Hamas is, of course, claiming that it is “winning” in the current conflict with Israel. Unfortunately, not all of its claims can be easily shrugged off, thanks to its ruthlessness and its cynical abuse of the Palestinian people, and in no small part thanks to the international community’s willful blindness and worse. Ultimately, though, what Hamas has to say matters far less than what Israel achieves in this resort to force. And most Israelis seem well aware of that.
Hamas is “winning,” for a start, because it doesn’t care who it kills in support of its declared goal of destroying Israel. It especially likes to kill Israelis, but it has no compunction in killing Palestinians too. It killed many Palestinians when seizing power in Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority in 2007. And it has cynically got hundreds of Gazans killed in this conflict, by storing its rockets in Gaza schools, firing from inside hospitals, building ammunition stores, rocket launchers and command centers in the heart of residential neighborhoods.
Its leaders — while sending their recruits to their deaths, assuring them that they’re doing Allah’s work and are on their way to paradise — would rather not die themselves, however, and they’re faring reasonably in that effort as well. In 2002, the Shin Bet released excerpts of tapped phone conversations in which the wife of (since assassinated) Hamas bigwig Abdel Aziz Rantisi said thanks but no thanks to the invitation from a Hamas caller for her son to become a suicide bomber. “He’s busy with his studies,” she said of the boy. Today, too, Hamas’s leaders are doing their utmost not to get themselves killed along with the ordinary Gazans they’re putting in harm’s way. The Hamas leadership is hiding out in the reinforced bunkers it built in recent years with the concrete that the empathetic international community pleaded with Israel to allow into Gaza. Or, in the case of Hamas “political” leader Khaled Mashaal, living it up 1,100 miles away in a luxury hotel in Qatar, vowing to fight to the last drop of (somebody else’s) blood.
It’s all too easy for Hamas gunmen to kill the incoming troops when they know where the soldiers are headed: to the tunnel openings Hamas has dug and in which its gunmen are hiding
Hamas is “winning,” too, because while Israeli military sources say hundreds of Hamas gunmen have been killed, large numbers more have not. Hamas is also still firing rockets deep into Israel. It’s able to do so because many of its launchers are placed far deeper inside the Gaza Strip than IDF troops have thus far ventured. As with Hezbollah, which was still firing into Israel at the end of the month-long Second Lebanon War in 2006, this is considered a great success — little Hamas besieging the loathed Israel — even though Iron Dome has thwarted almost all of the 2,000-plus rockets that were headed into residential areas. Hamas will doubtless be looking to rectify that “failure” when the fighting ends.
Hamas is giddy with success, too, because it has killed, at time of writing, 40 soldiers. It’s all too easy for Hamas gunmen to kill the incoming troops when the Israelis are trying not to kill the civilians around them, and when Hamas has prepared for this moment for years — when it has booby-trapped buildings, deployed snipers, primed teenagers with suicide-bomber belts, planted bombs, and, most relevantly, when it knows where the soldiers are headed: to the tunnel openings Hamas has dug and in which its gunmen are hiding. That the IDF death toll is not much higher is evidence of the Israeli army’s abilities. But any and every Israeli fatality is a victory for Hamas.
It has often been said Israel would gain more sympathy internationally if only more Israelis were dying. Well, more Israelis are dying now — except that since they’re the soldiers of the side widely misrepresented as the aggressor, even that works to Hamas’s advantage
Hamas managed to get three-quarters of the international airlines that routinely fly in and out of Israel to temporarily stop using Ben-Gurion Airport, thanks to the pusillanimous lead of the authorities in the United States. Israel’s security arrangements for flights leaving and entering are rigorous, yet the fact that a single one of those 2,000 rockets found its target near Tel Aviv, constituting no threat to incoming or outgoing flights, was enough to spark a dismal international capitulation to terrorism.
Entirely unsurprisingly, Hamas is managing to further blacken Israel’s name wherever this conflict is depicted in terms that are the opposite of reality, which is most everywhere. Israel is under attack by the terrorist government of the state next door, which is openly committed to destroying it, in accordance with a perverted Islamist ideology, in partnership with Iran, Qatar, Hezbollah and the rest of this region’s most pernicious governments and terrorist organizations. Year after year, Hamas improves its capacity to do Israel harm, while Israel does its best to minimize that capacity. No attacks on Israel or preparation for attacks on Israel? No suffering in Gaza. It really is as simple as that. To Hamas’s delight, this simple truth is eluding much of the watching world.
Doubtless, it has often been said, Israel would gain more sympathy internationally if only more Israelis were dying. Well, more Israelis are dying now — except that since they’re the soldiers of the side widely misrepresented as the aggressor, even that works to Hamas’s advantage. Gaza’s terrorist government does its best to kill Israeli civilians. It’s managing to kill Israeli soldiers, drawing them into the residential areas where it’s thus also getting Gaza civilians killed. Israel’s even treating in its hospitals injured terrorists it captures emerging from the Hamas tunnels. And still, through every twist and turn of this conflict, the international presumption of blame is on Israel. The dangers to Israel are minimalized. The rocket attacks are dismissed as inconsequential (except, as mentioned, when they necessitate the abandonment of Ben-Gurion Airport) and the cross-border attack tunnels often aren’t even being reported at all. Through the manipulation of the willingly manipulated, it’s all Israel’s fault. Wonderful news for the Islamists.
That Gazans loathe Israel more with every passing day is inevitable. That they don’t blame Hamas for bringing destruction down upon their heads is unsurprising. But Hamas is also gradually managing to encourage larger demonstrations against Israel in the West Bank, undermining Abbas. Its partner group inside Israel, the Islamic Movement, and the radical Israeli Arab leaders whom democratic Israel insists must be allowed to take their seats in the Knesset, are simultaneously doing their utmost to whip up anti-Israeli sentiment and protest among Israel’s 23% Arab minority.
Hamas is also widening the frictions between Israel and its most important ally, the United States. President Barack Obama expressed concern about Gaza civilian casualties, urged a ceasefire and dispatched his secretary of state even as Israel clearly needed time to tackle the horrifying network of terror tunnels Hamas dug under the Israeli border. That secretary showed his cynical dismissal of Israel’s efforts at “pinpoint” targeting of terrorist sites in Gaza in a risible hot mic fiasco, and has engaged Qatar — advocate for and financier of Hamas — in ceasefire contacts, undermining the Egyptian-led effort. It’s a rare and dismal moment when Israel’s leadership finds itself forced to reject a US-offered ceasefire; it showcases a profound disconnect between Jerusalem and Washington; it raises the question of why the US would want to constrain Israel’s capacity to demolish the tunnels through which Hamas sends killers into Israel. And the Hamas leadership must be absolutely delighted.
And yet, ultimately, Hamas’s “victory” claims are not the key issue here. What matters is that Israel emerges from this conflict into the “sustained calm” that its leadership and armed forces are working for.
En route to that necessary result, Israelis are atypically united; people believe that this a vital and justified resort to force — a war “for the home,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defined it.
Israelis generally believe the government is stewarding the conflict competently. A snap poll on Channel 10 gave Netanyahu an 82% favorability rating on Thursday — unprecedentedly high figures, though understandable in times of war, with so many soldiers dead. The government, for now, is demonstrating unity too; the entire security cabinet rejected the Kerry ceasefire proposal on Friday — Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid, et al. Of course, that also underlines how outrageous the ministers considered that proposal to be.
Israelis are widely supportive of the IDF. They are also broadly confident that the IDF is indeed trying to minimize Gaza civilian casualties.
Israelis are proving highly resilient despite the endless rocket attacks, and well-disciplined in following the steps recommended to reduce the likelihood that they’ll be hit by either rockets or falling shrapnel after Iron Dome interceptions.
Motivation levels in the IDF itself are very high. Call-up orders to reserve units are being overwhelmingly answered. Reservists who have not been called are seeking ways to serve. There are numerous accounts of soldiers who recently finished their three years in the standing army insisting on being allowed to return to their units.
The residents of Gaza-envelope kibbutzim and moshavim now know that Hamas was preparing to massacre them
For all the criticisms abroad, there’s a sense of vindication. Israel was trashed internationally after naval commandos, under attack by thugs with iron bars and clubs, killed nine people aboard the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara when it sought to breach the naval blockade of Gaza in 2010. Hamas is demanding the “lifting of the siege” of Gaza. But Israelis recognize more clearly than ever how much more danger they would now be in were it not for that blockade, which at least partially reduced the quantity and quality of weaponry that Hamas is able to muster against Israel.
Muttered criticisms right now, about the government’s failure to tackle the tunnel threat earlier, will certainly give way to louder criticisms when this conflict is over. But in the midst of conflict, however perverse given the terrible, mounting cost, there is relief that the danger is finally being addressed. Five times in the past two weeks, Hamas gunmen have swarmed through those tunnels and emerged to kill six IDF soldiers, while 20 of their number were killed.
The residents of Gaza-envelope kibbutzim and moshavim now know that Hamas was preparing to massacre them. Hours of shutdowns in recent days, entire kibbutzim and moshavim ordered to stay in their homes as the IDF searched for any more tunnel-emerging gunmen on the loose, are a small price to pay for the demolition of that tunnel-invasion threat. Israelis are divided 46% to 41% (according to the Thursday Channel 10 poll) between those who want this operation to end with the destruction of Hamas’s regime in Gaza and those who want it to end with the destruction of the tunnels. But there’s very little public doubt about the imperative to have deployed ground forces to deal with the danger.
Indeed, Israelis are casting their eyes anxiously now to the north, wondering if Hezbollah, which served as a role model for Hamas in assembling a rocket-assault capability, has also been tunneling energetically under the northern border. On this issue, too, there is sure to be considerable focus once this round of conflict is over. For now, though, the warning alarms are certainly sounding. Far better now than later.
When the guns fall silent, it’s hard to imagine a shift in public opinion anywhere but to the right
Israel is learning lessons, fast, from this conflict — about the need for still greater controls about what goes into Gaza, about the importance of the quiet partnership with Egypt, about the limits of force and of diplomacy, about the tactical and strategic skills of Hamas, and about the acute dangers of complacency. It recognizes that no ceasefire will hold in the long-term if Hamas is not either smashed or disarmed, that even the more modest goal of “sustained calm” is unattainable unless Hamas is much more battered than it is as of this writing, but that doing deeper damage to Hamas will cost more Israeli lives. For now, Israelis are trusting the government and the IDF to find the smartest route through that conundrum.
When the guns fall silent, the in-fighting will assuredly begin. The united Israel at war will return quickly to the divided Israel arguing about how this conflict could have been prevented or should have been preempted, whether Israel mishandled the peace process, the advantages and disadvantages of the settlements, the rights and wrongs of having left Gaza in 2005, and plenty more besides. It’s hard, even in electorally volatile Israel, to imagine a shift in public opinion anywhere but to the right.
Israel will have deepened rifts to address between its Jews and Arabs. Its international standing will have sustained a long-term impact; it won’t be possible any longer to paper over the cracks in its relationship with the United States government. European Jews will have some thinking to do about their environment. This will not blow over quickly.
But for now, as it seeks to keep the death toll down, to bring credible protection for its people, and to grapple with the aggressive challenges from Hamas that most of the public certainly underestimated, this country is focused on its key imperative: ensuring that, while Hamas will always claim victory, Israel emerges from this conflict on terms that leave it dependably safer.