Israel and Hamas Are Both Just Winging It

By Erica Chenoweth

An Israeli paratrooper takes aim inside a Gazan building. From the IDF flickr page.
An Israeli paratrooper takes aim inside a Gazan building. From the IDF flickr account.

Israel is more than three weeks into Operation Protective Edge. With over 1328 Palestinians and 59 Israelis dead, numerous commentators have weighed in on what each side hopes to gain from the current violence.

On the Israeli side, the stated military goal is to permanently diminish Hamas’ capacity and willingness to launch rocket attacks against Israel. Some suspect a wider political goal of weakening Hamas politically and elevating Fatah. Certainly there is the view that Israel must simply respond to force with force—that the only way to deal with Hamas’ rocket attacks is to inflict overwhelmingly pain on Hamas and its followers. Others have suggested more sinister intentions, with some claiming that Israel’s actions in Gaza constitute deliberate ethnic cleansing—or even genocide.

On Hamas’ side, some argue that the latest volley of rockets was Hamas’ response to Israel’s reaction to the killing of three Israeli youths in the West Bank. The incident resulted in mass arrests, the killings of Palestinians during these mass arrests, and a gruesome revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager. Others suggest that Hamas has escalated its rocket attacks as a demonstration to Israel and Arab states that it has the capacity to respond to force with force, thereby deterring excessive violence by Israel, signaling to Arab states that it is a real player, and improving its faltering image among Gazans. And, of course, there are arguments that Hamas simply wishes to terrorize Israel for terror’s sake.

I am struck by a basic assumption behind each of these arguments—that each side has a clear plan linked to an overall strategic goal. I am increasingly doubtful about this assumption. If anything, this conflict represents a classic tit-for-tat game—except that neither side seems exactly sure what ultimate goal it wishes to achieve, nor how to get there. As a result, both sides are gambling on improvisation—a gamble that will likely land both sides far away from their desired outcomes.

In Chuck Freilich’s excellent book, he argues that in fact, one of the great weaknesses of Israeli security strategy is that there is no coherent strategy. There are certainly commonly held narratives and beliefs—like the inherent instability of the region, Israel’s constant vulnerability to existential threats, and the necessity of matching violent threats with equal or greater violence as a way to signal strength. There are also operational routines—that is to say, there are standard responses to particular contingencies. Unsurprisingly, these routines tend to be that if a rocket attack or some other act of violence occurs, Israeli security forces crack down harshly on the perpetrators (and, sometimes, on nonviolent dissidents or bystanders as well). Successes and failures are judged in terms of short-term tactical successes. Military leaders decide within minutes (or even seconds) whether an “operation” succeeded. But evaluating whether the operation’s short-term success leads to longer term peace and stability is not part of the process at all. There is very little reflection, therefore, on whether actions like Operation Protective Edge ultimately make Israelis safer or not.

For Hamas’ part, the lack of strategic coherence owes to a few key factors. First, Hamas is not unitary. It does not control every rocket in the Gaza Strip, nor does it always exercise control over its operatives. When members (or former members) of Hamas commit horrific acts, it is not always the case that Hamas gave a top-down order to commit them. There are power struggles within the organization and plenty of rivalries with other groups such as Islamic Jihad. Second, many militants within Hamas have a goal (destruction of Israel) that the group could never achieve due to its exceedingly limited capacity. Therefore, Hamas is constantly settling for “process goals,” such as improving its relative prestige among competing rivals, gaining some standing among Palestinians in Gaza that it purports to defend, building sympathy among international observers, or raising funds from foreign sponsors. When Israel cracks down against Hamas in earnest, then, what we’re seeing is anything but Hamas adopting a coherent military strategy with any achievable goals. We’re seeing a group in crisis that only has hammers, and sees only nails.

My own sense is that this over-reliance on improvisation and refusal to lay out clear strategies is politically convenient for both sides. For Israel, it allows Israeli politicians to kick the can down the road. As long as “improvisation” is the strategy, then Israeli elites get to avoid taking the bold political risks required to make real concessions to Palestinians (which, many argue, is necessary for Israel to achieve its most sacred and fundamental goal—securing the future of a democratic, Jewish state that lives at peace with its neighbors).

For Hamas, improvisation is convenient too. It reinforces its global image as the underdog—a fairly incompetent organization with limited capacity in an unfair fight against a well-resourced, well-connected juggernaut. This reinforces its narrative as the victim—a dubious designation to be sure, but one that resonates increasingly among international actors as Israel continues to inflict collective punishments on Palestinians.

So don’t be fooled by the sophisticated analyses of pundits, elites, and others. And don’t be fooled by grandiose statements by elites on both sides that everything is going according to plan. When it comes down to it, my guess is that the Israeli government and Hamas are just totally winging it.

  1. Actually to me it fits very classically in with the “game of chicken” in Game theory…and that’s probably the only missing link in your analysis:-)

  2. Instead of looking for “grand strategies” in foreign policy imho our analysis might be more effective if we take into view the domestic interests of the actors.

    Also in war times we have to assume an increase in group think and therefore faulty decision making and an irrational reliance on “power fantasies” (overestimation of once own strengths and potential to enforce ones will)

    last but not least in protracted wars politicians and governments tend to take over a “militia rationale” and arrange themselves in the economy of war, instead of looking for peace. As within this rationale “peace” endangers their business model, war economies are seen as one of the great hindrances to get warlords to make peace. In the case of an overly militarized society in a protracted conflict as in Israel, it might be worthwile to assume similar decision making patterns (just a thought).

    1. I don’t disagree with any of your points. They could all be other elements in Israel’s tendency to select policies that deeply undermine their own security and exacerbate their isolation.

  3. Exactly; this has gotten away from both of them and they are digging themselves into an ever deeper corner. But I disagree that there was no strategy, just that the original strategy which banked on a quick ceasefire failed

  4. I agree that neither Hamas nor Israel have a realistic strategy. It seems to me that Hamas and Israel (or Netanyahu anyway) are defectively working together to prevent a two state solution. Clearly both sides behave as if they benefit from killing lots of civilians.

  5. I have a great respect for all the contributors to this site. However, I do not think that Israel lacks a strategy or a plan of action in this conflict, and I can demonstrate that:
    Israel has been preparing for this war for a while, as has Hamas. This was is a case of preemption by a risk averse actor (Israel).

  6. Thanks for opining on this. Dr. Erica.
    Here is my thought:
    Neither side, particularly Israel, is winging it.
    Israel has a consistent tactic of provoking the Palestinian side into violent resistance so that Israel can claim, at least to amenable audiences (e.g. the ‘liberal’ and often Jewish voters in the US, Israel’s #1 patron), that is is ‘merely defending itself.’ This gives Israel the opportunity to repeatedly dismantle Palestinian infrastructure, which facilitates its larger strategy, pursued by Labor and Likud gov’t alike, of driving out Palestinians from the West Bank and assimilating more and more of it into a Greater Israel.
    Hamas, on the other hand, possessing some of the same fires of radical rejectionism as some Jewish settlers, but none of the military force, is repeatedly willing to use martyrdom (or ‘martyrdom’) as a political tactic. This has sometimes been to destabilize peace negotiations (something Israel repeatedly does in different ways, both state and non-state). In this case, there may have been a rational calculation by Hamas leaders that, with the Israeli sociocide of the Palestinians continuing, including the strangulation of Gaza, one of their last best hopes was to create so many innocent victims with the Israeli campaign that they knew the rockets would provoke that the ‘world’ would finally take enough notice to rein in Israel. (Probably a futile decision in some ways only the US can rein in Israel, and our gov’t shows no interest in doing that).
    So, provocation leads to provocation – yes, a dance Ouroboros (sorry). But perfectly consistent with the long-term strategies of each side.

  7. Very disappointing to see the framing of the two: “Hamas” and “Israel”. “Hamas” does not define people in Gaza and it is important to indicate its name. Yet, what does “Israel” define? Does it mean every single person in Israel stands behind the government and its military operations?

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