Five Early Lessons from the Israel-Hamas War

July 14, 2014 Topic: SecurityTerrorism Region: Israel

Five Early Lessons from the Israel-Hamas War

Why the conflict broke out, what's shaping it, and what's too soon to tell.

Israel and Hamas are currently locked in an escalating violent confrontation neither sought. As the clash is still ongoing, with no end currently in sight, it is way too early to reach any definitive conclusions about it. The following should therefore be considered as some very preliminary and tentative comments regarding the new crisis and its possible ramifications. Also, as these comments are focuses more on the Israeli side than on Hamas, they cannot be considered “balanced.” Their purpose is merely to point to some possible lessons which will require further elaboration and examination once the guns are silenced.

First, the leadership vacuum: No factor is more important in causing this crisis than the weak political leadership of all the relevant parties. In the most recent attempt to reach a negotiated end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—that orchestrated by Secretary of State John Kerry—Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas both proved too weak to make the difficult historic decisions that a deal required. And the Obama administration was equally weak and refrained from exercising the leverage required to compel the parties to reconcile their differences.

In turn, the failure of diplomacy left the arena open to the extremes on both sides to set the agenda and that’s exactly what they did: with a couple of Hamas-affiliated operatives abducting and murdering three Israeli teenagers and with six Israeli extremists taking revenge by murdering a Palestinian teenager. Moreover, the same leadership vacuum that played a major role in causing this eruption of violence has so far also played a role in the absence of any serious effort to deescalate the crisis. The U.S., which under similar circumstances over the past four decades has repeatedly intervened to put out the flames, is now nearly absent. And for completely different reasons, others who traditionally played such a role—first and foremost, Egypt—are currently also keeping a low profile.

Second, the importance of “framing”: Almost immediately, Netanyahu decided to define the abduction and murder of the three Israeli teenagers as a Hamas operation. This was his choice, because even at this writing the two killers have yet to be apprehended and interrogated. Hence, who they were associated with, who ordered the abduction, and what their motivations were, remains unclear. But the abduction caught Netanyahu in the midst of a campaign to derail the new Palestinian national reconciliation government in which his central narrative was that Abbas had entered a marriage with a murderous organization.

Under these circumstances, Netanyahu could hardly refrain from framing the abduction as a Hamas operation which proves the organization’s true character. From that point began an Israeli campaign against Hamas—rounding up Hamas leaders in the West Bank, rearresting tens of Hamas operatives who were released in the framework of the Gilad Shalit deal, and even curtailing Hamas’s social welfare activities.

Now that the conflict has escalated it is easy to forget that only three weeks ago, when the Israeli government took these steps, credible and centrist Israeli defense journalists like Amos Harel of Ha’aretz asked publically: why were the IDF and Shabak battling Hamas symbols instead of devoting all their intelligence and other assets to finding the three teenagers? Not surprisingly, this led Hamas leaders to conclude that Israel decided to exploit the crisis to reverse the Gilad Shalit deal and to launch a comprehensive campaign against their organization. They reacted by intensifying the rocket launching, hence the present spiral.

This points not only to the importance of framing but also to the failure to think two steps ahead. Defining the abduction and killing as a Hamas operation committed Israel to a major confrontation with the movement. Was this preceded by a serious discussion as to whether such a confrontation is in Israel’s interest? Did Israeli decision makers consider the consequence not of failure but of success? Did they weigh the possible ramification of weakening Hamas: Who under such circumstances would be more likely to replace Hamas in Gaza—moderate Palestinians associated with Fatah or far more extreme jihadi groups?

Third, words can kill: Given the importance of “framing,” weak leadership will result in unintended escalation. As noted earlier, Netanyahu reacted to the abduction of the three Israeli teenagers with very strong rhetoric directed at Hamas. But Netanyahu is risk-averse; he had no intention for this crisis to escalate out of control. So how did we get to this point?

Netanyahu’s initial rhetoric created a yardstick against which to judge his action. Thus he essentially invited his rivals for the leadership of Israel’s right wing—Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, both members of his own cabinet—to argue that his deeds do not match his words and that Israel’s response to Hamas is “insufficient,” “too weak”, and “projects hesitancy,” thus eroding Israel’s credibility. In this crisis Israel’s defense minister, “Bogie” Yaalon actually played the role of the “responsible adult,” joining Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni and Minister of Treasury Yair Lapid in supporting restraint—a position also recommended by the IDF’s General Staff.

But in the end Netanyahu seems to have yielded to his right wing critics, ordering the Israeli defense community to intensify its pressure on Hamas, which in turn was also caught between its “resistance” rhetoric and its desire to avoid escalation. Hence while it initially reacted very cautiously—to this very day it did not assume responsibility for the abduction of the three Israeli teenagers (this was in sharp contrast to its immediate assumption of full responsibility for the abduction of Gilad Shalit in 2006)—in reaction to Israel’s increased pressure, it intensified its rocket launching, thus making it impossible for Netanyahu to withstand the internal pressure to escalate.

Fourth, kudos to technology: After the recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan it became a fad to argue that western militaries—especially the U.S.—have developed an addiction to technology at the expense of the human factor, in peacetime and war. So far the present confrontation with Hamas proves the opposite: The Iron Dome antirocket system has played an important role in minimizing Israeli casualties. Equally the ability of sensors to detect Hamas attempts at penetration from the sea has had a similar effect. These tactical and operational successes have had important positive strategic ramifications: heavy Israeli civilian casualties would have forced Israel to react sharply, thus leading to a further dramatic escalation of the violence.

Finally, a word about winners and losers: It is far, far too early to determine who, if anyone would seem to have gained from the new round of Hamas-Israel violence. But a word of caution is in place. Even if a nonstate actor merely survives a violent confrontation with a powerful state—be it the Taliban versus the U.S. or Hezbollah versus Israel—that in itself is a significant achievement for the nonstate actor, the weaker party to the conflict. Under such circumstances, the nonstate actor will write a narrative of victory as Hezbollah did in the aftermath of the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Indeed, sometimes even the state actor “buys” the nonstate actor’s narrative, as Israel’s Directorate of Military Intelligence initially assessed that Israeli deterrence has eroded as a result of the 2006 confrontation. Yet since July 2006—now eight years later—Hezbollah has not launched a single major attack against Israel despite remaining committed as ever to the destruction of the Jewish state.

The point is that the strategic results of a confrontation between a state and a nonstate actor are often quite different than the immediate operational consequences of their clash. Hence, even after the guns are silenced, it would take some time before the broader ramifications of the current confrontation between Israel and Hamas will become clear.


Shai Feldman is the Judith and Sidney Swartz Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University and is a Senior Fellow and a member of the Board of Directors of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. His most recent book is Arabs and Israelis: Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East, with Abdel Monem Said Aly and Khalil Shikaki (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

Image: IDF Flickr.