Labeling any military outcome short of utter self-annihilation a resounding victory is reflective of most terrorist networks’ consistent ideologies — and of Hamas’s in particular: they have temporarily made peace with their immediate prospects for defeating Israel militarily, and are content with redefining the scope of success for the time-being. On one hand, such a degeneration of internal standards is an encouraging sign that these terrorist networks are admitting their own ineptitude. On the other hand, any reason for rejoicing is mitigated by these groups’ ability to exploit the public’s perception of them as pestilent underdogs.
Hamas’s ongoing efforts against the state and citizens of Israel may not inflict the level of concrete damage achieved by Israeli counterattacks, but the persistent nature of these efforts has had the perverse effect of desensitizing international public opinion to the underlying gravity of Hamas’s ultimate intention: to destroy Israel entirely. Even Israelis have accustomed themselves to Hamas’s endless barrage as a simple fact of daily life. But Hamas does not accept Israel’s right to exist while Israel passively takes Hamas’s for granted. Israel has therefore reduced its strategic options in both range and scope: all they essentially boil down to are ways of keeping the dangers emanating from Hamas at “manageable levels.” Ephraim, a fictional Israeli intelligence officer, summarizes this attitude most succinctly in a line from the movie Munich in reference to Palestinian terrorists:
Why cut my fingernails? They’ll just grow back.
Fingernails get cut routinely, but we should never forget that surgically pulling them out at the root is also an option, bloody and painful as it may be. Israel withdrew from Gaza last weekend when its leadership concluded that the mission had achieved all of its strategic goals. Why the complete eradication of Hamas wasn’t at the top of the list still escapes me. Demagogic politicians in neighboring Arab countries are infamous for exploiting the festering situation in the Palestinian territories as a means of rhetorically scapegoating Israel for their own domestic failures. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were somehow permanently resolved they would lose the straw man that has sustained them for decades.
Likewise, the reluctance of Israeli governments to pursue the irreparable destruction of Hamas may signal an alarming flaw in their leadership capabilities: so inured is the Israeli military to the status-quo of executing routine “proportionate” missions of retribution, and so complacent are Israeli politicians about the elementary moral arguments needed to justify them, that there seems little incentive to push the strategic horizon any further than the habitual tit-for-tat with Hamas. Yet achieving decisive victories against all terrorist elements operating in the Palestinian territories is an absolute prerequisite to any lasting solution to the conflict.
The historical record provides instructive case studies: Demilitarizing Germany, truncating her territories, overburdening her economy with reparations, and humiliating her population in the aftermath of World War I — in other words, cutting those fingernails really close to the flesh — only catalyzed the birth of the Nazi regime. But partitioning post-World-War-II Germany, governing her as an occupied territory, razing her existing political institutions to the ground and rebuilding them from scratch, produced a stable and relatively harmless democracy. Decisive victories lead to fresh starts for both the victor and, more importantly, the loser. Half-measures against an irrational enemy who accepts death as the only form of defeat lead to festering sores with zero prospects for spontaneous amelioration.
Israeli leaders should stop burning through their country’s moral and political capital in short-term retaliatory missions against Hamas, and think of investing in a Hamas-free future. It would represent a brighter prospect for everyone.