To Deter Hamas: Expect the Unexpected

08/12/2014 05:28 pm ET | Updated Oct 12, 2014
  • Uzi Rabi Director of Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.
  • Dr. Harel Chorev Tel Aviv University, Department of Middle East and African History, Faculty Member
THOMAS COEX via Getty Images

What might cause Hamas to consent to a ceasefire? There is another question in the Israeli public discourse, no less important -- what might deter Hamas from renewing the cycle of violence in the long term? The answer to these questions lies in understanding the organization's concept of struggle.

Hamas's concept of struggle is based on several principles which are shared with other groups that define themselves as "Resistance" (muqawama) organizations, such as Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad. At the center of this concept is the assumption that while Israel has a strong military and advanced technology, it is mentally and socially, in the words of Hezbollah's Hasan Nasrallah, "as weak as a spider web." This weakness is particularly noticeable when compared to what the Resistance sees as the mental strength of their people. Their strength, which is drawn from deep religious faith, allegedly offsets Israel's technological advantages. Thus, the cycles of violence with Israel are perceived by the Resistance as small victories, which are paving their path to the great and final victory -- the destruction of Israel.

The Resistance concept of struggle includes several principles which can be recognized in all the clashes between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas, since Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000. "Steadfastness" (sumud) is one of the main principles -- a relentless struggle against the enemy until it is worn out. Through this resilience, patience (sabr) and endurance arises from the Resistance fighter's mental strength. An expression of this theory is the use of guerrilla warfare. This drains the enemy, both mentally and physically, by dragging him into hostile territory, whether it is Lebanon's woods or Gaza's alleys..

The message is that the Resistance maintains its survival and ability to fight in any condition. An interpretation of this message is Hamas' feeling of achievement, which arises from the constant rocket fire, in spite of Israel's actions. The fact that millions of Israelis are driven into bomb shelters is a victorious image that Hamas is seeking.

Another principle in Hamas' concept of struggle is based on exploiting what it perceives as the Israeli and Western mental weaknesses concerning the value of human life. Hamas perceives that Israel is sensitive to incurring its own casualties (soldiers and civilians), as well as inflicting civilian casualties, which Hamas exploits by concealing itself among civilians and targeting Israeli civilians and soldiers alike. Concurrently, Resistance organizations such as Hamas emphasize their desire to die for their cause (shahada), which they present as a Muslim value. Hamas uses these same values to condone sacrificing civilians on the altar of protecting its people and weapons caches. Moreover, Hamas uses Palestinian civilian casualties and suffering to appeal Western moral values, in order to win over public opinion in the Arab world and in the West.

While Hamas is frustrated by the current apathy of the Arab world, it is not yet interested in ending the current conflict. The organization entered the conflict with two basic assumptions that reflected its goals and strategy. First, the organization assumed it would be able to escape from the sustained severe economic crisis by dragging Israel into a military confrontation, and the possible opening of Rafah border crossing may be an end result of the conflict and of course a boon to Gaza's economy. Second, Hamas assumed that it was capable of anticipating Israel's military operation. It was aware of Israel's reluctance to initiate a ground operation, and then, when it began, also demonstrated effective operational readiness. They also believe that Israel will not seek to destroy Hamas' ability to rule in the Gaza Strip; rather, Israel will focus on degrading Hamas', as well as that of other Gaza based Resistance groups, military capabilities and infrastructures

Therefore, Hamas is likely to continue fighting until it achieves its goals and as long it does not foresee an existential threat. Israel is undermining its effort to re-establish deterrence by speaking with several different voices. Some government ministers are publicly stating that the option of overthrowing Hamas's rule in the Gaza Strip is available, while others claim the "answering quiet with quiet" formula is still relevant. This disunity has in fact given Hamas an opportunity to escalate the conflict without feeling that it is risking its survival.

The 2006 Lebanon War was severely criticized in its immediate aftermath. However, time has demonstrated that Israel was successful in deterring Hezbollah from perpetrating acts of terrorism and guerilla warfare that it committed before the war. Until 2006, Hezbollah was used to thinking that there are certain rules of conduct between it and Israel, which allowed it to anticipate Israel's behavior, which is what Hamas believes today. Thus, when Israel launched the 2006 campaign following the abduction of two IDF soldiers, Hezbollah felt that Israel "had gone crazy." This lesson shattered Hezbollah's previous conception and proved that Israel's actions cannot be foreseen. This is what has primarily deterred Hezbollah since 2006, and what has spared both sides additional suffering and bloodshed. Hamas -- unlike Hezbollah, which is undoubtedly watching the events and learning from Israel's conduct in the current conflict -- is still convinced that Israel's tactics are predictable.

Operation "Protective Edge" is a wakeup call for Israeli decision makers, and perhaps for the Israeli public, as well. Israel should consider adopting a new vocabulary and way of thinking, based on the Resistance organizations' assumptions and conduct. The military operations and diplomatic efforts should be rooted in a clear understanding of Hamas's perceptions. In the absence of correct terminology and a definition of action based on Hamas' mode of action, Israel will find itself busy managing the conflict and endlessly discussing military objectives in the absence of a clear strategic horizon.

Prof. Uzi Rabi is the Director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies in Tel Aviv University.

Dr. Harel Chorev is the Head of the Middle East Network Analysis Desk at the Moshe Dayan Center, and is an expert on Palestinians.

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