The aim of this essay is to look at the opposing strategies of Israel and Hamas. To this end, we will attempt to define “rational” and “irrational” strategies and we will use these definitions to evaluate the parties’ strategies.
A comparison of the strategies explains why a stable situation of ongoing limited confrontation in Gaza is occurring. The analysis further indicates that Hamas’ strategy does not constitute an existential threat to Israel, since it contains a built-in limitation, in that excessive “success” will cause it to fail (the Amorite Iniquity Effect).
The Role of a Grand Strategy
A grand strategy is a comprehensive plan for addressing a specific problem or situation. In the political-security context, grand strategy defines the basic principles of the political-security planning from which the military and political strategies that serve it can be inferred. There is a difficulty in demarcating between a grand strategy and the underlying strategic levels, down to the level of military strategy. Grand strategy may be detailed or general. In some issues it virtually overlaps with military strategy, while in others they are almost unrelated. This essay does not differentiate between the various dimensions of strategy, and for the sake of simplicity the generic term “strategy” is used. Consequently, in this essay, “strategy” denotes the manner in which means and ways are connected to ends in the political (foreign and domestic policy) and security (military and the state’s tools of power) fields.
Why Is the Other Party’s Strategy Being Analyzed?
The determination of a strategy, consisting of the analysis of alternative strategies, is an effective way of formulating and implementing a strategy designed to achieve specific ends. The work process involved in the formulation of the strategy analyzes the different options for achieving various ends in order to arrive at the preferred strategy. In other words, the principal task is that of creating alternatives, evaluating them and selecting the preferred one.
On the other hand, when analyzing the other party’s strategy, both the process and its purpose are different. The purpose of identifying the other party’s strategy is not so much to evaluate the strategy (the degree of its effectiveness) but more an attempt to understand the other party’s way of thinking and modus operandi, so that it will be possible to effectively act against it (or in collaboration with it). We are sometimes required to look at the strategy of both parties in order to choose the one that seems to have the better strategy (for instance, when it is required to select a manufacturer of a product for some purpose).
However, in the political-security context we choose our side based on other considerations (culture, history, geography) rather than on the quality of the strategy employed by it. This is especially true when we look at our alternative modi operandi against a specified opponent, when we attempt to understand its strategy and attach virtually no importance to our estimation of it.
Below, we will attempt to map out two types of strategy – the rational and the irrational. These two methods of thinking are so different that there is virtually no point in trying to determine which is preferable. The fact that there is difficulty in evaluating strategies with a different basis need not concern us when we wish to look at the opponent’s strategy, since we do not have to answer the question of which strategy is preferable. All we have to understand is the other actor’s strategy and adjust our own strategy accordingly, not in order to reach some level of perfection in our strategy but rather so our strategy will be “good enough”.
Rational and Irrational Strategies
It is customary in the western world to employ rational thinking, on the basis of which it is possible to explain events logically. The relationship between cause and effect forms the basis for the western attempt to describe and understand reality. Whether the viewpoint is empirical (referring to perceptible phenomena) or is based on logical inferences, the guiding principle in rational thinking is the consistent link between cause and effect. According to the rational approach, mysticism or belief cannot be relied upon in order to explain phenomena and events.
Rational modi operandi should link the desired outcome with the actions to be taken to achieve it. If there is a logical connection between the planned actions and the outcome that they attempt to achieve, the plan can be regarded as rational.
Rational Plans Will Form the Basis for Rational Strategies.
The way to evaluate a rational strategy is not only on the basis of the prospects for its realization (since uncertainty exists) but also in comparison with the available alternatives at the time of its selection.
It may well be that the strategy of the Zionist movement in the years preceding the establishment of the State of Israel did not have good prospects for success. Nonetheless, it was far more successful than could have been expected.
On the other hand, there are plans that are totally irrational. Such plans may form the cornerstones for irrational strategies.
As stated, irrational strategies are not rational strategies with poor prospects for success, but rather, are strategies in which there is no logical connection between the planned actions and the attaining of the final end.
I will subsequently argue that Hamas’ strategy in Gaza is irrational. However, in order to avoid confining the discussion of irrational strategies to the Muslim world, we should recall that the Jewish People have not always adopted rational strategies. For centuries the strategy of the Jewish People to return to their homeland was based on the prayer, “Next year in Jerusalem”. This strategy was so strong (based on the coming of the Messiah) that even today there are Jews living in Israel who are opposed to the Zionist strategy (that established the State of Israel) and claim that the Jews must continue to wait for “the Messiah, the son of David” who will redeem the land and bring them to Jerusalem (where they are already living). Based on this strategy no logical connection can be discerned between the action and the desired outcome. Nonetheless, some will argue that this is an effective strategy, and in proof of this, they will argue that the author of this essay lives in a Jerusalem that has been rebuilt after two thousand years of prayer.
Hamas has set itself the principal objective of terminating the existence of the State of Israel as the national home of the Jewish People. Hamas does not recognize the Jewish State, and in its place wishes to establish a Palestinian entity (I use the term “entity” since I do not wish to define its characteristics) throughout Mandatory Israel. This “end” is highly ambitious when taking into account the balance of power between Israel and Hamas (even if the other terrorist organizations in Gaza are included in its ranks).
The strategy chosen by Hamas in order to attain its pretentious principal objective is that of “resistance” (“MUKAWAMA”). The major part of the strategy is the maintenance of activities (generally with terrorist characteristics) against the State of Israel. In order to realize this strategy, Hamas is investing efforts to establish operational capabilities that will allow it to operate from the Gaza Strip against Israeli assets (of both a military and a civilian nature).
Without going into depth, we argue that there is a material difference between the “resistance” of Hamas and the terrorist strategies of the PLO up to the Oslo Accords. The policy aim or end state of PLO terrorism was not to subdue Israel by terror. The PLO’s strategy employed terrorism in order to bring the Palestinian issue to the world agenda.
This essay suggests that a strategy of resistance is irrational since it is impossible to demonstrate the mechanism through which the resistance will lead to the attaining of Hamas’ principal objective. This statement it is not intended to pass judgment on either the validity of the strategy or the degree of its suitability for Hamas. Since Hamas (like other Islamic entities in the region) has adopted this strategy, it should be assumed that it coincides with its situation and beliefs. The question that should concern Israeli decision-makers is not how effective this strategy appears in Israeli eyes but rather what are the consequences of this strategy and what strategy should Israel adopt in order to counter it.
There are two irrational elements in the strategy of resistance:
The first assumes that Israel is incapable of countering the challenges of the resistance over time. This assumption is derived from the belief that the Zionist entity is weak and pampered. This belief is based on a virtually racist approach that regards the Jew as being weak, and the Western World (to which Israeli society belongs) as lacking ideology and of being morally corrupt. At the same time, an examination of Jewish history in general and of Zionism in the last century in particular, indicates precisely the opposite. The Jews have always withstood extremely harsh conditions over time and have managed to survive!
The second element views the very act of resistance as a value and an expression of the strength of the resistor. The believer views the fact that he is defying the opposing forces, as a victory, regardless of the immediate gain that the resistance achieves.
A strategy of resistance is not required to describe the rational course of events on the way to attaining its principal objective. Hence, this strategy too is not examined periodically in terms of the situation it has reached on the way to attaining the ends. Rather, it primarily examines itself in terms of its capability of surviving, namely, resisting. It is interesting to note that from time to time a rational evaluation is made of a strategy of resistance by Palestinian elements, who generally reach the conclusion that this strategy is undermining the attainment of the ends of the Palestinian people. This conflict between the various evaluations of the effectiveness of the strategy of resistance results from the use of rational tools to evaluate an irrational strategy, and not only from the evaluator’s worldview.
The strategy of resistance belongs to the family of, what can be called, “asymmetric strategies”. An asymmetric strategy is characterized by its attempt to confront the opponent with weapons that are different from those used by him. The asymmetry may be at the most basic tactical level – such as an anti-aircraft setup constructed in response to superior air power. The response may be at a higher level, such as irregular warfare against regular military forces, or it can occur at the highest level, such as confrontation by an entity having no territory or statehood against a state. All asymmetric strategies attempt to confront the opponent not through direct confrontation against its force, with similar force, but by relocation of the conflict to a different arena, attempting to eliminate some of the other party’s advantages.
When two forces confront one another with similar operational weapons, it is reasonable to assume that the stronger or larger party, or at least the better-trained party, will win. If one of the parties estimates that it does not stand a chance in a symmetric confrontation since it is inferior in terms of the above parameters, it is likely to attempt to change the character of the confrontation. A party that succeeds in relocating the confrontation to an arena, in which its tactical situation improves, will increase its chances of victory.
Asymmetric wars have taken place throughout history and are not especially characteristic of recent years. However, during recent decades (and particularly since the end of World War II) an asymmetric strategy of resistance has developed. This strategy has a number of unique characteristics:
- The resistor employs tools of terror. The operational tools of terror have changed over the years. At first, terrorism was based on attacks using small arms, and subsequently employed explosive charges and suicide bombers. Rocket weaponry has gained ground in recent years but was used for terrorist purposes as early as in World War II. The major motif served by all these operational tools is the creation of fear and terror among civilians. The tools of terror are militarily ineffective and do not significantly jeopardize military activities.
- The resistor abandons defense of its civilians and leaves the role of their protection to the other party. The resistance does not attempt to prevent its opponents from gaining control of its territory and civilians. The major shield for the population is the restraints that the stronger party imposes upon itself. These restraints may derive from the values of the other party or from its fear of international repercussions. However, clearly, such protection is not achieved by classical means of defense and security (prevention of occupation).
- The resistor makes use of its civilians as a shield for its terrorist forces. The resistor’s firepower is deliberately and knowingly deployed in populated areas in order to make it difficult to attack it. If the other party nevertheless attacks, then, for propaganda purposes, use will be made of civilians who were unintentionally injured. An interesting reversal of roles occurs, where the symmetric party attempts to protect the civilians of the other party, while the resisting party exploits the damage to its civilians for its own benefit (in strategic terms).[i]
Hamas’ strategy of resistance in Gaza is, accordingly, irrational and asymmetric in nature, attempting to employ terrorism to attack the Israeli side, while relying on Israeli restraints to prevent harm to civilians in Gaza, and at the very least exploits the unavoidable damage to the Gaza civilians for the purpose of strategic leverage.
Israeli Strategy against Hamas
Israel’s sought political condition, its policy, is to develop and establish itself as the national home of the Jewish People, and as a democratic state. Since the establishment of the state, emphasis has been placed on ensuring its existence, and has subsequently been directed at social and economic development with the decreased existential threat against Israel.
Israel encounters difficulty in formulating a single coherent strategy that will meet the challenge of the resistance from Gaza and the political process with the Palestinian Authority. The split in the Palestinian camp, in fact, necessitates a corresponding split in the Israeli strategy in order to confront them. Some claim that Israel is cynically exploiting this split so that it will not be required to advance the political process. This essay does not address such discussions but rather focuses on the strategy vis-à-vis Hamas, in which there is greater agreement in Israel itself and amongst the international community.
The political conditions that Israel seeks to establish regarding Hamas is to maintain periods of quiet, with the lowest level of violence that can be achieved over as long a period of time as possible, in order to exploit the quiet for economic and social development for Israel.
Israeli strategy relies on Israeli deterrence. Israel is attempting to preserve the relative quiet that has been created since Operation Cast Lead. The status quo allows Israel to absorb the level of terror emanating from Gaza (mainly rockets and mortars fired at open areas) while maintaining a defensive posture along the border fence with Gaza, and with occasional attacks against terrorist infrastructure from the air. From time to time escalation occurs as a result of “breaking the rules” by one of the parties, following which the exchanges of fire from both sides of the border increase. However, the mutual interest of both parties to avoid escalation helps to maintain the “cease fire”. Israel is prepared for broader action against Hamas and uses this level of readiness to deter it from uncontrolled escalation of its activities or those of other terrorist organizations who act under its protection in Gaza.
The Israeli strategy is, therefore, one of maintaining the status quo at an acceptable level of terrorism while preparing for a broad operation, and deterring the other party from escalation.
This strategy is rational since a logical connection can be seen between the employment of a measured degree of force during the status quo period and deterrence from escalation, and the achievement of Israel’s principal political objectives during that time, namely, to develop its economy and society while deterring its enemies from escalation.
An interesting phenomenon may be observed, in which the strategies of the parties do not exactly conflict with one another. Hamas is interested in resistance, and Israel manages to absorb a certain level of terrorism in order not to escalate into war. This is the reason that an ongoing situation of low intensity confrontation has been able to exist over the years between Israel and Gaza. So long as Hamas prefers the very act of resistance to the attainment of the principal goal of Israel’s liquidation, it will keep its level of activities within limits that Israel can live with. Israel, on its part, will attempt to extend the period of relative tranquility in which it absorbs the low level of terrorism that it is prepared to accept. Israel’s primary goal is to exist and develop. Peaceful borders are, of course, preferable to a situation of ongoing terrorism, but if terrorism continues at a tolerable level, Israel will prefer the option of economic and political development over a decision to go to war against Hamas.
Why Asymmetry Cannot Win – “The Amorites Iniquity”
In the “Covenant between the pieces” (Genesis 15, 13-16), the Almighty makes a promise to Abraham that he will inherit the land, but not just now – “since the Iniquity of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure”. In other words, Abraham’s descendants will inherit the land but only after the Amorites, who are living in the country, have sinned enough and their iniquity becomes total. Without addressing the issue of the problematic nature of this morality and the meaning of “free will” in a promise of this kind, the principle that the other party is going to reach is a situation in which its iniquity will cause its downfall, which well illustrates the reality of Gaza.
Based on its strategy, Hamas is a “resistor”. Its terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians are gradually accumulating. So long as the level of terrorism remains low, Israel’s response is not substantial. On the one hand, Hamas can continue its activities. On the other hand, this activity does not advance Hamas in the achievement of its ends since Israel can easily absorb it.
In such a situation, in which Hamas and Israel are acting with restraint, it is the parties’ ability to withstand attacks that is being tested, and not their relative strength (since they are restraining themselves). Hamas can carry on its strategy of “resistance” and even feel that it is implementing it well through such resistance. As stated, Hamas does not have to examine its strategy against the probability that it would achieve its ends (an irrational strategy).
If Hamas’ efforts become too “successful” (more Israeli casualties) it will approach the point at which the Israeli side can no longer exercise self restraint, and will resort to serious reprisals.
In this situation in which Israel responds with great intensity, the parties are evaluated on the basis of their relative strength, and, as stated, the Israeli side is far stronger in terms of firepower, as well as the size and effectiveness of the army. A strategy of “resistance” is no longer sufficient since Israel is acting with great strength. Since Hamas is also escalating its activities, Israel’s legitimacy of action increases, removing some of the restraints against the implementation of force applied by Israel’s military instrument. The damage caused to Hamas itself and to civilians and infrastructure in Gaza following the collapse of the “humanitarian defense” is immense and harsh – the Sin of the Amorites has reached its full measure!
The inherent problem in the strategy of “resistance” may thus be discerned: it can succeed so long as it is not too successful, and if it is too successful, it fails. However, this estimation of the strategy has been made by a rational observer who is attempting to discover the connection between the terrorism of resistance and the achievement of Hamas’ principal objectives. Nonetheless, as stated above, these are not the irrational eyes through which Hamas looks at itself. Hence, although to a western observer a strategy of “resistance” appears to be pointless, and it may be expected that it will be abandoned, it well matches the approach of Hamas that attaches value to its very resistance.
As stated above, there is no need to ask which strategy is better, but only to examine how the strategy of each party counters that of the other. Rationally speaking, Hamas’ strategy does not guarantee the achievement of its stated ends, and consequently Israel is not required to employ full force against it.
The fact that a situation is likely in which both parties are satisfied with their own strategies is what permits the existence of a (limited) ongoing confrontation, the price for which is being paid by both parties, who are not getting any closer to a situation of peace or resolution.
From Israel’s perspective, Hamas’ strategy compels it to absorb what it regards as a tolerable level of terrorism (although Israel would prefer total quiet on its borders) but one that permits it to make progress towards its national ends of social and economic development.
Hamas’ asymmetric and irrational strategy permits it to resist without bringing it closer to achieving its ends vis-à-vis Israel. The strategy is problematic since if it is too successful it will fail (the Amorite Iniquity Effect).
In rational eyes Hamas’ strategy appears to be problematic since it does not seem to be helping it to achieve its ultimate ends, but Hamas’ irrational point of view causes it to ignore this drawback!
A stable situation is thus created in which the two conflicting strategies can co-exist over time, and in which the parties have no motivation to reach a peaceful solution. This strategic stasis explains the current pause in Israeli-Hamas interaction. It remains to be seen whose assessment of the competitive interaction between their respective strategies is the most accurate. Clearly, Israel’s strategy appears both more rational and more sustainable.
[i] I refer to the last two cases as “humanitarian defense” (or the “Goldstone defense”). The concept of humanitarian defense is a new one! To emphasize its novelty, it may be seen that the Jewish community (Yishuv) during the 1948 War of Independence, defended its populated areas against the Arab armies that invaded Israel. A populated area whose defense was breached was evacuated, and then demolished by the Arab forces that occupied it. On the other hand, villages and neighborhoods occupied by the IDF in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza were not evacuated, and the IDF generally avoided harming them.