Probably more than any conflict in recent memory, Operation Guardian of the Walls was a war over the “victory” narrative.
Both sides, whether Hamas or Israel, ended the war claiming that it had won this round and defeated its enemy.
Nonetheless, according to polls undertaken in both the Israeli and Palestinian public, Hamas was the clear victor.
A comprehensive survey undertaken for The Israel Victory Project after the conflict ended demonstrated that Israelis by a large majority did not believe that the Jewish State had won. When asked if they believed Israel won the recent conflict with Hamas, only one third of the respondents, or 35%, said Israel.
A more recent survey, undertaken by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, found that 77% of Palestinians believe Hamas emerged as a winner.
In other words, few believe on either side that Israel won.
In fact, the Palestinian survey also saw that in “winning” the war, it had gained significant admiration and support on the Palestinian street.
Head pollster Khalil Shikaki, who has been surveying Palestinian public opinion for more than two decades, called it a “dramatic” shift, but said it also resembles previous swings toward Hamas during times of confrontation. Those all dissipated within three to six months as Hamas failed to deliver on promises of change.
This is the key to this episode.
Hamas might be seen as a victor, but it is only Israel which can crown it thus.
While these battles can be won on the battleground, unfortunately, Israel has not shown a great interest during recent conflagrations to do so.
Nevertheless, what was not won on the battleground can still be lost afterwards.
Hamas needs to show its people that its belligerence is worth the suffering that the Palestinian people in Gaza undoubtedly felt during the eleven-day bombardment. Hundreds were killed, whole neighborhoods were destroyed, and Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure took a massive dent.
Hamas is counting on achieving real gains during Egypt-mediated negotiations to win over the people on a longer-term basis. They have some key bargaining chips in the guise of Israelicivilians and the bodies of two IDF soldiers. They also have the secure knowledge that Israel has little will to get sucked back into a conflict in the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, the Israeli government should stand firm and aim to treat Hamas as a vanquished enemy during any discussions.
It must not agree to any type of rehabilitation without some concrete gains, in the shape of the return of Israeli captives and the dismantlement of Hamas’ military capabilities.
This might sound far-fetched, but one should remember that Israel has a much better hand overall, and a very large stick.
It should be kept in mind that Israel controls the Gaza Strip from the outside, what comes in and what goes out, by sea, air, and land. It also has one of the most technologically sophisticated armies the world. The recently released details of Israel’s drone swarm technology should make Hamas leaders feel far less confident or comfortable. They should know that they are constantly in the crosshairs.
Nonetheless, as usual, Israel is punching below its weight.
A case in point is the “protection money” that Israel gives to Hamas through Qatar on a monthly basis.
Rather than scrapping the Qatari suitcases or making them contingent on Israeli gains, the new Israeli government is merely repackaging them by agreeing to channeling the very same funds through the United Nations or even the Palestinian Authority banks.
According to all reports, Hamas feels confident that it will still be able to control these funds and make sure they reach their people despite the restructuring proposal. This is nothing but window dressing for a very bad policy.
It is in Israel’s best interests that Hamas is not seen as a champion of the Palestinian people. This will merely bring about a new and more deadly round in the future, and incentivizes terrorism.
Israel must show the Palestinian people that the way of Hamas is the way of humiliating defeat.
It must break the will of Hamas to continue fighting by standing tall in negotiations and not being afraid to walk away without the Islamist group’s capitulation to the Jewish State’s demands.
In other words, Israel can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat if it is willing and able.
These should not be negotiations between equals.
Hamas must be made to understand that it might have won the battle, but ultimately it will lose the war.
The writer is director of the Middle East Forum