Israel and Hamas: Escalating to Nowhere, Yet Again

As of July 31st, the fighting between Israel and Hamas was in its 24th day. Israel was calling up 16,000 more troops and its ground forces were seeking to destroy at least 32 major tunnel complexes. Israeli aircraft had struck at 3,577 targets in Gaza and caused 1,328 Palestinian deaths.  Hamas had launched some 2,753 rockets and missiles and caused 59 Israeli deaths.  There was no clear way to cost the fighting on either side, but Israel had clearly spent hundreds of millions of dollars, and Gaza had suffered massive losses in housing and infrastructure, seen several hundred thousand people displaced, and had an already crippled economy shattered. The cost in anger, bitterness, and hatred on both sides was incalculable.

A series of limited cease-fires had come and gone – some abandoned before they even began or disregarded by both sides at the same time. Nearly a month into the fighting, Israel talked about some new form of ceasefire being possible only after every tunnel complex along the Gaza’s border with Israel was destroyed. Hamas talked about a possible ceasefire dependent on opening up Gaza to free movement of people and goods without any clear plan to end the smuggling of weapons.

Israeli public opinion still showed growing support for a more intense conflict. As for the Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority each day brought more anger and tension and created the threat of future violence.

A Steadily Deteriorating Strategic Environment

The strategic environment around Israel and Gaza continued to deteriorate. Egypt largely supported Israel’s terms for a ceasefire, and many of the Arab monarchies remained largely silent about the fighting, because all saw Hamas and violent Jihadism as a threat to their own governments. Iran renewed its political support for Hamas, as did Hezbollah. For its part, Hezbollah remains a far more serious threat to Israel than Hamas, with an estimated total of rockets and missiles now reaching as high as 100,000, the deployment of new Iranian ballistic missiles with GPS precision guidance, and 12 or more larger land-based anti-ship missiles.

The fighting contributed to major new increases in tension between Turkey and Israel, and Qatar’s ties to Hamas had again deepened tension between it and other key Arab Gulf states like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Outside opinion still reflected U.S. support for Israel with more support for the Palestinians in Europe, but Israel faced a growing shift towards international sympathy with Gaza’s civilians and concern over the rising level of civilian casualties and collateral damage.

“Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Both sides seemed committed to meeting Albert Einstein’s famous definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The fighting was still escalating to nowhere without any real prospect of a meaningful and lasting solution. No one was able answer the most critical question in any war – in starting it and throughout the conflict – how will this war end?  Instead, all the factors that had led to successive past conflicts seemed just as likely to exist in the future.

Ever since 1967, the Israeli and Palestinian conflicts have paused and then resumed in a different form with the same result. In the case of the fighting in Gaza, the best outcome has been an unstable ceasefire. Since 2005, the initial cause of each round of fighting has been repeated attempts by Hamas to change the strategic facts on the ground – and break out of near crippling Israeli isolation of the Gaza. Hamas has adapted with new tactics like more sophisticated tunnels and an increasing reliance on rockets and missiles to replace irregular warfare in the form of ground or naval attacks on Israel.

In each round, Israel’s decisive military edge has left Hamas (and the more extreme Palestinian Islamic Jihad) weaker than before, killed and wounded far more Palestinians than Israelis, prolonged the economic isolation that has crippled Gaza and deteriorated living standards and social mobility, and failed to have any meaningful political impact that benefited Hamas in making even limited strategic gains.

Each round, however, has also been costly to Israel. Israel’s casualties have been far lower, but all too real when Israel attempted to fight on the ground.  The financial cost of its air and ground operations has steadily risen, and so has the cost of the peacetime security measures it must take deter and contain Hamas and other threats in Gaza.  Each time, Hamas has recovered its ability to pose a threat while it has improved its tunneling efforts and capability to use rockets, missiles and mortars to strike into Israeli territory – although without any meaningful strategic benefits to Hamas – or Gaza’s population.

The Grim “Stats” of War

The scale of the tragedy for both sides that is inherent in the latest round of fighting can be measured in different ways. As shown at the beginning of this commentary, it can be reduced to levels of daily reporting that bear a grim similarity to the statistics used in reporting in a sporting event: comparative killed and wounded. Numbers of Hamas rockets and missiles launched, and numbers that were intercepted or had no result. Numbers of Israeli sorties flown, numbers that hit a military target, numbers that hit a Hamas-related home, numbers that produced collateral damage, and numbers that produced civilian casualties.

The “stats of war” get worse with each passing day, and got much worse when Israel added a ground dimension to the fighting. The ongoing war had steadily more lasting material impacts on life and economic hopes of the some 1.8 million people living in Gaza.

Tragic as the totals of dead are, the dead are dead. The lasting impacts of war are always on the living and wounded. In the case of Gaza, there are some five to six times more wounded than dead, and perhaps ten to twenty times more people directly impacted by the loss of someone they loved and the need to take care of survivors. The impact of the fighting, pushing several hundred thousand more people out of their homes, a massive loss of employment and business income, and practical problems like power cuts, push the short-term totals much further.

Moreover, this round of fighting has produced record losses of housing and businesses. It will compound the impacts and suffering caused by and built on years of limited imports and mobility that have impoverished much or most of the entire population. The legacy of war on the Palestinians is also not limited to the combination of the effects of past conflicts and current destruction, but the extent to which Israel and Egypt now both see the tunnels, rockets, shipments of goods into Gaza, and Palestinian mobility in and out of Gaza as more serious threats in the future.

(The data on these trends is uncertain and dated but summarized in a previous Burke Chair report, Gaza: The Human Dimension, found here.) 

Modern War: People as Shields and Suffering as a Weapon

All of these factors highlight the dilemma for Israel that affects virtually every state now fighting an irregular or asymmetric conflict – including America. States fighting irregular or asymmetric conflicts are limited to achieving only tactical successes against forces that shelter in populated areas, use human shields as a substitute for advanced weapons and technology, and use the resulting suffering as political and strategic capital in seeking to influence local and international opinion.

Non-state actors have learned to fight in ways that exploit the laws of war designed to protect civilians, and use the civilian casualties and suffering on their own side as both military shields and political weapons. Like politicized efforts to use air and drone strikes as such weapons against the United States and ISAF, modern war is evolving into patterns that make human suffering a key aspect of conflict for non-state actors like Hamas, rather than something to avoid.

Some Israelis do call for a ground war so large that it would effectively occupy the entire Gaza Strip and hunt down and destroy Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In practice, however, it is not possible to “mow the grass” to the point where Hamas will not survive or some threat emerges as a result of the anger and desperation of the Palestinian population in Gaza. There is no clear point at which a new Israeli occupation could stop, and Israel will face growing international opposition to its actions.

The end result is that Israel will probably limit its military efforts to the point where it feels it has deterred Hamas for some period of time, create a new ceasefire of an uncertain length, and confront Hamas with either having to find new and far more sophisticated missiles or trying to get numbers so large that a volley could saturate Israel’s missile defenses and compensate for their lack of accuracy and lethality. This outcome seems dubious as long as Egypt continues to crack down on Palestinian tunnels and shipments across its border.

A Continuing Threat to Israel from Gaza and a Sharply Growing Threat from Hezbollah

As a result, Israel will not “win” except at the tactical level. It will still have to tailor a major part of its security effort to deal with whatever threat emerges after this round of fighting, deal with the challenge of containing more than 1.8 million people, and deal with increased hostility from the Palestinians, and likely face the collapse of the more moderate Palestinian Authority.

Israel will still have to go on dealing with the broad hostility of the Arab world and Iran, and deal with the fact many countries see its use of force as excessive and Israel as guilty of human rights abuses and blocking the peace process. Moreover, it must now begin to deal with the far greater threat posed by Hezbollah on a more serious basis. It is unclear that Hezbollah will deliberately risk another round of fighting with Israel, but any clash can trigger an unpredictable level escalation, and Israel faces a far more serious threat on its “second front” that will learn and adapt from the fighting in Gaza.

At a minimum, Hezbollah will improve its tunneling and shelter efforts, and efforts to conceal its targets on the basis of what it learns from the current round of fighting. It will be able to exploit human shield tactics more effectively. It will have learned the limits of Iron Dome and Israel’s current defenses, and Hezbollah has already built up a far more serious missile and rocket threat that will force Israel into a far more costly mix of utilizing its Iron Dome, David’s Sling and possibly its Arrow anti-missile interceptors. 

An Unending War is an Unending Story

As of July 31st, no meaningful negotiating effort or option that would end the fighting and bring lasting peace was being pursued officially by either Israel or Hamas. The closest to any meaningful concept of conflict termination were the calls in Israel for an all out invasion that could occupy the populated areas throughout Gaza long enough to destroy Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and any capacity to threaten Israel.

These are calls ignore the real-world scale and duration of the fighting that would be involved, and disregard the chances of any success on a lasting level without a sustained IDF occupation of Gaza, and fail to take into account the reactions and further Palestinian hostility that such a course of action would generate in Gaza and the West Bank, the impact on the rest of the Arab world, and world opinion.

The end result is that this particular “long war” will not end in any real sense. The outcome of this round of fighting will leave the core strategic realities on the ground more or less where they began – with the fighting having been seen as necessary by both sides, but having escalated to nowhere. The resulting pause will be a prelude to yet another round of fighting, and more human costs on both sides.

If one compares the cost of this and past rounds of fighting, it is impossible to see what either side has accomplished. Israel will have to live with continued uncertainty and risk and the inevitable charges that it used excessive force, and an increased threat from the north. For all the criticism of Secretary Kerry’s peace efforts, every Israeli tactical success looks very much like strategic failure, and every escalation of the fighting seems likely to push Israeli towards more serious future conflicts.

Yet, when one looks at the cost to Palestinian civilians of Hamas’s actions, it is impossible to respect any aspect of Hamas’s intentions and strategy. There is something inherently horrifying in using a population as a weapon. It may serve Hamas’ short-term political and tactical goals. But, the end result in terms of Hamas’ treatment of its own people looks far too much like a warning that Bion of Borysthenes gave in a very different context some 2,500 years ago: "Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest.” Given the strategic result of Hamas’s actions to date, it is not clear that its rockets and tunnels will have any more strategic purpose than the equivalent of throwing stones, or that Hamas clearly understands the difference between frogs and its own people.

Neither side has a meaningful endgame, nor the answer to the question as to “how does this war end” is all too clear: Without a real peace settlement, it does not end, only pauses.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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