and hence,
- Delegitimize Hamas' authority.
I have found that the first objective, killing the enemy, is a concept that repels a lot of people of the Western comfortable classes. Yet war is the wielding of intentional lethality; as Clausewitz wrote, "Killing is the sine qua non of war."
I have recounted before a story of an evening I spent at a dinner party in the fall of 2001. Another guest commented that it “wasn’t fair” for US pilots to fly with impunity above Taliban positions, dropping bombs. I bit my tongue. Later, another guest said that the bombing “wouldn’t intimidate” the Taliban.
I dived in. “We’re not trying to intimidate them,” I said.
“Then why are we bombing them?” came the question.
“To kill them,” I answered. There was a long silence at the table. The concept seemed not to have occurred to them. With only a couple of exceptions, the others were university graduate-school students.
The intentional lethality of combat is something that non-military people often have a hard time understanding. They often tend to think of military operations in symbolic terms, such as “intimidation,” or believe that combat offensives are designed simply to drive the enemy away or take him prisoner.
Israelis of every political stripe understand that the fight against Hamas is an existential one. The bombing campaign against Hamas is not merely symbolic, expressing displeasure at Hamas. It is, as Clausewitz wrote of the use of military force, the attempt to compel, not simply persuade, Hamas to do Israel's will.
As video from Gaza makes clear, Israel's attacks have been conducted with as great precision as possible. The vast majority of killed and injured have been unambiguously members of Hamas. Gazan civilians have suffered, yes, but there is no way to claim with integrity that the Israelis have failed to follow the Just War tenet of discrimination, just as it is undeniable that Hamas has deliberately attempted with success to kill Israeli civilians.
How will this all end?
Unfortunately, the question assumes that there will be an end. Hamas, funded by Saudi Arabia and equipped by Iran through Egypt, considers itself locked in a death match with Israel. Israel cannot permit hundreds of thousands of its people to live under constant threat of death by Hamas' rockets.
Israeli prime Minister Olmert has been on politically shaky ground for several months, accused of graft and corruption going back years. The end of his ministry looms shortly. Even so, he has indicated that he will order a land invasion of Gaza if Hamas fails to follow the terms of the ceasefire it agreed to follow. Israeli tank units have already assembled near Gaza.
In my opinion, the war cannot end on terms favorable to Hamas because Hamas simply is too weak to enforce its will against Israel. Terrorism is all it can do, and while the destruction it has wreaked using terrorism has been great in the past, it can never be so great that Israel will submit.
Israel, on the other hand, has the military capability to crush utterly Hamas, but the cost in lives to both Israel and Gaza's civilians would be more than Israel is prepared to accept. An air campaign alone cannot compel Hamas to surrender its fight. Unless Israel is prepared to accept a long-term deployment of its armed forces inside Gaza, these strikes will bring only temporary respite from Hamas' attacks. However, Olmert proved in 2006, during Israel's campaign against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, that he has no stomach for the slog of ground warfare.
On the other hand, Israel can "win" if it can knock out Hamas' claim to be the legitimate representative of the Gazan people. Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, whom I met and talked with for an afternoon in October 2007, writes that the attacks have already caused Hamas to lose much legitimacy.
Hamas appears to have lost some of its credibility due to the fact the Islamist movement was unprepared for the surprise offensive - a fact that contributed to the deaths of dozens of policemen who were attending a graduation ceremony in Gaza City on Saturday.
Hamas's relatively moderate response to the operation (only a few dozen rockets and mortars that have killed one Israeli citizen so far) has also harmed the movement's reputation.
Prior to the attack, Hamas operatives had threatened to fire thousands of rockets at Israel, including Beersheba and Ashdod.
Hamas's top leaders in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, Mahmoud Zahar and Said Siam, have all gone underground out of fear of being targeted by Israel. Just a few days ago the three had proudly announced that they were not afraid of death and would be "honored" to join the bandwagon of Palestinian "martyrs." The general feeling on the streets of the Gaza Strip on Sunday night was that the countdown to the collapse of the Hamas regime had begun. As one local journalist put it, "We don't know who's in control of the Gaza Strip. The feeling is that the Hamas regime is crumbling."
The question is, though: who or what is ready to replace Hamas if it loses political power in Gaza? PA President Abbas has publicly been unsupportive of Hamas, even going so far as to blame Hamas for the Israel's attacks it broke its ceasefire with Israel. As Mr. Toameh notes, Abbas would like nothing more than for the PA to return to power in Gaza.
As well, there is good reason to believe that some important Arab states are not much sorry to see Israel take Hamas down a peg or three, much as they publicly denounced but privately approved Israel's abortive attempt to shatter Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. The reason? The Sunni states near Israel - Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt - are very concerned about Iran's rising influence in the Mediterranean Middle East. Iran sponsors both Hamas and Hezbollah (Hezbollah, or "Party of God," was a political entity in Iran originally; the Lebanese faction is a sort of franchise). Zvi Barel writes,
Thus far, Hamas has not succeeded in generating an Arab diplomatic initiative that would lead to a renewed cease-fire on its terms. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which view Hamas as an Iranian ally whose goal is to increase Tehran's regional influence at their expense, prefer to wait a bit in the hopes that Israel's military operation will strip Hamas of its ability to dictate terms. And without those two states, the Arab League will have trouble even convening an emergency summit.
Granted, such a summit has limited practical value. But its absence indicates that Arab solidarity with the Palestinians is crumbling under Hamas' leadership.
Middle East politics often seem opaque. There is much that goes on "behind the curtain" that we do not see. So expect to be surprised again in days to come.
"1948, Israel and the Palestinians: The True Story" in the Wall Street Journal, May 2008.
"The neighborhood bully strikes again," by Gideon Levy, who denounces the campaign, based (apparently) not on a lack of justification but because Gideon believes the Olmert government to be incompetent in security matters (and for good reasons, I would add, as I explained here).
"A hard look at Hamas' capabilities," which are not to be scoffed at.