Ever since the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, the Hamas movement has boasted a series of impressive tactical victories. These wins started with the elections victory over Fatah and continued with the rapid takeover of the Gaza Strip, the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, the “candle operation” aimed at forcing Israel to boost the supply of electricity to the Strip, and finally, the breaching of the Rafah border wall and the lifting of the siege.
However, these Hamas wins serve to show us that in the absence of strategic thinking, even such impressive series of success stories does not guarantee victory in the war. The opposite is true. In this case, all of Hamas’ triumphs lead to yet another great Palestinian defeat, with its price to be paid mostly by those aspiring for an independent state.
The difference between tactics and strategy can be described as the difference between managing a battle and managing a lengthy war. Using a different point of view, we can describe strategy as system-wide thinking that brings to the battlefield considerations that affect morale as well as political, economic, and cultural factors. Tactics, on the other hand, is about maneuvering forces on the ground in order to achieve local supremacy.
The first to understand these strategic mistakes were Hamas leaders themselves. After they took over Gaza they looked around and got scared. The great military success ended meekly: The prison walls were closed off, Gaza was disconnected from the West Bank, and Hamas lost points both in the Palestinian and global public opinion arena.
The breaching of the border with Egypt, which was undoubtedly a shining tactical victory, led the Palestinians another step closer to the edge of the abyss. Here too, the first ones to realize the mistake were Hamas leaders themselves. The connection to Egypt and its bear hug produce a rare opportunity for Israel to deepen the separation between the two parts of the Palestinian people and eliminate its hopes for a state.
The breaching of the Egyptian border created a new dynamics, and some commentators have compared it to the toppling of the Berlin Wall. Gaza residents, who enjoyed several days of shopping in Rafah and in el-Arish, will continue to press for an open border. Egyptian President Mubarak and his advisors will be forced to comply with the pressure for fear of provoking public opinion in Egypt. Moreover, when such simple and readily available alternative exists, it is hard to accept the excuse of suffocation. The implication is that instead of turning to Israel and the West Bank, the Gaza Strip will increasingly look to Egypt.
Just like in Jose Saramago’s The Stone Raft, the Gaza Strip is disconnecting from us and from the West Bank and floating in Egypt’s direction. It is reasonable to assume that Hamas’ leaders will make an effort to direct the Strip back to Israel’s shores, but it is unclear whether they will succeed. Gaza may continue to float away; the West Bank without Gaza cannot exist as an independent state; and there you have a recipe for a long-term political change that nobody predicted.
Seek new ways to curb rocket fireThe new situation whereby the detachment between Gaza and the West Bank grows, the pace of arms and financial smuggling increases, and Israel fails to suffocate Hamas, requires a change in thinking patterns and creative actions. The State of Israel may be able to reap rewards from the new situation if it is only able to navigate wisely and cautiously.
Despite my sympathy for the Palestinians and my support for their right to establish a state, under the current situation, with a futile diplomatic process, a Palestinian president unable to lead to a genuine agreement, and no chance to see the West Bank and Gaza Strip reconnected, expanding the link between Gaza and Egypt is the most proper solution for the Palestinians as well. The Israeli government should seriously examine the possibility of cautiously taking this path, with the first step being a decision to waive the Israeli objection to a border crossing under Palestinian-Egyptian supervision and the encouragement of a transfer of goods from Egypt to the Strip.
Simultaneously, it would be worthwhile to seek new ways to curb the rocket fire on Israel. After all, it is clear that we have no control over the transfer of arms, trained fighters, and logistics, and Hamas will be able to continue firing missiles that are even more sophisticated and have a longer range. A ground operation in the Strip would be able to eliminate this threat for a certain period, yet the implication of such invasion is ongoing Israeli presence in Gaza, thus putting an end to the “Egyptian option” and bringing the problem back to Israel’s doorstep. Therefore, we may need to turn to Egyptian mediation in order to secure a ceasefire with Hamas.
The Winograd Commission’s conclusions are not a theoretical matter. In the Second Lebanon War, the State of Israel proved that it can embark on war without strategy and even without tactics. Has anything changed? Will the government continue to act wisely? Time will tell.
Professor Dror Ze’evi is a lecturer at Ben Gurion University’s Middle Eastern Studies Department