The latest war between Israel and the Hamas organization in Gaza resembled the previous major rounds of fighting in 2008-09, 2012, and 2014: Hamas firing rockets at Israeli population centers day after day, Israel launching air strikes at Hamas' military infrastructure, ending in a brokered ceasefire. Hamas celebrated a victory as Israelis engaged in a vigorous debate over the outcome.
Since 2008 the Middle East Forum's staff, fellows, contributors, and guests have closely examined the question of how Israel can contain and deter, if not outright defeat, Hamas. Here is a quick review of their analyses.
Decisive Military Victory
Insofar as the emergence of a powerful Hamas military apparatus in Gaza was made possible by the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the enclave in 2005, some analysts have advocated a full-scale land and air war to destroy this apparatus. Middle East Forum Director Gregg Roman argues that containment and deterrence have failed, and that it is time for Israel to "massively bombard Gaza and even enter and occupy it until the rocket infrastructure has been completely destroyed," then "hermetically seal Gaza, cutting off the supply chain to Hamas and other terrorist organizations." Regional conditions now make such a plan more feasible. Moderate Arab states have "largely lost patience with the Gazan terrorist organizations, who have received support, funds and arms from Iran, Qatar and Turkey," writes Roman, and are "ready to provide tacit support, or at least show little opposition, to Israel's defeat of Hamas and Islamic Jihad."
Nave Dromi, the head of MEF's Israel Victory Project, concurs: "The idea that terrorist organizations cannot be defeated is ... outdated. Just ask the Islamic State in Iraq and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, both of whom were defeated and destroyed."
In contrast, former Writing Fellow Efraim Inbar maintains "it is a mistake to believe that it is possible to root Hamas out of Gaza and destroy its capabilities once and for all." He argues that not only is "attempting to defeat extreme ideologies by force of arms" impractical, but also that "there is no simple way to deter highly motivated organizations" like Hamas. Instead, he counsels the periodic use of force by Israel in Gaza "to degrade [its] enemies' military capabilities and thus diminish the damage they can inflict," a strategy known colloquially in Israel as "mowing the lawn."
Steady improvements in Israel's military capabilities have enabled it to degrade Hamas assets while minimizing civilian casualties on both sides during outbreaks of fighting. Israel has reached "extreme precision in its airstrikes" and achieved more advanced "intelligence-gathering through the use of satellites, cyber technology, and other sources," writes MEF Writing Fellow Seth J. Frantzman, which typically means "putting a missile in a bedroom rather than taking out a whole house."
Meanwhile, Israel's Iron Dome air-defense system "not only tracks and intercepts incoming rockets, but also warns Israelis in projected target areas to seek shelter." Israel's early warning alarms "are so precise that only those directly at risk of rocket fire receive alerts," notes Frantzman, which minimizes the disruption of civilian life in Israel even in the face of heavy rocket fire.
A related, overlapping strategy is deterrence. "In the simple and brutal logic of the neighborhood," writes MEF Writing Fellow Jonathan Spyer, Israel must "remind Hamas of the cost of tangling with the Jewish state." But deterrence "is a perishable substance, which must be periodically replenished."
Inbar argues in favor of "relatively short" duration ground invasions of Gaza in order to "smash the enemy's belief that Israeli society is weak and afraid of losses." From time to time, he writes, Israel "must demonstrate that it is not afraid to have the IDF enter urban areas, even if it takes heavy casualties" and show that "Israeli society is prepared for it."
However, while it's possible to "gain a modicum of deterrence in order to extend the quiet between rounds of violence," writes Inbar, ending the episodic outbreaks of violence between Gaza and Israel isn't feasible so long as Hamas is in control of Gaza and committed to Israel's destruction. "As long as the Palestinians do not transform their goals, the conflict will not be resolved, only managed."
Deterring acts of aggression from Gaza is complicated by Iran's direct control over Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and heavy influence over Hamas, according to Spyer. While Hamas' calculus may be governed by local considerations, Iran's efforts to precipitate outbreaks of fighting in Gaza are driven by broader regional concerns – such as punishing Israel for its "war between wars" campaign to diminish the power of Iranian proxies in what Iran considers to be "the more crucial front to Israel's north – in Syria and Lebanon," where "an ongoing, undeclared conflict between Israel and Iran is under way." In the face of provocations, "Israeli planners are faced with the difficult task of responding with sufficient ferocity to deter further acts of aggression, while avoiding a descent into all-out war" desired by Iran.
While physically eliminating Hamas may not be practical, still less eradicating the ideology that gives rise to it, Middle East Forum President Daniel Pipes is more sanguine about prospects of achieving an enduring victory over Hamas in Gaza. Israel's aim should be "to impose a sense of defeat on Gazans, from the head of Hamas to the lowliest street sweeper," he writes.
The appropriate strategy and tactics for achieving this goal should be determined not by a priori views on how to fight terrorism, but by observation of cause and effect. He proposes that Israel's security establishment conduct a "detailed study of the Gazan population's psychology" designed to assess whether tactics such as deprivation of basic needs, destruction of infrastructure, and assassinations of Hamas leaders in retaliation for attacks on Israel "inspire a sense of resistance (muqawama) and steadfastness (sumud) among Gazans or ... break their will."
Answers to such questions vary considerably over time and under changing political conditions. "What was unbearable for the Palestinians in the West Bank in 2002 was bearable in Gaza in 2014 because the political context had changed," writes Eitan Shamir, a professor at Tel Aviv University, in the Spring 2015 issue of Middle East Quarterly.
Presently, the conventional wisdom in Israel is that, all else being equal, alleviating civilian conditions in Gaza where possible is beneficial. The IDF understands that "the better the civilian situation [in Gaza], the lower the likelihood of instability and fighting ... from a moral ... and military point of view, we try to improve the situation," Israeli Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, head of the international media branch of the Israel Defense Force's (IDF) Spokesperson's Unit, told Middle East Forum Radio. However, he noted, Israel's military faces a "significant dilemma" in seeking to improve conditions because "Hamas and Islamic Jihad" use goods and supplies that it allows into Gaza "to fight against Israel, piling on suffering for the civilian population."
This focus on avoiding civilian suffering in Gaza is partly driven by Israel's desire to minimize international condemnation of its policies, and substantially thwarted by Hamas' desire to maximize international hostility to Israel. Pipes notes a "curious" dynamic "in which Hamas celebrates Palestinian misery and Israel does its best to keep life normal for its enemy." Hamas "seeks the destruction of Palestinian property, compels civilians to sustain injuries and death, [and] inflates casualty figures," he wrote during the 2014 Israel-Hamas conflict, while Israel "takes gratuitous fatalities to spare harm to Palestinians ... provid[es] medical care and food and send[s] technicians into harm's way to make sure that Gazans continue to enjoy free electricity." Increasingly, "war's center of gravity has moved from the battlefield to public relations."
Today, Israel is not only taking much greater care than ever before to avoid harming civilians, but it even avoids harming combatants unless doing so is necessary when knocking out rockets, tunnels, and other military infrastructure. "The overall policy is not to kill large numbers of Hamas members," writes Frantzman.
The 2021 Scorecard
The latest Israel-Hamas war is certain to reinvigorate debate about whether and how Israel can bring peace to its southern border. Most observers agree that Israel succeeded in "mowing the grass" during the eleven days of fighting, and it will take time for Hamas to recover militarily. But Israel "has not achieved any significant strategic outcomes beyond delaying the next round of violence," said Roman in a radio interview shortly after the ceasefire was announced. "It is not clear what Israel has gained from this round," concurs Frantzman.
Although only 60-70 of the more than 4,000 rockets fired by Hamas managed to reach Israeli cities and towns, its ability to sow destruction deeper in the heart of Israel than was previously possible and unprecedented rioting by Arab Israelis during the war were widely celebrated by Hamas supporters.
Hamas leaders claimed to have won a public relations victory. On the basis of "how much the resistance fighters managed to ... convey the message of the Palestinian people to the international community," proclaimed Hamas representative in Iran Khaled al-Qaddoumi, "we were the victors." He specifically pointed to the anti-Israel consensus expressed by most European governments and outspoken opposition of many American Jews to Israel's conduct of the war. "The Zionist regime's narrative is starting to be isolated."
While Hamas is "riding a wave of popular support," according to Frantzman, most Israelis are not happy with the results of the war. According to a widely cited public opinion survey, 72% of Israelis were opposed to Israel's acceptance of the ceasefire. Pipes suggests that this may strengthen Israeli resolve going forward. "The most important question is whether this fourth round of fighting will lead Israelis to make sure there is no fifth round," he explained in a May 27 interview. "I think that is likely, in which case Hamas would be the big loser."
The fact that Israel's unprecedented efforts to avoid Palestinian casualties did little to soften international criticism and left Gazans feeling emboldened may prompt some soul-searching in Israel. The biggest lesson of the recent conflict may be that, as Frantzman writes, wars that are "supposed to be totally clean ... are not won decisively."