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Analysis

While Israel makes tactical gains, Hamas is proving the strategic victor

Four insights into a conflict which highlights that Israel’s 12-year policy of seeking to placate the Gaza monster must change

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Members of Israeli security and emergency services work on a site hit by a rocket fired from Gaza in Ramat Gan, where an Israeli man was killed, on May 15, 2021. (Gil COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)
Members of Israeli security and emergency services work on a site hit by a rocket fired from Gaza in Ramat Gan, where an Israeli man was killed, on May 15, 2021. (Gil COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

1. There is a vast gulf between the way Israel is attempting to explain and market “Operation Guardian of the Walls” and the way in which Hamas is succeeding in presenting its fight against Israel to the Palestinian and Arab public.

While Israel is seeking and achieving tactical successes — such as the air assault on Hamas’s “metro” network of tunnels across northern Gaza, the toppling of high-rise blocs of Hamas significance, and strikes at weapons stores and rocket launchers — Hamas is achieving strategic success, attaining primacy in the Palestinian, Arab and even Israeli spheres.

Hamas has managed something unprecedented in the past day or two: Apart from its own incessant barrages of fire deep into Israel, it has mobilized thousands of Palestinian protesters in the West Bank, prompted minor rocket fire from Lebanon and from Syria, and, most significantly, has drawn extremist Israeli Arabs into its battle — emblemized by the sight of demonstrators from Umm al-Fahm gathering to shout threats outside the neighboring Moshav Mai Ami. These and the other violent indications of a descent toward civil war within Israel are being seen in the Palestinian sphere as significant Hamas achievements.

The IAF bombs Gaza tunnels, May 14, 2021 (IAF screenshot)

There are growing numbers of fatalities in Gaza, some 150 and rising, and widespread destruction. But the destruction will be fixed with the Qatari funding that the Netanyahu government has continued to allow into Gaza. And when one recalls that 2,000 Gazans were killed in the 2014 Gaza-Israel war, the current death toll is minimal as far as Hamas is concerned. It has constantly used civilians as human shields, regarding the deaths of Palestinian innocents as the legitimate means to achieve its ends.

2. Israel’s response in Gaza is beginning to exhaust itself. The IDF is hitting innumerable military targets, and attaining some significant results. But it is also hitting civilians, as was the case at Shati refugee camp in the Saturday pre-dawn hours — in which numerous members of the Hatab family were killed in a strike that Israeli military sources later said targeted a meeting of senior Hamas officials.

Furthermore, the likelihood that Israel can attain a symbolic as well as military victory is not particularly realistic. This or that targeted military facility, rocket production line, command center, or Hamas commander, won’t change the overall reality.

Fire and smoke rises from the Jala Tower as it is destroyed in an Israeli airstrike after the IDF warned the occupants to leave, Gaza City, May 15, 2021 (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Israel is not going to score a decisive win in this round of conflict. The only prospect of showcasing a decisive victory is via the targeting of Mohammad Deif, Hamas’s terror chief, or Yahya Sinwar, its Gaza leader — but presumably both are hiding out deep underground under heavy security.

Another option that could end with a Hamas defeat is a ground operation, but nobody — truly, nobody — in the Israeli leadership wants to initiate this.

3. It is necessary to consider next steps, however, since even as this round of conflict continues, the next round is already waiting around the corner.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year policy to contain Hamas, while enabling it to strengthen militarily undisturbed, must be reconsidered. It is unthinkable that Israel continue to permit Hamas to improve and manufacture its rockets with impunity, that it allows Qatari and other aid into Gaza and all manner of other humanitarian support, under what is either the delusion that this will sate and calm the monster or the misconception that Hamas is being deterred.

Hamas is again demonstrating that it has no compunction putting Gazans in direct danger and sacrificing any minor improvements in the humanitarian situation in the Strip. What’s needed is a conceptual change on the Israeli side,  including the use of surprise attacks even during times of calm.

4. Until the last two days, the West Bank had stayed out of this escalation. Only a few people went out to demonstrate. That changed on Friday, with protests and riots of a scale not seen for years. We are not witnessing mobilization at the level of the first or second Intifada, but they were mass protests nonetheless, with some 10 fatalities.

A Palestinian throws a burning tire onto a pile during clashes with Israeli forces near the Jewish settlement of Beit El near Ramallah in the West Bank on May 14, 2021. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

The coming period from Saturday’s Nakba Day — when Palestinians mark what they consider the “catastrophe” that befell them with the establishment of Israel — is unlikely to end without further protests, or worse. Indeed the Palestinian Authority and Fatah may consider the anniversary an opportunity, having been left behind by the events stemming from Gaza, to restake their claim to Palestinian leadership primacy.

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