It has been painful and frustrating to watching Israel dissipate the deterrence achieved in Gaza over three major rounds of conflict (especially in 2014).
After three-and-a-half years of quiet, Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched four massive missile strikes in the wake of Israel’s erroneous decision to tolerate the “Campaign of Return” that began at the end of March 2018. To make matters worse, Israel has allowed itself to succumb to an extortion racket.
Any good strategy is based on maximizing your side’s relative advantage. Israel’s advantage over Hamas and its allies is clear: It possesses devastating, precise firepower and—compared to Gaza, at least—strategic depth.
However accurate Hamas’s missiles may be, they cannot compete with the accuracy of the Israel Air Force. Hamas is increasingly succeeding at overwhelming the Iron Dome air-defense system with multiple launches, but even at their most effective these missiles can only cause partial damage to buildings. Citizens who take refuge in shelters usually come out physically unharmed.
By contrast, Israel’s guided missiles can hit bad guys on motorcycles and, when necessary, pulverize buildings completely.
The punishment the IAF metes out takes place in a space of 140 square miles. Hamas and its allies strike, with lesser precision, at an area twice to eight times that size.
In the three rounds of heavy fighting, the number of IAF sorties equaled the number of missile strikes from Gaza. The difference lies in the accuracy—almost 100 percent for Israel, less than 1 percent for Hamas—and in the fact that Israeli munitions can use much higher payloads.
Factoring in Gaza’s small area, the difference in payload accuracy and the difference in payload size, in any conflict between Gaza and Israel, the damage done in Gaza is thousands of times greater.
In the most recent (minor) round of fighting, Hamas boasted of Israelis’ psychological suffering. The truth is that the psychological suffered of the Gaza population is far greater.
These differences explain why Hamas and Islamic Jihad launch fewer missiles after each massive round, and why after the third and most punishing Israel achieved three-and-a-half years of quiet. The grandchildren of Hamas leaders, like Israeli children, suffer tremendously from these rounds of fighting; it can hardly be otherwise considering what they have grown up with.
However, temporarily at least, Israel’s strategy is to play to the other side’s advantage. This is not new. The early Zionist pioneers were succumbing to extortion long before their presence was perceived by the local Arab elite as a threat.
To add insult to injury, the Israeli military establishment (and increasingly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Likud leaders) justifies this extortion model on the basis of averting a “humanitarian” crisis.
To be sure, there is no way of extending humanitarian aid to the Gaza population behind Hamas’s back. Yet no Orwellian claims can negate the simple fact that any concession on importing dual-usage materials into Gaza increases the capabilities of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and therefore increases the pain they can inflict on Israel. The last bout clearly demonstrated this fact.
Allowing aid into Gaza means increased revenues for Hamas, and imports of dual-usage materials increase Hamas’s firepower. In 2014, it took 300 missiles to kill one Israeli. In the recent bout, it took 180.
The moment Qatari dollars reach Gaza, Hamas can more easily pay for its regular assaults against the fence and punish the Israeli population living alongside it.
So where is the glimmer of light?
Hamas’s “return” riots at the border fence have completely failed to galvanize West Bank Palestinians to strike either Israel or the Palestinian Authority.
Hamas hoped the riots would erase the effects of its takeover of Gaza in 2007, which divided a previously united Palestinian population.
The failure of the recent riots commemorating the nakba (the “catastrophe” of the creation of the State of Israel) to do either—West Bank Palestinians did not demonstrate against either Israel or the P.A.—suggests that Hamas remains tarnished by the sin of having divided the Palestinian people and weakened the cause.
Furthermore, extorting Israel also carries a cost for Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The aim of both movements is to “liberate” Palestine. Trading truces for money and increasingly substituting defensive language—“if Israel strikes, we will hit harder”—for the rhetoric of “liberating Palestine from the river to the sea” gives the sense that Hamas is taking the path of Fatah, the movement it denigrates and claims to have succeeded.
There’s always hope that Netanyahu will go back to the right strategy of hitting hard and massively to bring Hamas to end the option of violence, as the Arab states and Fatah did before it.
Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University, and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.