Israel’s Definition of Success Against Hamas Needs a Rethink

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On May 18, three days before Friday’s ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was announced, Major General Aharon Haliva, head of military operations for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), gave his first public assessment of the war.  In an interview on Channel 11, Israel’s Public Television, he unsurprisingly awarded the military high marks for its battlefield accomplishments. But he was cautious about declaring victory. 

“If you force me into a corner and ask me what is reasonable to consider a success, I would say at least five years [of peace and quiet] and even more than that,” he told the reporter. That’s precisely the problem.

Israeli military planners often think in five-year horizons, based on the assumption that time and technology are on their side. Hamas leaders are different. They don’t measure victory by cost assessments, weaponry or body counts.

Peace and quiet is the opposite of what they want to achieve. Their goal is to unite the Arabs of Palestine (“from the river to the sea”) and lead them in a grand intifada of liberation all the way to Jerusalem.

By this measure, Hamas’s attack on Israel, although militarily harmless, has been an unfolding success. Last week, Hamas rockets ignited wild riots in ethnically mixed towns and Arab cities. The police — whose clumsy and arrogant invasion of Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque had provided Hamas with its casus belli — were stunned and ineffective.

Israeli Jews looked at the riots and saw dark visions of the past. Yoav Gallant, a highly decorated general and current Minister of Education, spoke for many when he said that his parents had not come from the ghettos of Eastern Europe and Morocco to face pogroms. He may have meant it as a call to arms, but it sounded instead like a panic attack and panic is something that Hamas, like any terrorist organization, wants to encourage.

The idea that 1.7 million Arab Israelis are about to start an armed revolt is fanciful, but one Israel’s enemies find worth cultivating. Ismael Haniyeh, the exiled Hamas chief, sent a message of revolutionary solidarity to “the Arabs of 48” (the Hamas term for those who remained in the country after the establishment of Israel.) “We saw what happened in Lod, the Triangle and the Galilee,” he said, hailing the rioters as “Al-Aqsa’s defenders.”

Historically, most Israeli Arabs have not supported Hamas, at least not openly. For better and for worse, Israel is their country. In wartime they have been, if not patriotic, at least publicly neutral. This has been rewarded by increased trust and new avenues to upward mobility and inclusion.

The riots upset this trust. For the first time in years, the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, has been given a leading role in keeping law and order. 

Arab critics of the government argue that this is an overreaction; the rioters are only a small group of poor, disaffected young men who do not represent the mainstream. This is accurate but not entirely true. Hamas’s stand against Israel in Gaza, packaged as Islamic solidarity, has won it broad sympathy and even public support in Israel’s Arab community.

On Tuesday, hundreds of thousands honored a one-day general strike convened by an umbrella group of mainstream Arab political and civil leaders. They protested police brutality during the riots and the usurpation of Palestinian real estate in Jerusalem, neither of which raised eyebrows. But they also demonstrated against the war.

The protest was legal and peaceful, but it was also shocking for many Israelis to see Arab Israeli citizens demonstrating, de facto, on behalf of the enemy in wartime when the country is being attacked. To compound matters, West Bank Arabs staged a simultaneous “day of rage” that turned violent. Meanwhile, rockets flew from Gaza onto Israeli cities.

Optimists say the protest shows the vitality of Israeli democracy and the confidence that Arab citizens feel in expressing dissent without fear. Pessimists say it lifts the veil from a hostile minority willing to make common cause with a terror army whose raison d’etre is the destruction of Israel.

I’m with the optimists, but it is clear that relations between the communities here have taken a very serious hit. It will require time, mutual generosity and hard work to restore what appeared to be the prewar social equilibrium. That means gentler rhetoric from all sides, more government money for infrastructure and education, more public sector jobs, and a plan of action to deal with intramural Arab violence by confiscating the vast arsenal of illegal weapons currently in private hands (a goal supported by most Arab lawmakers). Until that happens, both sides lose.

The winner of this tragic round is Hamas. Outgunned and stuck in a hole by a military power with a five-year plan for the next war, it has somehow managed to achieve its principal strategic aim — the bold, if fleeting display of Palestinian unity marching under the banner of jihad. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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