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.