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Updated: Oct 17, 2021

July 7, 2021 Commentary

BY GRISHA YAKUBOVICH The recent conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and its aftermath have demonstrated that victory is very much in the eye of the beholder. In this case, Israel and the Palestinians each view themselves as the victor, and both sides use very different definitions to reach their conclusions. This means that the ability to declare ‘victory’ in the modern age of war depends, to a great extent, on the ability of each side to build and maintain a narrative, and to influence reality in a way that lines up with that narrative. Since taking over Gaza in a coup in 2007, Hamas has built a narrative of victory that disregards Israel’s own victory narrative: Israel, unfortunately, has yet to fully internalize how to influence Hamas’s internal narrative to its advantage. Israel defines victory in military terms. Hamas translates victory as an ability to fire rockets from the start of a conflict to its end, and it sees its very ability to carry on the fight as victorious. Hamas has been able to effectively market its own version of success against Israel, rallying the Gazan people to its side – despite Israel’s military achievements. The sign of how deep the gap is between the Israeli and Hamas definitions of victory can be seen in how they describe the same conflict. Israel shared details of how it tracked down and destroyed Hamas’s ‘metro’ underground tunnel network, and killed its weapons engineers – all undoubtedly military achievements, enabled by first class intelligence. Between rounds of conflict with Hamas, Israel created an intelligence superiority that not only led to high value strikes, but also to relatively little collateral damage in Gaza. Israel exhibited a world-leading surgical strike capability during the May conflict with Hamas. In eleven days, it fired the same quantity of explosives at enemy targets as it did in 52 days in the 2014 conflict. It was able to map out Hamas’s tunnel system in Gaza without being there on the ground, hit high level targets, and disrupt Hamas’s offensive systems. Now, Israel’s core challenge is to translate these accomplishments into an ability to change Gaza’s own victory conception. So far, Israel has struggled to do so, for several reasons. A missing strategic mechanism The first is the lack of a fixed, permanent Israeli strategic body whose job is to spend every day analyzing Israel’s ability to shape consciousness in Hamas and Gaza. It is from this body that negotiations teams should emerge, able to simulate various scenarios, and analyze Israel’s geo-political environment on a daily basis. Israel has so far relied on ad-hoc, opportunistic negotiators, who come together at the last minute and in a fairly arbitrary manner. Led by senior defense officials who are guided by defense perspectives, these negotiators have held indirect talks with Hamas via Egypt in an ad-hoc manner, and not as a permanent analytical creative agency. This lack of a professional agency has created numerous problems for Israel in its dealings with Hamas. Israeli negotiations teams are constantly changing over, and the Israelis who head to Egypt to conduct indirect talks with Hamas are not the same people who were there a few years ago. The lack of a permanent mechanism means there is little strategic planning on how to convert Israeli military gains into leverages that can chip away at Hamas’s narrative. Compare this with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, both of whom are heavily invested in being able to strategically maneuver vis-à-vis Israel. The PA has a strategic body that knows how to dispatch high quality negotiating teams. This body advises its negotiators based on a deep analysis of the PA’s interests. Hamas, for its part, consistently thinks about how to use all events – military and political – to further its interests. This thinking is built-in to the organization’s daily activities, meaning that its negotiating abilities are highly developed. Hamas issues clear demands that are based on prior analysis of both its situation and Israel’s. It developed this ability because of its status as an infant entity striving to become the legitimate Palestinian ruling entity. As a result, its negotiations strategy is always forward-thinking. How Hamas has successfully promoted its victory definition Following the 2014 Operation Protective Edge, after 52 days of combat, during which Israel struck Hamas hard, Hamas was internally and genuinely convinced that it had won. This is because Hamas defines victory as the ability of a powerful non-state terror army like itself to stand up to a regional power, and activate attack systems – primarily rocket fire – until the very last minute of the conflict as a key component of its negotiations approach. This same ‘victory logic’ held up during the latest conflict between Hamas and Israel. Not only was Hamas able to keep firing throughout the conflict until the last moment, it also harnessed world opinion to its side, and was able to cause international opinion to view Israel as a bully. Strategically, de-legitimization of Israel is an important part of Hamas’s arsenal, and the use of media to draw attention to dead children and civilians is part of this strategy. During the fighting, there was not a single international media image of an armed Hamas operative, and this is a major media achievement for Hamas. Instead, the only scenes broadcast were of Gazan hospitals and dead and wounded civilians. Meanwhile, Hamas’s popularity among Palestinians in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem increased significantly, causing major political damage to its arch-competitor for power, the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority. Thus, while Israel’s achievements are limited to the military field, Hamas was able to shape the perception of the Palestinians, much of the region, and the international community. Hamas was able to position itself as the leading force in the Palestinian arena, and place Jerusalem as a center stage issue on the international agenda. This has led to significant pressure building up against Israel. Israel’s concept of victory is rooted in the clear-cut Western notion of it being something that is obvious and visible to all. In Arab culture, victory is often a far more flexible concept. Hamas declared a ‘divine’ victory at the end of Operation Guardian of the Walls despite lacking any major practical victory. The marketing of itself from day one as the “Defender of Jerusalem” earned it broad support from the Palestinian street. So long as the military campaign continued, this met Hamas’s criteria of ‘defeating the enemy,’ because the definition of success has been adapted to fit the current conditions – firing rockets at Israel throughout every day of the conflict. Even though Hamas lost militarily, it was therefore still able to declare a victory, and to believe in this genuinely. The military reality on the ground became irrelevant. This is a deep cultural gap that the Western world struggles to grasp. Yet Hamas has been using this flexible framing since it seized power in 2007 in Gaza, and Hamas is not the only entity in the Arab world to utilize this flexible definition of victory. Hamas keeps coming out on top in the victory narrative struggle In the first days of the Hamas regime, following the 2007 coup that brought it to power, the Islamist terror movement understood that it needed to create a new dynamic if it wished to remain in power. This led to the 2008-2009 conflict with Israel, which Hamas framed as a small Palestinian enclave resisting the powerful Jewish state. It was then that Hamas began to successfully anchor its narrative. The Goldstone Report that followed the conflict and demonized Israel in the international community, together with the Israeli commando raid on the 2010 Turkish-backed Marmara flotilla to Gaza acted as boosters to Hamas’s narrative. While Israel faced constant criticisms, no one in the international community was disturbed by Hamas’s executions of Fatah members, its fundamentalist anti-Westernism, homophobia, or systematic repression of women’s rights. This same pattern has played out repeatedly since 2007. The fact that Hamas proved adept at negotiations means that it has been better able to shape reality in line with its narratives after rounds of conflict with Israel. For example, after Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, which began with a successful Israeli assassination of Hamas’s deputy military wing commander, Ahmed Jabari, Hamas learned how to effectively make demands of Israel via Egyptian mediators. It also got used to seeing those demands met. As someone who took part in some of those negotiations, I was witness to this process on multiple occasions. Hamas kept improving its ability to issue demands and extort Israel. The 2012 post-conflict talks with Israel via Egypt were a turning point in Hamas’s ability to master the negotiations process. It used the talks to improve Gaza’s economic situation to a certain degree. At that time, Hamas was not very dependent on Israel for Gaza’s economy, as the extensive and flourishing ‘tunnel economy,’ made possible by a network of smuggling tunnels linking Sinai to Gaza, meant that Gaza’s markets lacked nothing. The big change came in 2013, when the Islamist Egyptian President, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who then proceeded to seal off the smuggling tunnels. It was then that Hamas found itself relying on the PA, which had been sending 45% of its budget to Gaza, and it had to begin dealing more intensively with Israel and the international community. Over the years, Abbas’s sanctions on Gaza meant that significantly fewer PA funds reached Gaza, turning up the pressure on the Hamas regime. In response to this new challenge, Hamas developed a multi-arena strategy, in which the ability to manage high level negotiations in line with key Hamas interests was identified as a core capability. Hamas learned how to master negotiations, and used this skill in the years that followed the 2014 Operation Protective Edge to issue new demands, impose new equations on Israel, and to be clear on where it is willing and unwilling to compromise. Between 2014 and 2021, Hamas directed its efforts towards a clear objective: Ending Gaza’s humanitarian crisis while paying a relatively low price for this. Instead of tackling Gaza’s economic and humanitarian problems by itself, Hamas gambled on outside players doing so, and for this to happen without Hamas answering Israeli calls for the disarmament of Gaza, or Israel’s call for a freeze of Hamas’s force build up process. Hamas understood that Israel’s demand for demilitarization would be part of any solution for Gaza’s economy that would involve Israel. To get around this obstacle, Hamas found new ways to pay a smaller price for easing restrictions on Gaza. Hamas understood that it can always find elements outside of Gaza to solve the Strip’s water, electricity, and sewage problems, but it had to find a way to do this without agreeing to Israel’s demands of zero attacks from Gaza and an end to its military build-up. Hamas concluded that Israel wanted it to remain as the ruler in Gaza – strong enough to contain other armed terror factions, but weak in relation to Israel (this is based on Israel’s conclusion that there is no alternative ruler for Gaza). Hamas’s demands included Israel enabling some 1,000 trucks carrying goods to enter Gaza daily via Kerem Shalom crossing, an improvement in water supply systems, and electricity grid upgrades. It got all of its demands. But Hamas then thought ahead, and realized that after the next war, Israel will demand more firmly that it stops building its military force. To get around this problem, it introduced new, low-cost bargaining chips, in the form of ‘popular resistance.’ This ingenious solution saw the introduction of incendiary and explosive balloons and kites, and the nighttime units that harasses southern Israeli communities with the sounds of explosions and border rioting. In exchange for agreeing to end this cheap attrition against Israel, Hamas got yet more water arrangements, more approvals for Gazans to enter Israel for trade, and it ploughed ahead with its rocket construction industry, with no one stopping it. All it had to do was stop the low-cost measures at the border, stop its ‘return march’ rioting, stop the balloons and kites, and Israel’s demands evaporated. Now, after the latest conflict, Hamas’s main demand is for Qatar’s cash to reach Gaza, so long as this does not happen via its rival, the Palestinian Authority. Hamas is prepared to accept a third party like the UN allocating the cash – just not the PA. This strengthens the assessment that Hamas is fighting to disengage from the PA and to be an independent entity. It is working in an organized manner to receive legitimacy as an independent actor, able to point to cooperation and talks with the UN, Qatar, Saudi Arabia – and even Israel. All of this gives Hamas the international legitimacy it seeks. Every minor contact with an important outside actor is a further achievement for Hamas. Based on these achievements, Hamas’s ambitions grew, as its victory narrative continued to grow in strength. Israel is beginning to improve, but not fast enough In its well-thought-out negotiations stance, Hamas has insisted on separating two issues during indirect talks with Israel. The first issue is the need to solve Gaza’s civilian infrastructure, and the second is finding an arrangement to release the remains of two Israeli MIA soldiers and two captive civilians. Hamas has consistently tried to separate the two issues, while Israel is constantly linking them. Israel has not allowed Hamas to uncouple the two issues and is finally taking the right approach to talks with Hamas: Biding its time, and not rushing to solve problems. This indicates that Israel has begun to slowly learn lessons on maneuvering vis-à-vis Hamas – though the learning curve remains too slow. Furthermore, the reason for Israel’s improved negotiations steps stem from the wrong reason: Israel’s focus on the MIA and captive civilian issues, rather than Israeli realization that it can use a post-conflict period to slowly rob Hamas of its achievements. When PA President Mahmoud Abbas – who continues to rule despite all of Hamas’s efforts to undermine him –called off scheduled Palestinian elections earlier this year, Hamas immediately began planning out how it can gain when he finally departs the scene. Hamas planned on entering the next struggle for the next Palestinian elections as 'defenders of Jerusalem. It planned an escalation that would last for a few days, and assessed that a major conflict was unlikely. Hamas didn’t take into account Israel’s intelligence readiness, or that Israel would view long-range rocket fire as an opportunity to act. In Israel, the defense establishment did not appear to be taking into account how Hamas could use the cancellation of the elections to gain new achievements. Even if such an analysis did take place, there is no evidence that Israel planned to do anything to deny Hamas such achievements. Part of this unsatisfactory performance by Israel is the lack of a skilled, permanent Israeli strategic body that includes negotiations teams, and which can simulate scenarios and challenge the assumptions that are common in Israel. The weeks that followed Operation Guardian of the Walls have seen Israel expand Gaza’s fishing zone from six to nine miles, approve the entry of raw material to Gazan factories, and approve the transfer of fuel to Gaza’s power plant. These developments have nourished Hamas’s claims of victory. Had Israel established a permanent, professional negotiations mechanism, it would have been able to torpedo Hamas’s claims of victory signs and avoid this trap. For the reality is that Israel has the opportunity to deny Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar from enjoying the fruit of his ‘divine victory.’ It can maneuver in such a way so as to trap Sinwar in his own ‘victory.’ This has in fact begun to happen due to the slow ‘crawling’ pace of the negotiations. In the initial weeks following the conflict, it looked as if Israel had finally woken up to the need to do this. It held back the Qatari money until an arrangement that cut Hamas out of the allocation process could be found. It didn’t rush to repair electricity grid infrastructure. It was not deterred by Hamas’s threats of a new escalation. It responded to incendiary balloons with air force strikes: Hamas didn’t launch a single mortar attack in response. Driven by its MIAs and the issue of captive civilians – and not because of the realization of the benefits of slow-moving negotiations, which takes away achievements from Hamas – Israel had begun to change Sinwar’s equation and to shape it in its own favor. Time is on Israel’s side. It is Hamas that is facing pressure domestically from Gazans for an improvement in their daily lives. Understanding this will help Israel to defeat Hamas’s ‘victory’ maneuvers. It is time for Israel to not only be militarily prepared – which it excels at doing – but also to be prepared with a cognitive campaign and a skilled strategic system that specializes in strategic maneuvering and negotiations. Such a system would weigh events in-depth, examine options, and analyze the dynamics that best benefit Israeli interests. These are necessary functions for Israel as much as having combat battalions ready to go into battle at any time. This readiness should also include the establishment of an ‘army of cognitive campaigners,’ meaning the supply of Israel supporters with relevant and authentic information, and to effectively act on social media networks. Ultimately, the gap between Israel’s military capabilities and its ability to influence Hamas’s victory narrative is glaring. If Israel starts to close this gap, it will then be able to create victories that cannot be questioned by Hamas or by Israeli citizens. When that happens, victory will no longer be in the eyes of the beholder. It will be apparent to all. Colonel Grisha Yakubovich serves as a policy and strategy consultant to various international NGO's. He concluded his military service in 2016 as the head of the civil department for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (C.O.G.A.T.).

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