Reclaiming the Israeli Victory over Hamas

by ROBERT WEISSBERG November 28, 2012

Is peace possible in the Middle East?  Proposals run into the dozens and as recent events attest, none have succeeded. But, this sorry record acknowledged, let me suggest a totally different approach. In a nutshell, the Palestinians must accept the futility of a military solution and when that occurs, peace is possible. Put another way, peace is beyond reach when Palestinians insist that defeats are really victories.

History abounds with clear-cut examples of military defeat. In some instances, e.g., WW II Germany, the losing nation was physically occupied before surrendering. Elsewhere, e.g., WW II Japan, the prospect of total annihilation was sufficient to end hostilities. The common threat in thousands of these military endings was either occupied territory or cooler heads acknowledging the futility of carrying on.

Multiple Israeli/Palestinian conflicts defy this pattern-Arab defeat after defeat is somehow twisted into "victory." Psychologically speaking, the Palestinians (and their Arab allies) have, to be charitable, a learning disorder; less charitable would be mental illness.

A hallucinatory "victory" was abundantly clear in the last Gaza conflict. TV reports showed scores of Palestinians wildly celebrating the cease-fire, many firing guns into the air while their leaders boasted of teaching the Zionists a lesson. Media commentators, including many in the US, similarly embraced the fantasy, informing viewers that this "resistance" to "aggression" strengthened Hamas among fellow Arabs and hinting that next time Israeli will suffer an even greater "defeat." Unfortunately, many Israelis accepted this upside down narrative despite having achieved their military objective of stopping the rocket attacks and degrading Hamas' military ability. 

A cold-eyed accounting would, of course, certify Israel as the winner, and this hardly differs from previous battlefield outcomes. Measured by loss of life (162 vs. 6), property destruction and even the vague cease fire agreement, the Arabs defeat was beyond question. The entire episode was an Arab humiliation of the first order. Gaza was absolutely defenseless against Israeli air-strikes and Hamas had to resort to locating its operations amidst civilians as their principle means of "defense." Compare Hamas vulnerability with the success of Iron Dome. Nor did Hamas achieve any notable diplomatic victories. Where was Hezbollah support, the one ally that could have made a military difference?

Moreover, Hamas' now upgraded rockets had to be imported from Iran and then smuggled in, yet one more item showing Hamas weakness. Perhaps the most potent weapon in the Hamas arsenal were pictures of parents grieving over dead children. Most of all, facing the prospect of an unstoppable Israeli land invasion, Hamas, just as the Arabs have repeatedly done before, sought a rescue by outsiders whose aim was not a Hamas victory, but preventing this ill-conceived, poorly fought "resistance" from inflaming an on-the-edge region.

With somewhat different circumstances Israeli could have invaded Gaza, arrested top Hamas leaders and put the entire population under Israeli marshal law, and all with minimal loss of Israeli life. By contrast, the reverse-Hamas expelling the Jews from the Arab "homeland"-was unimaginable.  Hamas played a weak hand, and, given the destruction of military facilities and deaths of top Hamas commanders, the hand was even weaker post cease-fire.

Now for the big question-how can Arabs be made to understand that they lost the battle and the prospect of future victories is zero? This is no small task, but it is vital if ceaseless violence is to be ended.

Upping the material and human cost for Arabs and of itself will probably fail. We still would see rowdy victory celebrations with twice the destruction and loss of life. The reason is simple: for many Arabs, dying as "a martyr" constitutes a victory while "warriors" are celebrated for their "courage" no matter how stupid or counter-productive. So much for the Israeli strategy of overwhelming force to "teach a lesson" though, to be sure, this might encourage Hamas restraint for a year or so.

This is an under-researched topic but in the meantime let me offer a few suggestions.

Future Israeli victories must be followed by savvy public relations.  It would not take much to turn this claimed Hamas "victory" into an unambiguous defeat. Just let the world see the damage. As a youngster I can recall newsreel footage of post-war Germany and Japan depicting bombed out cities, dazed people collecting bricks, half-starved feral children, adults waiting in line for a bowl of soup and all else that demonstrated military defeat. The Internet (especially YouTube) can easily be exploited for this purpose (film clips can also be sent to media around the world). In addition, there surely must be sensible Gaza residents who did not swallow the Hamas "victory" propaganda and they can speak out (anonymously, of course) via the Internet and these statements can be given wide distribution. A confidential poll may also give the lie to inflated Hamas claims. Most important, bogus "victory" assertions must be challenged relentlessly.

Perhaps the Israelis need to organize their own unruly victory celebrations not just the usual hand wringing and self-doubt that typically follows any Israeli military action, even the successful ones. 

And let's not forget the comic potential of these counterfeit victory claims. For example, "What is the name of the Hamas Military Headquarters?" Answer: The Palestinian Children's Hospital. Surely there must be dozens comics who could profit from this "victory." The potential for humiliating Hamas via laughter is enormous ("How many Hamas Commanders does it take.....").

This post-conflict battle is just as important as the physical strife though, as we have seen, it is all too easy to neglect. It was once said that the winners write history, but in today's surrealistic world it may be equally true that PR-savvy losers can preemptively write history and thereby snatch victory from defeat.   Again, Hamas must be made to understand that they, not the Israelis, lost the war. Contributing Editor Robert Weissberg is emeritus professor of political science, University of Illinois-Urbana. He has written many books, the most recent being: The Limits of Civic Activism, Pernicious Tolerance: How teaching to "accept differences" undermines civil society and  Bad Students, Not Bad Schools. Besides writing for professional journals, he has also written for magazines like the Weekly Standard and currently contributes to various blogs. 


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