Christmas in Gaza: An Adventitious War?
The radical Hamas leadership in Damascus was remarkably successful in goading the moderate Israeli leadership to approve a massive attack on the Gaza Strip, but it has been notably less successful in reestablishing the putative cease-fire that had obtained since June 2008.
Author: Leonard Binder
Affiliation: Department of Political Science, University of California, Los Angeles, USA
THE RADICAL Hamas leadership in Damascus was remarkably successful in goading the moderate Israeli leadership to approve a massive attack on the Gaza Strip, but it has been notably less successful in reestablishing the putative cease-fire that had obtained since June 2008. Over a period of about three weeks, from just after Christmas 2008, the global media focused upon the incongruous juxtaposition of an efficiently coordinated attack by land, sea, and air against a disorganized collection of street fighters who readily fell back, exposing urban agglomerations and residents to the withering fire of the cautiously advancing Israeli forces.
The Hamas leadership in Gaza made little attempt to organize resistance, possibly hoping that the Israeli forces would continue to penetrate the city centers to the point where urban guerrillas could benefit from the tactical advantages afforded by such asymmetrical confrontations.1 Indeed, had some Israeli commanders had their way, their forces would have penetrated further and they might still be in Gaza. The imbalance between the two protagonists was repeatedly expressed in the summation of the fatal casualties on both sides: 1300 to 13, one hundred to one, a biblical calculation. Approximately 30% of the fatalities were reported to be civilians. Later, that number was doubled.
But where are we now that the major fighting has ended? Pretty much where we were before Christmas—and no one is very surprised. So what was it all about? Is it possible that the whole episode was some sort of distraction? Did we miss the real drama under the cover of pointless killing, deliberately induced to draw attention away from a much more complicated high-wire political act?
Presumably, mayhem at Christmas in Gaza began with the breakdown of a very shaky bilateral truce between the Hamas leadership in Gaza and the Israeli government. A six-month cessation of fire, or period of calm (tahd'iah), was agreed to in mid-June of 2008. Though mediated by Egypt, and supported by the moderate Arab states, the United States, and the European states, the tahd'iah did not imply entry into a peace process nor mutual recognition. It was hoped that the period of calm might provide an opportunity to chip away at the prevailing barriers of hostility, mistrust, and disdain, but it was no surprise that the calm was punctuated by the
1. frequent firing of inaccurate rockets into Israel,
2. the frequent closure of the crossings into Gaza by the Israeli authorities,
3. the smuggling of arms and other contraband from Egypt into Gaza via “illegal” tunnels,
4. the bombing of the tunnels
5. the targeted killings of Hamas leaders and rocketers,
6. and other acts of war, terror, and mayhem.
It is apparent that both sides believed it to be in their interest to act as though these frequent and patterned breaches did not render the tahd'iah void and inoperative. Efforts to reaffirm the informal truce were almost as frequent as the breaches, and that is why some surprise was expressed when the Hamas leaders resident in Damascus, Khalid Mish'al and Musa Abu Marzuk, indicated in November that they might oppose the extension of the truce. The reports from Damascus linked the announced intention of Hamas to step up its attacks on Israel to a disputed incident in which Israel claimed that it had detected a squad of Hamas fighters approaching the boundary, with the intent of capturing Israeli soldiers to be held as hostages (like Gilad Shalit, who has been held for more than two years). Hamas claims that the seven who were killed in the Israeli attack were civilians going about their honest business.
It was widely rumored that the Hamas leadership in Gaza, under Mr. Isma'il Haniyeh, had urged the extension of the cease-fire. On December 14, 2008, Mesh'al declared that the cease-fire would not be renewed and over the following days, Hamas operatives fired some 80 missiles, rockets, and mortar shells daily into Israel until, on December 27, the mobilized Israeli forces moved in, cut off the southern part of the Strip and began to encircle Gaza city, while bombing and shelling strategic targets, the homes of Hamas leaders, and pockets of resistance. The population of the Gaza Strip has paid a very high price in support of a questionable strategic decision by Mish'al and Abu Marzuk. What did they hope to achieve? What are the chances that they will realize their desired payoff? Will it be worth the price paid by the people of Gaza?
The Israeli military action has been very popular among the great majority of its Jewish citizens, but both the civilian and the military leadership have been widely castigated in the global media, embarrassing some of their closest allies, including Arab states and Muslim majority states. But it is not at all clear that Israel has achieved any long-term strategic benefit from the thrashing given to the Hamas forces—the rockets and missiles still fly.
The CSIS, otherwise known as The Center for Strategic and International Studies, an influential Washington think tank, has prepared a critique of the Israeli action in Gaza, which reportedly praises Israel's military achievements, but questions the political relevance of its military action. The report quotes the conclusion of the critique as follows, “If Israel had a credible ceasefire plan that could really secure Gaza, it is not apparent. If Israel had a plan that could credibly destroy and replace Hamas, it is not apparent. If Israel had any plan to help the Gazans and move them back toward peace, it is not apparent.”2 As yet, it is equally unclear what losses Israel might suffer in what has come to be seen by some, at least, as a human rights issue rather than the opening of a new regional strategic gambit.
The evident disconnect between attainable strategic goals and the escalation of military action on both sides begs the question, but the answer may not be hard to find. Throughout the 22 days of fighting, The New York Times published reports sent by Ethan Bronner from the Israeli side and Taghreed al-Khudary from the Gaza side. On January 19, 2009, with the end of the Israeli offensive, Bronner wrote an insightful piece in which he sought to describe—if not explain—the state of mind of those engaged at the leadership level. Of particular note in this regard was the statement of a ranking Israeli officer, that the Israeli forces deliberately assumed the style and rhetoric of a mad storekeeper, presumably giving away the store—in Hebrew: ba'al habayit hishtageya—thus signaling Hamas that the Israeli forces could not be expected to act rationally and with restraint.3 The CSIS report included a similar statement, possibly from the same source: “The Jewish state had to make its enemies feel it was 'crazy.'” But Bronner's piece went on to quote no less than Isma'il Haniya, the Hamas prime minister, characterizing the Gaza conflict as a “harb majnouna” or a crazy war.4
Now, there is a difference between deliberately choosing to act irrationally and finding oneself in a situation where rational action makes no sense. Even so, there is something fundamentally irrational in Hamas attacking Israel with a clear intent to provoke a violent response which Hamas would not be able to contain. Hamas, after all, is not a band of terrorists enjoying sanctuary in an inaccessible part of a failed sovereign state. Given the small size of the territory, the open character of the terrain, the easy accessibility of every part of the Strip, the densely packed urban areas, and hence the vulnerability of both the civilian population and the mobilized military forces, it follows that provoking a counter attack entailed enormous risk. So long as the breaches of the cease-fire on both sides remained within mutually tolerable limits, mutual restraint could be practiced, but when the Damascus-based leadership of Hamas formally announced the end of the cease-fire, the sharply increased rocketing signaled that rational self-restraint would no longer be exercised.
On the other hand, rationality depends on the mutually understood rules of the game, and now it is clear that Hamas and Israel were engaged in a classic game of Chicken, wherein each of the players signaled the other that it will under no circumstances swerve out of the path of the other. If neither swerves, both die or are gravely injured. If both swerve, they live to play the game again. Theoretically, the most rational outcome is attained when one swerves and the other continues, but you can't come out even unless you play the game at least twice and coordinate on alternating moves in advance.5 Signaling the selected move in advance can serve to coordinate alternation and a rational outcome, but when both sides signal that they will not swerve under any circumstances, the mutual intimidation greatly increases the risk, and if both sides remain steadfast, greatly increases the cost. Hence, it remains most rational from an ensemble perspective that one side swerve despite the declaration of irrational intent—but every now and then both players have to be prepared to assert their capacity for irrational action in order to keep the other side honest. At this moment, both sides appear to be somewhat chastened, as they engage in a tripartite negotiation, mediated by Egypt, to formalize an eighteen-month cease-fire to replace the informal, unsigned arrangement that failed.
Were the hostilities in Gaza instigated or delivered at the behest of other Middle East powers, or were they, possibly, intended to influence the policy measures to be taken by other Middle East powers? Such questions direct us immediately to considering the possible connections between Gazan events and the regional policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran because, in the midst of a general restructuring of the regional system, Iran has emerged as the most active and ambitious player. It is widely agreed that Iran aspires to achieve a hegemonic position in the region by means of the domination of the Persian Gulf, extending its influence in Iraq as the U.S. draws down its forces, encouraging instability in Afghanistan, continuing to support Hizbullah in its assertion of authority in Lebanon and in its proxy war against Israel, and providing vital military and political assistance to Hamas, in a second proxy war against Israel.
We can gain some insight into the role of Iran by means of a close reading of an interesting article entitled “Will Hizbullah Intervene in the Gaza Conflict,” written by Professor Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, who teaches Political Science at the Lebanese-American University in Beirut.6 Saad-Ghorayeb, hereafter S.G., starts by asking why Hizbullah has not yet gone to the military assistance of Hamas. Her answer is that Hizbullah will doubtlessly go to the aid of their brothers-in-arms, but they have not done so as yet because of certain constraints and because Hamas is doing quite well and does not yet require assistance. SG lists the constraints on Hizbullah, without sugar-coating, including
its recent recovery from Israel's devastating attacks in 2006,
the expectation that Israel would renew those “disproportionate” attacks with similar results,
additional pressure would then be placed upon Hizbullah to disarm,
and Lebanese opponents would then conspire to drag Hizbullah into an unwanted civil war as happened during May 2008.
Besides, argues SG, with somewhat diminished candor, at this time, Hamas has borne up well and its governing institutions remain intact, so intervention by Hizbullah “would only hurt the movement” or “undermine” it by suggesting that it was incapable of defending itself.
Despite these good reasons for Hizbullah to keep out of the Gaza struggle, SG insists that Hizbullah would intervene if Hamas suffered a devastating military defeat or if it were forced to accept a conditional cease-fire that met all Israeli demands. Despite the fact that Hizbullah would pay a very heavy price for intervening, it would do so because the “resistance movement is one movement.” This movement pits Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, and Hamas as the resistance front, against what SG calls the “US-Israeli-moderate Arab axis” including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Fatah, and Jordan. SG tells us that Hizbullah views the Gaza conflict as a continuation of the war of July 2006, as some Israelis have also suggested, and this conflict is, in turn, part of a larger conflict engaging the future of the entire “umma”—a term which usually includes all Muslims but which SG interprets as the Arab nation.
SG speculates that it is likely that Hamas and Hizbullah must have been in touch with one another, that they anticipated that Israel would breach the cease-fire agreement, and that Hizbullah must have assisted Hamas with “weapons, and training, as well as through joint military planning.” With this plausible, but unspecified supposition, SG goes on to strain our credulousness by describing the Hamas defense against the Israeli invasion as a tactical duplicate of the Hizbullah successes against Israeli forces in 2006, and a further example of the “new school of fighting founded by Hizbullah's assassinated military leader, Imad Mughniyeh.”
SG tells us that Iran, like Hizbullah, also coordinated its “activity” with Hamas, but Iranian assistance was essentially rhetorical and was directed primarily against Egypt, accusing President Mubarak of cooperating with Israel and calling upon the people of Egypt and, specifically, members of the armed forces of Egypt to overthrow the regime. Seeking to magnify the importance of Iran's verbal offensive, SG argues that it heralds the beginning of an open struggle against Egypt that has colluded, allied, embraced, and conspired with Israel, and even demanded that Israel launch its December 2008 attack on Hamas. This emphasis on the intensity of the Iranian attack on Egypt is adduced in order to refute the accusation of many who, according to SG—“have dismissed Nasrallah's verbal barrage on the Mubarak regime as little more than a diversionary or compensatory tactic designed to divert attention from or compensate for Hizbullah's inaction.”
The mystery of Hizbullah's inaction and of Iran's role in the regional crisis of Christmas in Gaza is only deepened by SG's next attempt to affirm Iran's support of Hamas and to exculpate Hizbullah. SG writes:
While some commentators have suggested that a rift has emerged within Hizbullah over the circumstances under which it should assist Hamas militarily, such assumptions seem implausible…. Moreover, the party leadership has not publicly committed itself to a policy of restraint…[and most important of all] When Lebanese parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri announced earlier this month that he had received assurances from Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran's National Security Council, while the latter visited Beirut, that Hizbullah would not respond to the Israeli assault on Gaza, Nasrallah [the leader of Hizbullah] lambasted him for granting 'free assurances' to Israel.
SG denies that Jalili had given any such assurances and goes on to describe Hizbullah's policy of “constructive ambiguity, whereby it neither confirms nor denies its intent to join the conflict”—and then proposes scenarios which Hizbullah could use to justify an attack on Israel to the international community whenever it suited Hizbullah's purpose.
I think that it is reasonable to conclude that SG is quite troubled by the fact that Hizbullah played virtually no role in the Gaza crisis. It is also noteworthy that she denies the report that Tehran prevented Hizbullah from intervening, but avoids speculation regarding the possibility that Iran had other things in mind. At any rate, Hizbullah did not intervene and Iran did not encourage intervention and made no serious effort to break the siege on the Gaza Strip. It is, therefore, all the more interesting that, on February 2, 2009, according to a note carried in The New York Times of February 3, “Hamas's leader-in-exile, Khaled Meshal, spoke Monday at Tehran University, where he thanked Iran for its support during the recent Israeli offensive in Gaza. 'I thank Iran for its official, unofficial and public support,' Mr. Meshal said. 'You are our partner in this victory.'”7 This statement could as easily be an apology as an expression of gratitude, in addition to being an exaggeration.
There was, of course, no victory, despite the view of about 45% of a sample of Palestinians that Hamas won a great victory, unless the mere survival of the Hamas apparatus may be so considered.
It was Mish'al in Damascus and not Haniya in Gaza who insisted on scrapping the expiring cease-fire, and it was Mish'al who, at first, refused to sanction a formal cease-fire to end the carnage. On Saturday, January 17, 2009, The New York Times reported on page 1, that “At a meeting organized by Qatar, a top exiled Hamas leader rejected Israeli terms for a cease-fire and called for increased resistance.” Bronner adds, “But the Gaza branch of Hamas, squabbling with exiles out of the line of Israeli fire, seems to have agreed to much of Egypt's cease-fire proposal.”8
The motives behind these acts of omission and commission are not obvious, but they may lead in the direction of a disagreement between the Damascus leadership of Hamas and the Khamene'i/Ahmadinejad government in Tehran over the preferred manner in which to greet the inauguration of Barack Obama. It is well known that candidate Obama, during the campaign, made a daring declaration that he was prepared to meet with the leaders of Iran without precondition and seek to end the dispute which has beset U.S.-Iran relations since the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979. A rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran is unlikely to serve Hamas' interests at the present time. Hizbullah doubtlessly acted (or failed to act) in concert with Iranian preferences. Is it possible that the Gaza conflict was conjured up in Damascus in order to prevent an Obama-Ahmadinejad handshake?
The recent—suspended—conflict in Gaza has not advanced the cause of peace, and it did damage that cause in the larger region of the Middle East. If Bronner and Landler of The New York Times are to be believed, much of the blame may be laid at the door of weaker surrogates, irresponsible proxies, and unstable buffers. They write of “the continued evolution of power in the region away from state players aligned with the West, to non-state players like Hamas, and their anti-western benefactors who support a more direct and aggressive stance toward Israel.”9 And, they might have added, who cooperate with Iran.
It is true that Iran maintains close cooperation with Hizbullah as well as providing a measure of support for Hamas in Gaza and the leadership in Damascus. It is also true that neither Hizbullah nor Hamas are merely Iranian proxies. There is, however, little reason to believe that power has shifted from the “state players” to the “social movement” players. As we have seen, Iran refused to intervene in the Gaza conflict and it probably prevented Hizbullah from intervening. We may further speculate that Iran's motive may be a desire to explore the potential costs and benefits of improving relations with the Obama administration—and that speculation has been strengthened by the announcement, on February 8, 2009,10 of the candidacy of former President Muhammad Khatami in the coming Presidential elections; a rather favorable development which must, however, be balanced against the recent anti-American pronouncements of President Ahmadinejad, Speaker Ali Larijani, and ex-president and Chair of the Expediency Council, Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The relationships between Iran and its clients, including Hizbullah, Hamas, and Syria are complicated by the fact that their long-term interests do not coincide. Iran aspires to achieve or consolidate hegemonic influence within the region as a means of strengthening its own security while adding to the stability of the Shi'ite Islamic regime. Iran's relationship with Hamas, in addition to its ability to influence Hamas policy, provides Iran with a diffuse advantage in the form of the favorable view of many Sunni Arabs because of Iran's apparently solid support of the Palestinian cause. In the long run, however, the interests of Iran and Hamas are in conflict. Hamas goals start with the defeat of Israel and the destruction of the Israeli state. In the course of this effort, it may be assumed that Fatah will be crushed. Hamas might then seek an alliance with like-minded Islamist factions in Jordan with a view to the unification of the two states. With the achievement of a greater Palestinian Islamic state, one might expect attempts to build an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood organization in Syria. This Hamas trajectory would likely bring it into conflict with the Iranian effort to maintain its hegemony.
This differentiation of the long-term aspirations of Iran and Hamas undercuts the view that describes Iran, Hamas, and Hizbullah as a single united movement. An alternative, and equally questionable, opinion describes Hamas and Hizbullah as militarized proxies for Iran, and goes on to find that Iran is engaged in a proxy war against America.11 But the difficulty with this view is that it assumes that both proxies are completely under the control of Tehran and that both are willing to subordinate their particularistic interests in the expectation of a rich reward when and if Iran achieves a hegemonic role in the region. This level of cooperation with Iran has not been tested, but it may be assumed that both of these “social movement” allies of Iran would be willing to cooperate with Iran, at least for a limited time and for a limited goal, against a common enemy such as Israel. But it may be more important to be able to predict the reciprocal arrangement, whereby Iran would come to the aid of its proxy, as it did during conflict of the summer of 2006. But we have seen that Iran, the would-be regional hegemon and its proxy, Hizbullah, provided little more than moral support for Hamas during the recent fighting. Moreover, in the Gaza case, it appears that the proxy, or the Agent, rather than the Principal, took the initiative and may have attempted to draw Iran into the conflict or, at least, persuade Iran to direct Hizbullah to attack Israel. Clearly, Iran refused to get involved, leaving observers in doubt about the conditions under which Iran would come to the aid of Hamas.
From our brief notes on the long-term differences between Hamas and Iran, it is reasonable to predict that, with time and progress in their joint endeavors, the degree of cooperation between the two will decline. Thus, if Iran is Principal, and Hamas is Agent, the Moral Hazard in working with Hamas will increase and, acting rationally, Iran would probably diminish its support for Hamas unless the diffuse benefit of Sunni popular opinion exceeds the cost of supporting or cooperating with Hamas. Moreover, given the limited military capacity of Hamas, the tight strategic position in the Gaza Strip and the difficulty of maintaining supply, Hamas lacks the ability to carry out complex tasks on behalf of Iran—as borne out by the recent fighting. In the parlance of Principal/Agent games and the insurance business, this weakness is called Adverse Selection. By comparison, Hizbullah promises much more effective cooperation over a longer period of time as a consequence of its social base, its geographical concentration, and its commitment to Twelver Shi'ism. Nevertheless, as the Lebanese Shi'a attain majority status in Lebanon, Hizbullah's political interests may well deviate from those of Syria and Iran to the point of constituting a measurable Moral Hazard such as may well have initiated the adventitious war which has left both Israel and Hamas worse off politically than they were before.
Hamas tried to prove that it is possible to win by losing, and it may try again. Hamas, or at least Mish'al and Abu Marzuk, tried by this means, to reverse the roles of proxy and sponsor, and they may try again even though Tehran demurred on this occasion. On the other hand, Mish'al and Abu Marzuk demonstrated the strategic advantage of making the first move and, thereby, choosing the game. The player, or the antagonist moving second, may be constrained to adapt to the strategic choice of the player acting first. Afterwards, the two may be locked in a strategic dialectic that neither prefers, and which produces little besides collateral damage.
Amos Harel, “Which IDF unit captured more prisoners in Gaza and why?” Haaretz http://haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1068180.html
Andrew Wander, “Israel's war on Gaza 'led by donkeys' - think tank,” /The Daily Star/ (Beirut), www.dailystar.com.lb, accessed February 6, 2009.
The New York Times, January 19, 2009, p. 10.
Eric Rasmusen, Games and Information: An Introduction to Game Theory (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), p. 73f.
The article was published in The Daily Star, www.dailystar.com, January 28, 2009.
The New York Times, February 3, 2009, page A11.
Article by Ethan Bronner and Mark Landler, The New York Times, January 17, 2009, page 1.
Ibid., page A9.
Beirut Daily Star http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=10&categ_id=2&article_id=99223
Thomas Joscelyn, Iran's Proxy War Against America, National Security Studies, The Claremont Institute, 2007.
Published: Tuesday, August 18, 2009