The Internet is abuzz with theorizing about who won and lost the short Israel-Hamas duel in Gaza. Unfortunately, the standards by which victory and defeat is tallied are fairly impressionistic. How else to explain the fact that so many actors have both won and lost in different areas? The problem is that victory and defeat are difficult, if not impossible, to objectively determine above the level of tactics. Certainly this is not always the case. It can be said beyond a doubt that the Confederacy was defeated in the American Civil War, for example. Southern armies were broken and their civic masters ceased to exist as political entities. Yet this is not helpful to us because the vast majority of wars do not end with one side's total erasure. It is more useful to observe that wars can decide political issues, sometimes to neither actor's optimal preference. The Korean War decided that the Korean nation would remain divided for the forseeable future. This was not optimal for the United States, the South Koreans, or the North Koreans, all of whom wanted reunification on their own terms. But it was certainly acceptable enough to justify ceasing combat for all three. China of course placed a higher value on avoiding a pro-Western unified Korea than any other objective. Hence it would be better to focus on the political issue being decided through violence and the nature of Hamas and Israel's violent relationship.
Many Gaza analyses stubbornly refuse to disentangle the respective categories of policy (the political condition or behavior favored by the polity waging war), strategy (the bridge between policy and warfare), and tactics (the strategy's manifestation as military violence). The rationality of both Israel and Hamas is endlessly dissected, though whether or not an political decision is the expression of consistent and ordered preferece doesn't change the fact that at the end of the day violence was required to remove obstacles to the policy's realization. The oft-stated conclusion that Israel has no long-term strategy for Gaza may have some truth but is also somewhat misleading. Operation Pillar of Defense was governed by a fairly basic strategy to use violence to return to a political status quo that Israel has maintained through a variety of instruments of national power since Hamas emerged as the dominant actor in the Gaza strip. The Israeli contention, arrived at via a domestic political process, that such a political condition is desirable enough to fight over is the policy. The policy is a political understanding that is achieved through a structuring of violent action (the strategy).
The current state of affairs in Gaza is a kind of violent relationship that both sides dislike but nonetheless have found acceptable for varying periods of time. Given that the Hamas charter declares Israel's destruction as the group's paramount political goal, Israel is not happy with Hamas' goals, Iranian sponsorship, or ability to do harm. Yet the consequences of eliminating it would entail sole responsibility for dealing with Gaza, to say nothing of the military, diplomatic, and domestic political costs assumed in a ground campaign and occupation. Plus, as bad Hamas may be, it certainly beats dealing with a fractalization of Palestinian armed groups with less discipline, organization, or capacity for strategic decisionmaking. In his essay "The Amorites Iniquity," Israeli National Security Council official Gur Laish also points out that Israel has a political consensus that is willing to tolerate low-level violence from Gaza in return for the ability to focus on its own political and economic development. Of course, such violent peace requires a border security system and periodic standoff operations against targets inside Gaza. What Israel requires from Hamas is continue a pattern of behvior in which violent behavior against Israel--by Hamas or any other Gaza actor--is kept to a bare minimum. Having the capbility to execute a Cast Lead or another iteration of the current operation is essential, however, as the mutual interest of each actor to maintain the relationship is constantly in flux.
Hamas certainly also dislikes being hemmed up and policing and administering Gaza for Israel's benefit. It casts its own strategy in the language of resistance (muqawama, the subheading of this blog). It derives political benefit from being seen as resisting and also must deal with other Palestinian groups competing for the same political capital. But as Laish points out Hamas can resist within what Israel considers to be accepted levels of violence--even if israel's own violence creates political problems for Hamas' position in Gaza. For a while, the status quo was also acceptable to Hamas, if not preferable. Then, as Armin Rosen explains, the acquisition of long-range weapons created a new incentive to try to revise the parameters of the violent relationship to its own benefit. Certainly Hamas could also potentially believe (with some justification) that the regional environment was more favorable, and also was pressed by the proliferation of more hardline competing groups that did not benefit from the status quo. Whether or not either side intended the low-level violence to spill over into war is difficult to determine but perhaps irrelevant. War happened, and the resultng Operation Pillar of Defense can be understood as a Israeli attempt to return to the status quo. Thomas Rid has observed that Israelis perceive "deterrence" as the persistence of a pattern of favored behavior, a understanding more characteristic of police dealing with crime levels than political scientists. The strategy of Pillar of Defense was to use force to return to the previous condition.
So we can state that Israel's strategy appears to have functioned mostly as intended. Hamas' long-range rocket stocks have likely been disrupted and Hamas has yet again lost leaders. A ceasefire has restored prominent aspects of the status quo. The big question is whether the policy is tenable. As Shashank Joshi points out, smuggling will remain a long-term problem. The political conflict between Egypt's conflicting desires and ceasefire obligations concerning the Gaza blockade is certain to continue. The evolution of Hamas' Iranian-supplied weaponry also suggests aspects of the military balance may be moving in a troublesome direction. The Palestinian Authority, as predicted, was undermined and Hamas also will continue to have to deal with competing Gaza-based groups after the same political role it occupies. But it unclear precisely how regional actors will proceed, offering perils for both sides trying to feel their way around a transformed regional environment. Long-term dynamics aside, there are also very real near-term incentives for the status quo to continue, if punctuated by periodic bursts of violence.
How Israel and Hamas understand their strategic position and behave is subject to a range of conflicting incentives, the power of domestic politics, the confusion endemic to high risk environments, and organizational processes. But at the end of this process lies policy, and its realization in violence through strategy. Whether or not the policy or the strategy is valid is up for vigorous debate, but it is inaccurate to argue, as Israeli analyst Alon Pinkas does, that Gaza has turned Clausewitz on his head. War is not driving policy, although each actor's unique understanding of the set of political and military facts "on the ground" war reveals will certainly shape future policy. Rather, Pillar of Defense is an attempt to return to a political condition that enjoys domestic political favor in Israel. It is surely not the end of the struggle between Israel and Hamas, and there is no guarantee that the pattern of conflict will continue in the same manner. But both Israel and Hamas decisionmakers likely know this, and telling them that they need better plans to adapt does not guarantee they will adapt in the supposedly enlightened manner the op-ed writer desires. How they will adapt can further alter the course of a conflict that has raged since the early 20th century and is unlikely to end any time soon.
I had mentioned on the blog a few weeks back that I was looking forward to reading Dan Byman's A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism. I can safely recommend the book now after having read it. A few quick thoughts:
1. If you are a geek like me who has spent a lot of time studying a group like Hizballah and the Israeli attempts to counter such a group, you are probably not going to learn a lot in terms of new details from Byman's book. Most of Byman's research leans heavily on well-known secondary sources and periodicals, so if you have read books like Sayigh's Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949-1993 or Harel & Issacharoff's 34 Days: Israel, Hezbollah, and the War in Lebanon in addition to all the Crisis Group reports that have been published on the region over the past 20-odd years, you're probably not going to learn a whole heck of a lot that you did not already know. But ...
2. ... The reason Byman spends so much time carefully constructing a narrative of Israel's struggles to build a coherent counter-terror strategy is so that he can draw the conclusions he does in the last chapter, where he notes what the world can learn from the Israeli experience and what Israel itself still needs to learn. The last chapter of this study is must-read stuff, and the evidence for Byman's conclusions is to be found in all the chapters that preceed it.
3. In particular, Byman makes a great point about thinking counterinsurgency while fighting terrorism. I have argued ad nauseum (and for several years now) that the dichotomy between counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency is a false one, and I have demonstrated how effective direct-action special operations (which we usually associate with counter-terrorism) fit into a counterinsurgency campaign. Byman makes the equally correct case that when you are executing what you consider to be a strict counter-terror campaign, the label "terrorist" doesn't do justice to a group like Hamas or Hizballah and that simply eroding the operational capabilities of such groups does not address the things like the social services and political representation those groups provide to their constituencies. You can't just have counter-terror operations, in other words: you also have to have a political strategy. The next point Byman makes, about countering terrorist groups in the information battle, goes part and parcel with this.
In sum, this was a good book, and unless you a serious geek like me about these issues, you will learn a lot. Byman relies a lot on Israeli sources, but as the Economist noted in their approving review, he does so in a very even-handed way. Don't let the fact that Byman repeatedly cites this blogger in Chapters 16 and 17 prevent you from buying this important and well-written new book.
Americans have what the Irish scholar Theo Farrell has called a technology fetish in our strategic culture. As someone who has spent most of my life fighting in and studying low-intensity conflict, by contrast, I like to poke holes in this particular fetish, noting the way in which poorly equipped rebels have given technologically superior Western militaries fits in the nuclear age.
I thus very rarely trumpet the news of the advent of a piece of technology as any kind of bid deal. That having been said, the big news out of Israel and the Palestinian Territories today is the successful interception of a short-range rocket by Israel's "Iron Dome" system.
In the 2006 war (.pdf), Hizballah fired an average of somewhere between 150 and 180 short-range rockets into Israel each day. (They managed to fire 250 rockets, in fact, on the very last day of the conflict.) Violent non-state actors in the region have used low-tech, short-range rockets to achieve a kind of deterrent effect with Israel. "As the bombardment of civilians is tiresome for our people," noted Hassan Nasrallah in an interview with as-Safir in 1993, "it is tiresome for others as well, and they can‘t handle it as well as we can."
If Israel can take away the ability of violent non-state actors to harrass and intimidate its populace through these rockets, though, that has the potential to be a strategic game-changer in the region. I'll be watching events in Israel with interest -- though not with as much interest, I would guess, as the boys in the Dahiyeh.
Update: Noah Pollak points out that Iron Dome knocks down $100 rockets at a cost of $50,000 a shot. He says this is unsustainable, but he probably doesn't want to know how much money we Americans have spent trying to counter low-tech IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan...
Also, I liked what Bob Baer had to say about this affair in last weekend's Wall Street Journal.
...this video, released by the police in Dubai, of the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh is just amazing. Like watching Munich. But for real.
A government minister in Sudan is accusing the United States Air Force of killing dozens of people in that north African country this past January – but the semi-official American version of the story is very different.
CBS News national security correspondent David Martin has been told that Israeli aircraft carried out the attack. Israeli intelligence is said to have discovered that weapons were being trucked through Sudan, heading north toward Egypt, whereupon they would cross the Sinai Desert and be smuggled into Hamas-held territory in Gaza.
Hamas police in Gaza broke into a warehouse full of United Nations humanitarian supplies and seized thousands of blankets and food packages, a United Nations spokesman said Wednesday, a rare public clash between the international agency that feeds much of the territory and the militant group that rules it.Now this presents an information operations opportunity for Israel and, potentially, Fatah. Will either be smart enough to exploit it?
The incident highlighted difficulties facing donors seeking to bypass Hamas while helping Gazans survive and rebuild after Israel's three-week military offensive.
"Hamas policemen stormed into an aid warehouse in Gaza City Tuesday evening and confiscated 3,500 blankets and over 400 food parcels ready for distribution to 500 families," said United Nations Relief and Works Agency spokesman Christopher Gunness. "They were armed, they seized this, they took it by force," Gunness said, terming the incident absolutely unacceptable.
In the aftermath of the war, Fatah and Hamas are already fighting over who will distribute humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza. Hamas is preventing Fatah activists from playing a role in the rebuilding of Gaza, and recently hijacked 12 trucks full of aid donated by the Jordanian government, meant for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.So this is the fight to watch next. Pay close attention to who rebuilds Gaza -- and how Hamas will seek to get credit for every bit of aid that is delivered to the people. That fight will help determine the long-term strategic effects of this latest spasm of violence.
Have three weeks of overpowering war by Israel here weakened Hamas as Israel had hoped, or simply caused acute human suffering?Remember, though, that yesterday we wrote of how states consistently overestimate the degree to which the population can or has any interest in disciplining armed actors in their midst:
There are ... limited indications that the people of Gaza felt such pain from this war that they will seek to rein in Hamas.As I read this article, it occurs to me that Israel is trying to figure out what they themselves did in a kind of ex post bellum way. Not sure if that is at all healthy.
GAZA (Reuters) - Islamist group Hamas has told the main Palestinian telecoms company to block access to pornographic Internet sites in the Gaza Strip, a Hamas government official said on Monday.
Gaza's Ministry of Communications said in a statement that telecommunications firm PALTEL has agreed to block Internet users in the Hamas-controlled coastal enclave from viewing adult websites starting this month.