Israel, Hamas and the third (and fourth?) Gaza war: A Clausewitzian perspective

For Hamas, a “success” – long-range Hamas rockets falling on densely-populated Tel Aviv or Jerusalem – could radicalize Israel’s determination to pursue the conflict to the bitter end.

Hamas operatives in Gaza. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hamas operatives in Gaza.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
“Violence, that is to say physical force (for there is no moral force without the conception of states and law), is therefore the means; the compulsory submission of the enemy to our will is the ultimate object. In order to attain this object fully, the enemy must be disarmed; and this is, correctly speaking, the real aim of hostilities in theory. It takes the place of the final object, and puts it aside in a manner as something not properly belonging to war.” – Carl von Clausewitz, On War
Despite the hypocrisy and pusillanimity of the “international community” and the distortions and blindness of the media, the nature and goals of the Hamas terrorist organization in its third war against Israel are clear enough. Hamas’ binding covenant explicitly proclaims its dedication to the destruction of the Jewish state, a genocidal intention expressed in terrorist murders of Jews and indiscriminate rocketing of Israeli civilian populations.
An offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood fundamentalists in Egypt, Hamas emerged as a radical, explicitly Islamist faction within Yasser Arafat’s PLO. Coming to power in Gaza after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in 2005, Hamas won a US-backed, onetime Palestinian Authority election, taking full power subsequently in a bloody putsch against the PA and its president, Mahmoud Abbas.
Sworn to war against the Jewish state and backed by Israel’s nemesis, Iran, Hamas acquired and began to use a vast arsenal of short- and intermediate-range missiles against Israeli civilian populations. This lead to Israeli military responses in 2008, and again in 2012; despite short truces, new longer-range missiles were added, and tunnels dug for the secret import of contraband goods and weapons from Egypt.
The current war differs from the two previous conflicts in quantity and quality. More and longer-range rockets, supplied by Iran and capable of reaching deep into Israel, are being used, while the number, complexity and extent of cross-border attack tunnels has markedly increased.
The political context is also different, in two related respects. First, under increasing domestic pressure as its economy sank, Hamas saw unemployment skyrocket, and its large 40,000-strong bureaucracy’s salaries went unpaid. Second, internationally, Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi’s defeat of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt deprived Hamas of a political and economic patron, while Sunni Hamas’ support for the Iranbacked Assad regime’s Islamist opponents in Syria distanced Teheran from Gaza.
Hence Hamas’ recent reconciliation with the PA, temporarily creating a reunified Palestinian government, was aimed as much at getting Gaza salaries paid by Abbas as it was at reconciling with the hated Fatah.
Hamas’ launching of missiles, and then of the tunnel attacks, expressed a considered, if desperate, rolling of the dice, an effort to reinforce its shaken Gazan hegemony, attract Arab and Muslim (Qatar, Turkey) financial and political aid, and reaffirm its “revolutionary” leadership.
Yet Hamas alone cannot hope to defeat the regional hegemon, Israel; if a traditional military victory isn’t its goal, what is? The answer is three-fold: 1) To demonstrate, first to its own Gazan subjects, to the larger West Bank population and to Arab world generally, that it is indeed the incarnation of the “Resistance,” standing alone against the Jewish infidel “occupier” of the Palestinian Wakf, the regional area of Islam’s inalienable patrimony.
Here Hamas’s readiness to use its Gazan subjects as “martyrs” turns on the assumption (proven in the earlier Gazan conflicts, and in the Arab-Israeli wars generally) that the “international community” – moved by the mass media’s scenes of civilian casualties – will pressure Israel into compliance with a cease-fire well before Hamas can be destroyed and/or Gaza re-occupied.
2) Importantly, Hamas’ notion of “victory” differs from the Clausewitz epigraph’s statement. Immediate submission of Israel’s will to that of Hamas, and its full disarmament [and therefore destruction] is not Hamas’ proximate goal (though it is, with the presumptive aid of the larger Muslim and international world, its hoped-for final objective).
Hamas’ specific goal is – by standing up to the Jewish entity’s superior military machine and inflicting casualties on Israeli civilians – to delegitimate the Jewish state internationally, by representing it to the world as a “genocidal” war criminal and racist human-rights violator. (Here, too, the functional, deeply anti-Semitic meaning of the world-wide “BDS” and “apartheid analogy” campaign is revealed: “delegitimation,” denial of the Jewish state’s right to exist, prepares the way for its destruction.
Delegitimation and genocide are intimately linked.) Hamas’ reliance on aggression and martyrdom, its seeking, as one of is spokesmen put it, for death rather than (like the Jews) life, to delegitimize Israel and thereby to spark a wider conflagration, is a good example of another of Clausewitz’s themes, that when war itself becomes an end, and not a means, it can have unimagined (or in Hamas’ case, imagined) consequences.
As current short-term truces collapse under the weight of Hamas’ truculence, Israel’s response to the third Gazan war’s amplified threat may morph from artillery and airborne bombing to a sustained ground war. It looks more and more as though Hamas has miscalculated, and that a quick cease-fire and a US – and “international community” – forced “peace” may not be available to rescue it. Squeezed between Sisi’s Egypt and Israel, with even Abbas (while condemning Israel for the mounting civilian casualties) condemning the rocket attacks, Hamas could be about to suffer a decisive defeat.
Clausewitz, well aware of the vagaries of war, and of the close filial relation between Bellona, the goddess of war, and Fortuna, goddess of chance, always insisted on the subordination of war to state policy. Currently unforeseen considerations (for Israel, massive international pressure resulting from a truly terrible accidental bombing) may give Hamas an escape route, or even realize its hopes for a widening of the conflict.
For Hamas, a “success” – long-range Hamas rockets falling on densely-populated Tel Aviv or Jerusalem – could radicalize Israel’s determination to pursue the conflict to the bitter end, the “international community” and the media notwithstanding.
The political objective, Clausewitz wrote, not war per se, is always the essential factor: “War is a... continuation of policy by other means,” not a substitute for it. In Hamas’ case, war – the killing of Jews, the hopedfor genocidal destruction of Jewish Israel – is a nihilistic end-in-itself. This explains the seemingly paradoxical disproportion between Hamas’ limited means and its apocalyptic goal: steadfastness, unending aggression, murder and martyrdom are more important even than victory itself.
But for democratic Jewish Israel, a sophisticated, bureaucratic Western state, war is a calibrated adjunct of rational policy, not a nihilistic end-in-itself. When necessary, it is a means to achieve Israel’s overarching moral-political purpose: the preservation and well-being of the Jewish state, and of the Jewish People itself.
As the third Gaza war enters its fifth week and casualties continue to mount, it is clear that Israel’s policy goal cannot be yet another easily-terminated de facto cease-fire. If a fourth Gazan war is to be avoided, the atavistic terrorists’ ability to re-supply, and ultimately to resume the deadly hostilities, must finally be blocked. And this may well mean the destruction not only of the missiles and tunnels, but of their recidivist progenitor, Hamas.
The author is a professor, and director of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research [Montreal and Toronto).