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Martin Kramer: Did Hamas really win in Gaza?

[Prof. Kramer, the author of Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America, was a full-time tenured academic at Tel Aviv University. He is now a senior fellow at the Adelson Institution of Strategic studies and a Senior Fellow at the Olin Institute at Harvard.]

One way to approach this question is to ask whether Hamas has achieved the objectives for which it escalated the crisis, by its refusal to extend the cease-fire. Musa Abu Marzuq, number two in the Damascus office, explained the primary Hamas objective in a very straightforward way: "The tahdiyeh had become 'a ceasefire [in exchange for another] ceasefire,' with no connection either to the crossings and [the goods] transported through them, or to the siege. Terminating it was [thus] a logical move." So Hamas gambled, escalated, and now finds itself, once again, in a "cease-fire for a cease-fire." Israel's primary objective was to compel a cease-fire by means of deterrence alone, without opening the crossings, thus serving its long-term strategy of containing and undercutting Hamas. This it has achieved, so far.

When Israel launched its operation, Hamas announced a secondary objective: to inflict significant military casualties on the Israelis. For this purpose, it had built up a network of fortifications supposedly on the Lebanon model, which it promised to turn into a "graveyard" for Israeli forces. The military wing announced that "the Zionist enemy will see surprises and will regret carrying out such an operation and will pay a heavy price. Our militants are waiting with patience to confront the soldiers face to face." This too never happened. The Hamas line quickly folded, its "fighters" shed their uniforms and melted into the civilian population. That Hamas failed to fight did surprise many Israeli soldiers, who had expected more. But there was no battle anywhere, and Israel suffered only 10 military fatalities, half of them from friendly fire. Hamas has taken to claiming that Israel has hidden its military casualties, and has thrown out various numbers—a rather precise measure of what it had hoped and failed to achieve.

There is something perverse in the notion that Hamas "won" by merely surviving. Robert Malley has said that "for Hamas, it was about showing that they could stay in place without giving way, and from this point of view it has achieved its main objective." This was not its "main objective" by any stretch of the imagination. Rashid Khalidi has written that "like Hizbullah in Lebanon in 2006, all [Hamas] has to do in order to proclaim victory is remain standing." But Hamas had a specific objective—lifting the "siege"—which was altogether different from the objective of Hezbollah. This objective Hamas manifestly failed to achieve. It also failed to achieve the secondary objective it shared with Hezbollah: inflicting Israeli military casualties. It defies logic to declare the mere survival of Hamas to be a triumph, given that Hamas openly declared a much larger objective, and Israel never made the military destruction of Hamas an objective.

War is only the pursuit of politics by other means, and anything could happen going forward. Israel could forfeit its war gains by inept diplomacy—something for which there is ample Israeli precedent. Hamas could parley its setback into a diplomatic gain—something for which there is ample Arab precedent. But I think there is little doubt that at the end of the war, Israel had achieved many of its stated objectives, and Hamas had not.

A final point, on the comparison of Hamas to Hezbollah. It is always a mistake to lump these two movements together. Hezbollah's "Islamic Resistance" deserves the name. For years, it confronted Israel militarily in southern Lebanon, and fought battles of maneuver and assaulted Israel's fortified lines. Its cadres received serious Iranian training, and while they didn't win a straight fight with the IDF in 2006, they were battle-hardened, fought hard, and inflicted casualties. The "resistance" of Hamas has always been a fiction. Hamas's so-called "military wing" developed in circumstances of occupation, and it specialized exclusively in the suicide belt and the Qassam rocket, both terrorist weapons which it directed almost exclusively at civilians. The videos of masked Hamas "fighters" in elaborate jihad-chic costumes, brandishing guns and jumping through hoops of fire, were cheap posturing. Hamas doesn't have a cadre of battle-hardened fighters; one Israeli soldier aptly described those who did pop up in Gaza as "villagers with guns."

If the "siege" of Gaza is signficiantly eased or lifted (which I still think is unlikely), it won't be because Palestinian "resistance" forced Israel's hand. It will be because Palestinian suffering has weighed on the conscience of others. That's a very old story, and there's nothing new or "heroic" about it. Those who've promised to liberate Jerusalem and Palestine by arms are (again) begging the world for sacks of flour.

Read entire article at Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH blog)