The pragmatic fanaticism of Hamas

The so-called ‘truce’ or ‘calm’ between Israel and Hamas seems to be over, with tens of rockets daily flying into Israel from Gaza. Israel’s government has apparently decided to take some kind military action; allowing Hamas to bombard Israelis is not an option any longer.

To answer the question “what should Israel do?” we first need to ask what Hamas is doing and what it wants. Bradley Burston presents the view of Gen. (ret.) Shmuel Zakai:

Israel must … understand that Hamas is a pragmatic organization, Zakai continues. “The moment that the organization understands that Qassam fire is contrary to its interests, it will stop the fire…

“An integrated approach, on the one hand, includes demonstration of military might, a demonstration of the heavy price Hamas would have to pay if the firing continues, and on the other hand, also using a carrot, to cause Hamas to understand that refraining from firing exactly serves their interests.

He believes that Hamas would have – and still would – accept a bargain in which Hamas, the only power who holds sway over the multiplicity racketeers and gunmen of Gaza’s many armed groups, would halt the fire in exchange for easing of the many ways in which Israeli policies have kept a choke hold on the economy of the Strip.

Gen. Zakai is right and wrong. He is right that Hamas is pragmatic — in a sense. But he is wrong in thinking that Hamas would consider improving Gaza’s economy to be in its interest. Here is how Barry Rubin sees Hamas:

From a Western moderate pragmatist standpoint, Hamas’s decision [to end the cease-fire] makes no sense for several reasons:

  • Hamas cannot defeat Israel militarily. Thus, fighting won’t improve Hamas’s strategic situation or bring victory.
  • Israeli counterattacks will cause both injuries and material damage in the Gaza Strip, inflicting big costs on Hamas’s domain and subjects.
  • Returning to warfare will ensure Hamas remains politically isolated and blocks international recognition or aid that would help its cause or end economic sanctions against the Gaza Strip.
  • Going back to fighting makes certain that the Gaza Strip faces continued, even heightened, reductions in the material let in, thus ensuring more Palestinian suffering there.

And Hamas is seemingly making three additional mistakes regarding timing.

The first is that it is ending the cease-fire while George W. Bush is president. Certainly Israel feels freer to hit back at Hamas now than after Barack Obama is inaugurated simply because the new administration would want to avoid a crisis before it consolidates its plans and team. Also, the US is likely to prefer quiet as it begins withdrawing from Iraq.

Second, the cease-fire is being suspended on the eve of a major Palestinian crisis as Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas announces a self-extension of his term in office. One might think Hamas would prefer to keep the Israel front quiet for a while to focus on battling Fatah and the PA.

Finally, there’s the Israeli election campaign. While this doesn’t make large-scale retaliation inevitable, such a move would make the current government more popular with the electorate.

Therefore, Hamas’s behavior, an outside observer can easily conclude, seems stupid. But having built a mass movement, sizable army, seized the Gaza Strip and built broad support throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, Hamas may be composed of genocide-oriented fanatics but not fools. What then explains this apparently silly behavior?

Here’s a case study of how Middle East politics really work:

  • Hamas really believes its own propaganda, expecting victory despite the odds. Costs and casualties are irrelevant. The battle will go on until total victory even if that takes decades. This indicates Hamas will not moderate – the same applies to Hizbullah, Syria and Iran.
  • At the same time, Hamas is not only indifferent to its own people’s welfare, it [is] actually seeking to inflict suffering on them as a political strategy. The worse off Palestinians are, Hamas believes, the more likely they will fight and die. This “the worse things are, the better they are” is the exact opposite of Western perspectives.

But Hamas goes even further. It knows suffering can be blamed on Israel. Western pragmatists reason that obviously the Palestinians must prefer peace, prosperity and statehood. Rejectionism must then be due to desperation and the lack of a good offer or faith in the West. In fact, though, the situation is not due to our mistakes but to their deliberate choices.

Thus, Hamas can well conclude that the best way to put pressure on Israel and – in its own mind at least – gain Western help is to be more radical, not more moderate.

Then, too, setting off a crisis, Hamas expects, will draw peacekeepers like hardworking ants, giving press conferences in which they will insist that “something must be done to defuse the crisis.” That “something” usually seems to be unilateral Israeli concessions. In short, the international community may rush in to save Hamas or the Palestinians in spite of themselves.

At the same time, though, Hamas believes that its intransigence and aggressiveness will increase support in the Arab and Muslim worlds. As with Hizbullah, waging a war and portraying it as victory – even though the facts are otherwise – makes one a hero and attracts financing. This is also a judgment regarding Palestinian responses. More popular support can be garnered by producing martyrs than by producing higher living standards. Thus, Hamas will do better in its rivalry with the PA by fighting Israel than by fighting poverty.

Hamas’ pragmatism is not the pragmatism of someone like Gen. Zakai, who naturally sees the welfare of one’s civilian population as a high-priority goal. But it is actually a pretty clear-headed understanding of what is required to defeat a liberal democracy like Israel and a corrupt secular nationalism like Fatah.

The best strategy for Israel is not a large-scale ground invasion, and especially not one which ends in a reoccupation of Gaza. This would give the maximum advantage to Hamas, which cares little about military casualties and actually welcomes civilian ones.

I vote for decapitation: kill the Hamas leaders and destroy as much military infrastructure as possible without causing mass civilian casualties.

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2 Responses to “The pragmatic fanaticism of Hamas”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    I agree with Vic Rosenthal that a full- scale invasion and reoccupation of Gaza would probably be a mistake. Occupying and administering Gaza is one thing, we do not want to do.
    However one element missing in Rubin’s analysis disturbs me. We hear all the time about a military build-up in Gaza, about the formation of brigades, about the building of a true military force. Rubin’s article suggests that there are only gangs in Gaza.
    What is the truth here? And where does the force in Gaza become an offensive threat should there be a war on another front?
    A number of people including Jonathan Schanzer believe targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders is the most effective, and least costly from our point- of- view, method of dealing with them now.
    But again I am still very unclear about the military capability ( Not the capacity for disturbance of our civilian life capability) of Hamas.

  2. Vic Rosenthal says:

    Most of Hamas’ work has gone into fortifications, doing their best to make an invasion of Gaza as expensive as possible. And then they do their best to provoke an invasion.
    If Hamas fired enough Grads or other more dangerous missiles, then Israel would have to respond. If that meant either invading Gaza or causing huge amounts of casualties by striking back with artillery or massive bombing, then, yes, that counts as a strategic threat because it could affect the outcome of a war.