Military defeat can still be a strategic victory for the Islamist militants of Gaza.
How far will Hamas go? Twenty-six days of war, more than 1,400 dead, bombed homes, streets, fields — the Palestinian Islamist organization appears to want to run its people and its territory into the ground. The Israeli military machine has been attacking the tiny Palestinian area of Gaza relentlessly on land, by sea, from the air. Every hour that this war continues seems like a government-forced sacrifice of a people and the harakiri of a militia: Hamas cannot win this conflict militarily.
But that’s not the decisive issue for the Islamists. Hamas wants to — indeed must — win this war politically. Since 2011, the Arab world has changed so much that in 2014 the Palestinians now find themselves virtually alone in their political fight for a country for their people. Earlier, Hamas could hope for crocodile tears from Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Jordan, but also bonafide diplomatic support and real help. Today both Cairo and Riyadh are fighting their own Islamists linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, which lost power in Egypt in 2013, is a parent organization of Hamas. If Hamas and the suffering people of Gaza lose out now because of the war, more than one Arab government is likely to think it’s all for the better.
Egypt, which has unresolved issues with Hamas left over from the Arab Spring in 2011, contributes in no small part to that attitude. The new government run by Islamist-hostile Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has destroyed the tunnel at its Gaza border. Since the fall of 2013 hardly any weapons have gotten through to the Palestinians — and neither have many affordable food products, medicines, and durable goods.
When all seems lost
The Israeli blockade imposed on the other borders in 2007 is watertight. Despite international pressure the Israelis never made any significant concessions. So Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants remain politically and economically isolated, facing a gloomy hand-to-mouth future. The Gaza Strip has become a 360-square-kilometer prison guarded by the Israelis and the Egyptians.
If Hamas wants to continue to rule and later perhaps oust Fatah competition from the West Bank, it has to achieve something concrete, beyond the anti-Israel slogans. The Islamists have to force the Israelis and the Egyptians to lift the double blockade and link Gaza with the world.
Hamas masterminds have thought through where the group’s future chances lie. They know that Israel wants to destroy the organization and continually comes up with internationally accepted grounds to attack it under the pretext of its own security.
The political landscape in the Arab world is not going to change so quickly in favor of the Palestinians. So Hamas knows it risks losing clout with each passing day, particularly as it is cut off from the Egyptian tunnel financial support that Qatar has provided, and military help from Iran is unable to reach Gaza; meanwhile the anti-Netanyahu rhetoric out of Turkey in any case serves little.
So it’s all or nothing. A ceasefire dictated by Israel that keeps Gaza’s borders closed would for the people living in Gaza represent a return to the status quo after the death of 1,500. The people would hardly forgive Hamas for that.
Which means the Islamists can’t give in. As more children and civilians die, as United Nations schools are shot at, as Israel ignores all proportionality, and images of the horror make their way around the world in real time — Israel and Egypt both are going to start to feel international pressure. And at some point they have to yield. That is the moment when the military defeat of Hamas becomes their great political victory.