As the current round of fighting between Hamas and Israel concludes its first week today, no resolution is in sight. Israel’s government has made it clear that its goal is nothing more than “sustainable quiet” from Gaza but Hamas sees no reason to stop since the suffering they have created on both sides of the border has worked to their advantage. The reason for this has nothing to do with military technology and everything to do with the peculiar culture of Palestinian politics.
To an objective observer this makes no sense. Hamas set events in motion last month when some of its operatives kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers and then escalated the conflict by shooting several hundred rockets into the Jewish state from its Gaza stronghold. The result of these actions would all seem to undermine Hamas’s credibility vis-à-vis its Fatah rivals.
The rocket offensive has clearly failed on a military level. To shoot hundreds of rockets at cities for a week and to fail to score one hit or kill a single person—and killing civilians is exactly the goal of Hamas’s effort—can’t be represented as anything but a flop. At the same time, Hamas has not demonstrated any ability to deter or defend against Israeli precision attacks on Hamas targets.
All this would seem to add up to a perfect formula for a quick cease-fire. The Israelis want to end the attacks from Gaza and its government has no appetite for a ground invasion. Hamas could just declare a victory of sorts and preserve what is left of their arsenal since replacing their stocks of Iranian rockets won’t be so easy this time due to the closure of the border with Egypt. But there appears to be no sign of the “sustainable quiet” Israel craves of even a temporary cease-fire. The reason for that is that Hamas believes it is winning.
How so? The answer comes from the people of Gaza. They have born the brunt of Israeli counterattacks while the leaders and fighters of Hamas and their weapons stockpile remains safe in shelters underneath the strip. But the sight of rockets being launched into Israel by the hundreds has bolstered the Islamist group’s political stock. They know that Hamas TV claims of Israeli casualties are lies. But nonetheless, the idea that Jews in Tel Aviv are being forced to take shelter even if the rockets never find their targets is a big boost to their morale.
Scratch beneath the surface and actually read or listen to the comments of Gazans and you see why Hamas’s popularity always goes up whenever there is fighting.
It’s not because the Israelis are being particularly awful to the Palestinians. People in Gaza know that Hamas is begging for Israeli retaliation and understand why the rockets are being launched from neighborhoods packed with civilians or in the vicinity of schools, mosques, and hospitals. They know that if instead of facing an opponent like the IDF that strives to minimize civilian casualties they were up against an adversary as ruthless as Hamas, the price they would pay for the attempt to terrorize the Israeli people would be far higher. After all, the Assad regime and its Islamist opponents have managed to slaughter more than 160,000 Syrians in the last three years and few in the West have even raised an eyebrow about that, let alone be motivated to action to stop that war.
The Palestinians have embraced the suffering that Hamas has brought upon them because they think being set up to be killed is their part in the war against the Jewish state. Read this quote from Al-Ahkbar:
Undefeated, the 43 year-old man told Al-Akhbar “this is the price that we have to pay; Haifa cannot be shelled and the Resistance men cannot sneak into Ashkelon to clash with the occupation soldiers if we do not present martyrs and casualties… all our wounds do not matter it if they can shorten the distance to Palestine.”
When Palestinians speak of Hamas actions they refer to it as “resistance against the occupation.” But by that they are not referring to any occupation of Gaza. Israel evacuated every single soldier, settlement, and civilian from Gaza in 2005. Nor are they talking about the West Bank. When they speak of “occupation” they are referring to pre-June 1967 Israel. They genuinely think of their war with Israel as an anti-colonial struggle in which the “colonists”—the Jews—will someday be forced to leave or die, as Hamas’s charter promises. Indeed, the conceit of that piece in Al-Akhbar is that even if bomb shelters were available to Palestinians (and as I wrote last night, they exist but they’re used for Hamas and their bombs, not civilians), they wouldn’t use them because they see their spilled blood as a contribution to the cause of reversing the verdict of 1948, i.e. the “Palestine” that the Gaza man is talking about.
The problem with attempts to understand this conflict is that all too much effort is spent on unraveling the minutiae of recent events and almost none is directed at trying to understand the motivations of Hamas and its supporters. If Palestinian statehood as part of a two-state solution were their goal, they could have realized it 15 years ago. Palestinian leaders, including the allegedly moderate Mahmoud Abbas, have rejected four such offers in that time. Instead, they have mindlessly preferred to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and to insist on the so-called “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees (even though nearly as many Jews were expelled or fled their homes in the Arab and Muslim world after the same events) that is a prescription for the end of Israel.
Hamas makes no secret of its goal: the elimination of the Jewish state and the expulsion or murder of its people. Their rockets won’t get them closer to that objective. Nor will the spilled blood of Palestinians in Gaza. But it is the refusal of the Palestinian people to put aside the delusion that this is a desirable or achievable purpose that fuels Hamas’s popularity and perpetuates the conflict. Whether or not there is a cease-fire this week, it won’t really end until the Palestinians and their foreign supporters concede that history won’t be reversed and get on with the business of building their own lives in a world in which Israel’s existence is permanent.