Analysis: What constitutes a 'victory?'

Hamas will claim a greater victory the longer the assault goes on.

idf tank aiming at YOU 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
idf tank aiming at YOU 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
It was like a Hamas dream come true. Sirens wailed out across Jerusalem early on Wednesday afternoon, sending many residents into panic mode. Was this the feared Hamas "surprise?" Had it managed to extend its rocket range all the way to the capital? Then, hours later, fire erupted at an Ashdod chemicals factory, well within known Hamas rocket territory. Clouds of dense smoke rose into the night sky. Fire trucks rushed to the scene. Convoys of ambulances waited to evacuate the injured. Outfought by the IDF in the treacherous Gaza civilian battleground where it has callously centered its forces, Hamas has been desperately seeking "victory images" to counter the perception of failure. It has broadcast disinformation from day one of Operation Cast Lead about soldiers captured and killed, and screened carefully edited footage purporting to show its gunmen attacking IDF positions and its snipers hitting soldiers. Rocket fire on Jerusalem and a direct hit on a sensitive Ashdod factory, then, would have been remarkable achievements, indeed. Except, of course, that the Jerusalem sirens were a false alarm, and the Ashdod fire was caused by an electrical fault. However and whenever Israel's assault on Hamas ends - and indications were mounting on Wednesday night that the Egypt- and US-centered negotiating processes toward its cessation were gathering pace - the Islamists will claim victory. They will claim victory in mere survival. They will claim a greater victory the longer the assault goes on. And while the military censor on Wednesday finally permitted Israeli media to report that IDF special forces have been in action in the Strip, and fighting has also been intense on the outskirts of Gaza City, Hamas will claim a victory too if, as seems likely, the much intensified Phase Three of this operation is not approved, and the IDF does not broadly confront Hamas in the very heart of Gaza's densest population centers. Perception is important, and Hamas will be working to persuade Gazans that its path of "resistance" is their best course. But the practical success or failure of Israel's resort to force will be measured in two areas: the degree to which Hamas is deterred from further rocket fire, and the extent to which it is prevented from recovering and then expanding its military capacity. Amos Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, is due in Cairo on Thursday to discuss the details of Egypt's "initiative" for halting the conflict - an initiative Hamas is said to have accepted in principle. Simultaneously, the director-general of the Foreign Ministry, Aaron Abramovich, will be holding talks in Washington on the specifics of a mechanism to prevent the revival of Hamas's network of arms smuggling tunnels under the Philadelphi Corridor. Strikingly, key figures in the Likud opposition - including party leader Binyamin Netanyahu and potential defense minister Moshe Ya'alon - have not been pressing for the escalated Phase Three offensive. Ya'alon, notably, has been arguing for many days that Israeli deterrence has been reasserted and that the military and diplomatic processes should now be managed to achieve an arrangement that prevents Hamas from rearming. But Israel's leadership troika is badly divided as to how to propel the military and diplomatic tracks toward a successful conclusion. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni reportedly says "stop fighting now" unilaterally, and resume military activity if the necessary diplomatic arrangements are not forthcoming. Defense Minister Ehud Barak wants to order a "humanitarian pause," in the hope that it can be extended into a lasting and viable cease-fire. Both are aware of the ferocious international public criticism of Israel, and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza for which it is being blamed, even if there is said to be more behind-the-scenes diplomatic support than is widely appreciated. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, by contrast, prefers to at least make a show of maintaining military pressure, as leverage for a better accommodation, and his aides on Wednesday blasted Barak for purportedly undermining Israel's interests by indicating that a halt might be imminent. Tuesday's inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama is, however appropriately, widely regarded as a cut-off point for this operation, and there has been a growing sense this week that the IDF has all but ground to a halt in Gaza - the military kept in a relative holding pattern as the diplomats formulate agreements. But military officials reiterate that Hamas remains dangerous and highly motivated in the quest for the attack or attacks that would "elevate" its resistance toward the level attained by Hizbullah in the Second Lebanon War. A true Hizbullah-style victory, though, would be a cessation of fighting that left Hamas able - as Hizbullah was able after the 2006 war - to rapidly rebuild its military capacity, and prepare for another, bloodier, confrontation.