Hamas and the New Round of Fighting in Gaza: Both Sides are Escalating to Nowhere

  • photo courtesy of gnuckx https://www.flickr.com/photos/gnuckx/3332870741
    Jul 17, 2014

    The key question in any war – in starting it and throughout the conflict – is how will this war end?  Ever since 1967, the answer in the case of Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, has been by pausing and then resuming in a different form with the same result. In the case of the fighting in Gaza, changes in tactics and technology have simply escalated to nowhere. The best outcome has been an unstable ceasefire. The worst has been violence too low in intensity to be labeled another round of conflict.

    The initial cause in 2006, 2012, and now in 2014, has been a new attempt by Hamas to change the strategic facts on the ground – increasingly relying on rockets and missiles rather than irregular warfare in the form of ground or naval attacks on Israel. In each case, Israel’s decisive military edge has left Hamas (and the more extreme Palestinian Islamic Jihad) weaker than before, killed and wounded far more Palestinians than Israelis, prolonged the economic isolation that has crippled Gaza and reduced living standards and social mobility, and failed to have any meaningful political impact that benefited Hamas in making even limited strategic gains.

    Each round has also been costly and futile to Israel. Israel’s casualties have been far lower, but all too real if it attempted to fight on the ground. The cost of air and ground operations has steadily risen, and so has the cost of the security measures in peacetime that deter and contain Hamas and other threats in the Gaza. Hamas has recovered its ability to pose a threat and slowly developed a capability to use rockets, missiles and mortars to strike into Israeli territory – although without any meaningful strategic benefits to Hamas – or Gaza’s population.

    The latest round of fighting can be measured in different ways – which some media reduce to levels approaching the statistics in a sporting event: comparative killed and wounded, and displaced form or lost their homes. Numbers of Hamas rockets and missiles launched, and numbers that were intercepted or had no result. Numbers of Israeli sorties flown, numbers that hit a military target, numbers that hit a Hamas-related home, numbers that produced collateral damage, and numbers that produced civilian casualties. Direct and indirect military and economic costs to each side.

    These “stats of war” get worse with each passing day, and will get much worse if Israel adds a ground dimension to the fighting. What they will not do is change the strategic outcome of this “war.” Some Israelis do call for a ground war so large that it would effectively occupy the entire Gaza strip and hunt down and destroy Hamas and the PIJ. In practice, however, it is not possible to “mow the grass” to the point where Hamas will not survive or some threat emerges as a result of the anger and desperation of the Palestinian population in Gaza. There is no clear point at where a new Israeli occupation could stop, and Israel will face growing international opposition to its actions.

    The end result is that Israel will probably limit its military efforts to the point where it feels it has deterred Hamas for some period of time, create a new ceasefire of an uncertain length, and confront Hamas with either finding new and far more sophisticated missiles or trying to get numbers so large that a volley could saturate Israel’s missile defenses and compensate for their lack of accuracy and lethality. This outcome seems dubious as long as Egypt continues to crack down on Palestinian tunnels and shipments across its border.

    Israel, however, will not have won except at the tactical level. It will still have to tailor a major part of its security effort to deal with whatever threat emerges after this round of fighting, deal with the challenge of containing more than 1.8 million people, and deal with the risk that it will face much broader hostility from the Palestinians, and the present moderate Palestinian Authority will collapse. It will still have to go on dealing with the broad hostility of the Arab world and Iran, and deal with the fact many countries see its use of force as excessive and Israel as guilty of human rights abuses and blocking the peace process.

    The end result is that the war will not end in any real sense. The outcome of this round of round of fighting war will leave the strategic realities on the ground more or less where they began, having been seen as necessary by both sides, but having escalated to nowhere. The resulting pause will be a prelude to yet another round of fighting, and more human costs on both sides.

    If one compares the cost of this and past rounds of such fighting, it is impossible to see what either side has accomplished. Israel will have to live with continued uncertainty and risk and the inevitable charges that it used excessive force. Yet, when one looks at the cost to Palestinian civilians of Hamas’s actions, it is impossible to respect any aspect of Hamas’s intentions and strategy.

    The end result looks far too much like a warning that Bion of Borysthenes gave in a very different context some 2,500 years ago: "Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest.” Given the end result of Hamas’s actions to date, its is not clear that they have had any more strategic purpose than throwing stones, or that Hamas clearly understands the differences between frogs and its own people.

    Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.


    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Anthony H. Cordesman