Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Rationality of Hamas' Attacks

For the most part, I've tried to stay out of the ongoing Israel-Palestine morass, although it's safe to say I blame them both for the situation. But there has been a really good, intellectually honest, debate going on between John, Freddie, Joe Carter, and James Poulos - to name only a handful of the participants.

As something of an offshoot to that, ED Kain wonders why Hamas continues to shoot rockets into Israel instead of using those resources for defensive purposes when Israeli soldiers are literally at their doorstep. He says, with good justification, that this just seems to confirm the worst beliefs about Hamas' use of terrorism and essentially prevents Israeli moderates from gaining a voice that would put an end to Israel's invasion of Gaza.

Actually, I think Hamas' actions in continuing the rocket attacks are ultimately rational - it allows them to plausibly declare victory almost no matter what Israel does, or at least as long as they have the ability to get their hands on the resources to manufacture them. As importantly, it gives them a fairly important bargaining chip if and when a cease fire is declared, and it's doubtful that the cessation of rocket attacks would have any effect in hastening the declaration of a cease-fire.

The fact is that Hamas is fully aware it is severely outgunned by Israel both in terms of manpower and in terms of weaponry. Thus, it has no possibility, ultimately, of winning a military victory over Israel - a fact of which they are most certainly aware. However, it can nonetheless legitimately declare victory if the Israelis are unable to achieve that which they nominally set out to achieve - which is in large part the cessation of the rocket attacks. So as long as Israel is unable, by sheer force, to put an end to the rocket attacks, Hamas will appear the victor to its constituents, as well as to its supporters in the rest of the Middle East and South Asia. Meanwhile, the continued rocket attacks don't have too much of an effect on international opinion because they are rather ineffective at actually killing people - this guarantees that the casualty figures for Israeli civilians will continue to dwarf the casualty figures for Palestinian civilians.

Moreover, whether or not Hamas actually is using its citizens as human shields, the international coverage regarding those activities is unlikely to emphasize that issue - in part because of Israel's ban on journalists entering Gaza (leaving Hamas the sole source of information as to what it was doing), and in part because the compact size and incredibly dense population of Gaza makes it so that no matter where Hamas chose to mount a defense, large-scale civilian casualties would be inevitable. These two factors turn the question of whether Hamas is abiding by the laws of war into a largely academic question for purposes of most international debate - the only thing that will matter, for those purposes, is how many civilians die on each side.

What this ultimately means is that all Hamas has to do to achieve its objectives is make sure that it has enough rockets to outlast Israel's willingness to withstand international pressure to end its attacks. And that is why, whatever your opinion on the justice of Israel's response, the decision to escalate the assault on Gaza was harmful to Israeli interests.