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Seven Truths About Israel, Hamas and Violence

By Jeffrey Goldberg
November 19, 2012 7:30 PM EST
Jeffrey Goldberg
Jeffrey Goldberg

There are many lies being told about the current conflict between Israel and Hamas. Here are seven things that are true.

No. 1. This most recent outbreak of violence represents the opening round of the third Palestinian intifada. The first intifada, which began in 1987 and petered out in the early 1990s, was an uprising of stones and Molotov cocktails. The second intifada, which began 12 years ago, was an uprising of suicide bombers. The third uprising, inevitably, was going to feature rockets and missiles. I don’t care to think about what sorts of weapons and tactics will feature in the fourth intifada.

No. 2. Hamas’s strategy in this latest conflict makes perfect sense. Hamas, which is the Palestine branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, is theologically committed to the obliteration of Israel and believes, as a matter of faith, that Jews are Allah’s enemies. Its leaders have believed, since the group’s inception, that Jews are soft (“We love death and they love life,” a Hamas leader once told me, and it is a commonly expressed thought). Hamas also believes that eventually misery and fear will drive most Jews to leave Israel, which it views as a Muslim waqf, or endowment, not merely the rightful home of the Palestinian people.

This strategy only works because Hamas leaders believe that the deaths of Palestinians aid their cause. As we have seen in this latest iteration of the Arab-Israeli war, every death of a Palestinian civilian is a victory for Hamas and a defeat for Israel. Palestinians in Gaza who dissent from this approach are often punished by Hamas.

No. 3. Hamas’s decision to increase the tempo of rocket attacks at Israeli civilian targets -- the cause of this latest round of violence, as President Barack Obama and most Western leaders have asserted -- emerged not only from a desire on the part of the group to terrorize the Jewish state out of existence. It also emerged from a cold political calculation that the Arab Spring (or, in the eyes of Hamas, the Islamist Spring) means that the arc of history is bending toward them and away from the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas and its more moderate Arab supporters. This analysis has encouraged Hamas to assert itself now as the main player in the Palestinian “resistance.”

No. 4. The Jews aren’t abandoning ship. One of the reasons Hamas’s strategy so far hasn’t worked is because Israel’s Jews are more patriotic, and braver, than Hamas ideologues can bring themselves to admit. The Jews didn’t abandon Israel during the height of Hamas’s suicide-bombing campaigns in the 1990s and early 2000s, and hundreds of Israeli Jews, as well as Israeli Muslims, Christians and foreign visitors, died in those campaigns. As of this writing, three Israeli Jews have died in the past week’s rocket attacks.

The majority of Israelis believe that they are finally home. Unlike their ancestors during the long period of exile from Israel following the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, they believe it is wrong and counterproductive to run from persecution and attack.

No. 5. Israel, unlike Hamas, has no strategy in Gaza. It has only tactics. Israel is justified in defending itself. It isn’t tenable for a sovereign state to allow its citizens to go unprotected from rocket attacks from someone else’s territory. If Russia or the U.S. had come under similar attack, those responsible would almost immediately find themselves dead. All of them. But for Israel, military victory over Hamas is impossible, which is why a ground invasion of Gaza is a bad idea. So long as Hamas maintains the capability to fire even one rocket into Israel, or dispatch one suicide bomber to a Tel Aviv cafe, it will view itself as having won this round.

For a while, at least, expect Hamas to have more difficulty launching attacks. It has, after all, lost much of its rocket force as well as its military commander, the allegedly indispensable Ahmed al-Jabari. But I’ve been to the funerals of four or five indispensable Hamas men over the years, and they are always replaced. Short-term, it is possible that Hamas will refrain from firing rockets and keep others from doing so as well. But there is no long-term military solution for Israel, short of turning Gaza into Chechnya or Dresden. This is militarily feasible, but it would be immoral and would end in Israel losing its international legitimacy.

No. 6. There also is no direct political solution for Israel. If Hamas were willing to negotiate with Israel about anything more than prisoner exchanges or cease-fires, it wouldn’t be Hamas. It is impossible for Israel to do serious business with an organization that wishes it dead. But there is an indirect political solution for Gaza. The Palestinians are currently split between the moderate camp of Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, on the West Bank, and the extremists of Hamas in Gaza. Successive Israeli governments have undermined the Palestinian Authority government on the West Bank by expanding the Jewish settler presence.

The settlement project aids Hamas, which can point to it as proof that Israel is uninterested in the two-state solution endorsed by Hamas’s more-moderate rivals. If Israel were to reverse settlement growth, this could serve to buttress Palestinian moderates, who are in a position to negotiate with Israel. If the West Bank were to gain real freedom, the Palestinians of Gaza might turn away from Hamas. All of this is unlikely -- pessimism needs to be our guide in the Middle East - - but this plan represents the only alternative to continued military strikes on Gaza by Israel.

No. 7. Opinions on both sides hardened in the first intifada and hardened further in the second. Here in the third, they will harden some more. Palestinian society is infected with dreams of physically eliminating its enemy. Parts of Israeli society, too, are succumbing to fever dreams of total victory. The trends on both sides are almost entirely negative. The most likely outcome of this round: A cease-fire, a period of quiet and then a gradual return to shooting.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.

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