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What Part of Hamas Strategy Is so Difficult for John Kerry, Joe Scarborough and Hillary to Understand?

08/02/2014 01:59 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2014

"We have urged them, implored them to use their influence to do whatever they can to get that soldier returned. Absent that, the risk of this continuing to escalate, leading to further loss of life is very high."

So spoke a State Department official regarding John Kerry's calls to Turkish and Qatari leaders regarding the Israeli soldier presumed to have been abducted. But one has to wonder to what end. The Qataris, in particular -- who never met a radical Islamist group they did not like -- fully understand the value of the abduction of a soldier to Hamas, and will do little or nothing, regardless of Kerry's pleas.

Nor would a return of the soldier have the effect that Kerry imagines. If anything, the abduction itself will only steel the resolve of Israeli leaders, and the vast majority of Israelis themselves who now support the determination of their government to destroy the Hamas tunnel network. It is the abduction itself that emphasizes the risk to individual Israelis of the Hamas tunnels that are exactly designed to create a new threat of abduction and attacks within Israel proper. The return of the soldier will not mitigate the psychological impact of the abduction itself.

Like John Kerry, many American observers seem to bend over backward to not acknowledge the central premise of Hamas strategy. Media reports describing Israeli attacks on a school or a hospital leave a listener wondering at its abject cruelty. Democrat Hilary Clinton suggested that Hamas puts missiles in schools because Gaza is so small, suggesting there is not enough room for them elsewhere. Republican Joe Scarborough raged against Israel attacking a school, never questioning whether there was a reason for targeting the school other than to unleash carnage on the local population seeking shelter there. There is a better way, he states bluntly, but he does not suggest what that is.

Like the abduction of the soldier, which Hamas hopes will draw Israel deeper into a land war on its soil, each Hamas tactic is designed primarily around the Israeli response it will engender. Hamas places missiles in schools precisely because when Israel strikes to destroy the missiles, it will produce images of death and devastation that will be broadcast worldwide. Hamas places the entrance to tunnels into Israel beneath hospitals and mosques for the same reason. It may be a general principle of the laws of war that using civilian populations as shields against attack is a war crime, and that civilian deaths that result from attacks on military assets placed deliberately within civilian areas are the responsibility of the party that put the civilians at risk. Yet this is central to Hamas strategy, and the resulting outrage across the world is evidence that legal principles have little salience in the battle for the hearts and minds of the world audience.

And the Hamas strategy is working. At a time when Nouri al Maliki and Basher al Assad are dropping barrel bombs on civilian villages, at a time ISIS has expelled the entire Christian population of Mosel under threat of beheading -- and in some areas reportedly implemented a policy of forced clitorectomies -- it is the actions of Israel in Gaza that draws protesters into the street in cities across Europe. While the Shi'a and Sunni are massacring each other in far greater numbers, can it really be that the outrage of the world is only peaked when it is Jews who are killing Arabs? How can it be that in a Middle East that has erupted in turmoil, it is only Israel's war with Hamas that the United Nations Human Rights Council has decided should be subject to a war crimes inquiry for "indiscriminate attacks on civilians."

Last week, the United Nations made a mockery of itself and that decision. When a UN agency found that two of its schools were being used as missile bunkers by Hamas -- schools adjacent to facilities for displaced Palestinians -- the UN agency did not that the missiles be destroyed, or perhaps taken away by an international agency, but rather that they be removed from the school by Hamas. Thus, within the same week, the UN delivered back to Hamas missiles whose only conceivable use is for firing at civilian populations in Israel, thereby becoming an active co-conspirator in exactly the type of war crime it announced that it is seeking to investigate.

It is a terrible and ugly libel to suggest that Hamas' actions are somehow evidence that Palestinian mothers and fathers love their children less than do any other parents. This point was argued vehemently by an Al Jazeera op-ed in the wake of an earlier Hamas war, and indeed to make such an argument is to deny the basic humanity of the victims of missile strikes in Gaza. The author scoffed at the words of Golda Meir to Anwar El Sadat as they moved toward a peace accord -- "We can forgive you for killing our sons, but we will never forgive you for making us kill yours" -- as a thinly veiled attempt to wrap the devastation Israel inflicts in a veil of moral piety.

But for all the author's moral outrage -- outrage that is mirrored now across the world -- he declined to address the central charge that has been heard repeatedly over the years: How can Palestinian parents continue to support leaders within their community who would deliberately use their children as human shields? The fact that this Hamas war was provoked more to elevate Hamas' own standing than to achieve any concrete results -- beyond lifting an economic isolation that Hamas itself provoked -- makes the question of Palestinian passivity in that regard all the more troubling. There is nothing new about Hamas' tactics, and its leaders have been upfront about their willingness to sacrifice Palestinian children -- along with the rest of the civilian population -- in pursuit of their own strategic goals. Even as we watch image after image of stricken Palestinians mourning their dead children, we hear the corresponding words of a Hamas official: "What are 200 martyrs compared with lifting the siege?" Indeed, according to a paper in the Journal of Palestine Studies, Hamas--the elected government of Palestinians in Gaza--willfully sacrificed more that 160 Gazan children before any fighting in the digging of the tunnels themselves.

Within the progressive Jewish world -- where the anguish expressed in Golda Meir's words is deeply felt -- there is always an outcry when Israeli bombs kill Palestinian civilians, both out of moral outrage for the death and destruction and because of the ultimate bankruptcy of an Israeli strategy for which there is no endgame. But with each successive conflict, as Hamas missiles reach deeper into the country and the tunnels are deeper and longer, those voices become less vocal. While for some the broader conflicts in the region have emphasized the importance of pressuring Israel to remove settlements from confiscated Palestinian lands and live within its internationally accepted borders, for others the emergence of ISIS has only emphasized the long history of conflicts in the region and made the Hamas commitment to the destruction of Israel the sine qua non of the conflict. It is neither a metaphor nor a bargaining chip.

It is hard for many to accept the implications of that stance, but with each war Hamas aids our understanding and acceptance of their commitment. Indeed, Hamas has achieved what Bibi Netanyahu could not: it has forced progressive Jews to understand, if not accept, the logic of Israeli policies that they have long fought. Progressive Jews might have objected to Israel blocking the shipments of building materials and concrete into Gaza, but in this war the world has seen the complex network of tunnels built with an estimated six hundred thousand tons of concrete that we were told was urgently needed for schools and hospitals that were never built. Progressive Jews might have objected that Israeli was needlessly undermining Gaza economic development by preventing the development of a Gaza port, but the vast store of missiles is evidence that the boarded ships found to be filled with armaments intended to be used to kill Israelis were but the tip of the iceberg. Thus, the voices on the Jewish left have become muted.

John Kerry hopes that the growing destruction might have brought a moment of greater clarity where each side would be looking for a reason to stand down. But instead, the cunning of Hamas strategy is evident as more of its constituents are killed or maimed, even as it claims victory over the forces of the occupation. With each such claim -- and now with the apparent abduction of a soldier -- Hamas only confirms the belief on the part of Israeli leaders -- and Hamas antagonists in Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well -- that the war has not yet reached is necessary political conclusion. While Kerry pleas for Hamas to undo its latest provocation, it is apparent that neither side is listening, nor willing to stand down. Israel and Hamas are engaged in a battle that each believes can only end with Hamas forcing Israel and Egypt to yield to its terms, or being destroyed as a political force. Unless, of course, the Palestinians of Gaza themselves finally stand up and demand an end to Hamas' leadership, which has done so much to destroy their community.