September 1, 2010

Hamas Pulls an Israel

During the Gaza war’s aftermath, Israeli officials took to boasting that Hamas underestimated how hard the IDF would hit. Though several Hamas commanders were vaporized in air-strikes during the initial push into Gaza City, none were irreplaceable. The only surprise among Hamas leadership may have been Israel’s willingness to target civilian infrastructure used as camouflage.

All in all, the Gaza war epitomized Israel’s way of making war: tactical victory followed by strategic defeat. Like Lebanon’s 2006 war, the international media - namely Al Jazeera and its exclusive access - forced the hand of the international community into condemning Israel’s disproportionate and seemingly indiscriminate fire on starving Palestinians. Hamas’s bait succeeded, demonizing Israel and conjuring the Goldstone report while entrenching its own position.

Lingering tensions from 2009 resulted in further isolation after Israeli commandos raided the Freedom flotilla in May 2010.

Hamas may appear “crazy” or “evil,” but the movement usually operates with a rational mind. Though a significant portion of Palestinian society has turned away from naked violence, Israel’s persistent obstructionism has kept alive Hamas’s message that Israel doesn’t truly desire peace. This is why the deaths of Yitzhak Ames, and his wife Tali Ames, Kochava Ben- Haim, and Avishai Schindler are so surprising. Not because Hamas committed the vicious act, but that it failed to learn from Israel’s errors and Hezbollah’s wisdom.

Beyond their human tragedy, Hamas has pulled an Israel by murdering these four Israelis. Tactical objectives may be achieved, but the strategic results are in serious doubt.

By claiming “full responsibility for the heroic operation in Hebron,” Hamas isn’t simply attempting to overshadow or torpedo direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which resume tomorrow in Washington. Hamas is trying to bait Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into canceling and taking blame himself. Thus Netanyahu can evade Hamas’s strategy by remaining in negotiations while also launching a ground sweep for Hamas commanders and pounding Hamas positions by air.

Perhaps Hamas is trying to provoke another war, and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has vowed retaliation, but Hamas’s bait flagrantly left a murder scene in shock, four bodies full of bullets. Israel launched its invasion of Gaza after weeks of rocket fire, without a concrete incident of provocation. Hamas orphaned the Ames’s six children, which will attract sympathy worldwide. Many analysts believe the attack wasn’t intense enough to warrant canceling direct talks, but its vividness leaves Hamas unable to cry foul during a new war.

Only slightly more rational is Hamas’s capitalization on Palestinian opposition to unconditional direct talks. It’s true that Palestinians favor peace by a wide margin, often cited by US-Israeli advocates as evidence for why direct talks will succeed. But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s credibility and popularity have crumbled after Washington dragged him to the negotiating table, and many West Bank factions are as eager to condemn him as Hamas. Yet the majority of Palestinians have turned their back on organized military resistance, realizing it does more harm than good to their cause.

Hamas had one option - civil disobedience like the First Intifada - and it failed to coordinate wide-scale rallies with Fatah factions standing in opposition to Abbas’s decision.

Hamas is also a loser inside direct negotiations. After condemning the attack, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton justified an absolute position regarding Israel’s security. Netanyahu is likely to push harder than ever for an IDF force on Palestine’s border and the inflow of US arms will surely increase. Making Abbas’s job harder is part of the plan, but Hamas also reinforces US military support for Israel in these talks or, should they fail, in future attempts.

Even more foolish, Hamas just bumped America out of its position as villain. Up until now Washington had attracted the most condemnation among Palestinians and Arabs states for protecting Israel’s negotiating advantage. That’s over too. Hamas’s error knows no limit. Beyond the many causes of failure, attacking now violates an ancient military law in conventional and unconventional warfare alike.

When your enemy nears collapse, do nothing.

Most everyone outside of Israel and Washington, and many inside Israel as well, doubt Netanyahu’s ability to negotiate fairly. Hamas just had to wait until September 26th, when Netanyahu’s “freeze” on West Bank settlements expires. Though he has agreed to negotiate the issue within direct talks, few believe Netanyahu will actually issue a permanent freeze given his domestic opposition. US officials have been actively searching for loopholes around the condition, which would have kept Israel and America in a negative light.

Military attacks relieve the pressure from Netanyahu, validating his public distrust towards the Palestinians and saving him in direct negotiations.

Most alarming, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu-Zuhri warned, "This attack is a chain in a series of attacks, some have been executed, and others will follow.” Such behavior would verge on the suicidal. Hamas should have taken notes from Hezbollah’s lesson on the Blue Line after Israel provoked an encounter with Lebanon.

Netanyahu doesn’t need to be tripped to fall.

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