When the boys were abducted I attributed the kidnapping to Hamas. A few readers challenged me on this. One fellow Times of Israel writer asked me why Hamas would disavow responsibility. I didn’t have an answer. Now we all know why.
The Israeli government presented their evidence to allies (to one ally especially) that the kidnappers had been Hamas members, but still Hamas disavowed responsibility. This was because success has a thousand fathers but failure is an orphan.
A week ago the kidnapping appeared technically impressive. To my eye the abductors had taken three captives who could be exchanged for Hamas heroes. Hamas would squeeze every last bit of value out of them one by one. They could be held for years, their captivity a ‘get out of jail free’ card for Hamas bombers and shooters.
They had, I wrote, taken the boys from Gush Etzion and spirited them into the wind. Intense Israeli searches had turned them up nowhere. That bespoke competence, especially in the West Bank where Hamas is weaker than in the Gaza Strip.
Now we know that the operation was less impressive. Two Hamas gunsels, apparently possessed of no great competence, kidnapped more lads than they had expected. They let their captives make a phone call. They panicked and killed their hostages. They had hours to bury the bodies, dump the car and hide before Israeli security forces knew a crime had been committed. They brought down a world of hurt on an organisation which trades on its competence. They instantly took themselves in the Hamas rankings from hero to zero.
Israel can find victory in mourning the dead and then treating the triple killing like the filthy cowardly crime it is.
Hamas disavowed responsibility within hours because they knew within hours that the operation had been largely a failure. It had been successful insofar as it had brought down a repressive response from the Israeli security forces and demonstrated their powerlessness in the face of an abduction. But Hamas was once able to murder Israelis in their hundreds and provoke Israel’s worst-ever influence disaster: the ‘apartheid wall’. For Hamas three boys shot at close range and buried in a shallow grave wasn’t much.
Not that I discount the value to Hamas of the repressive response. For Hamas, whose brand is confrontation, the arrests, the deaths during the arrests, the house searches, the tunnel searches and the rain of munitions on targets in Gaza will remind Palestinians that however soft and accommodating Hamas has become as the government of Gaza; they still confront the Real Enemy.
If Hamas weren’t Hamas, they would suddenly turn open and transparent and responsible. A list of the people responsible would be posted on their website, and within days a coffle of young, stupid men chained together at the ankles would shuffle up to the Egyptian border guards at Rafah checkpoint with their hands in the air. Hamas would instantly demonstrate its comparative worthiness to govern Palestine and the targets for Israeli vengeance would suddenly change from infrastructure targets all over Gaza to a group of well-scrubbed devout Palestinian men in Vienna or The Hague making speeches about Palestine through hot radical lawyers.
If Hamas weren’t Hamas they would pre-empt Israeli action and themselves dynamite the perpetrators’ family homes.
If Hamas weren’t Hamas they would pre-empt Israeli action and themselves dynamite the perpetrators’ family homes. That would demonstrate that they were the masters in their own house, if Hamas weren’t Hamas.
But Hamas are Hamas, so they won’t.
Israel is in a much more difficult position, and here when I say Israel I mean the Security Cabinet in general and the Prime Minister in particular.
The British Empire used to conduct punitive expeditions back when it was the sort of thing we did. In the late 19th Century and the first few years of the 20th we did them on a grand scale, and that philosophy is the ancestor of the IDF’s punitive house demolitions.
Massive punitive expeditions entered the Israeli strategic vocabulary in 1982 when Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon’s plan to play kingmaker in Lebanon was attached to the murder of Israel’s ambassador to the Court of St James’s. In the intervening years Israeli punitive expeditions have pummelled Lebanon and the Gaza Strip with ever-increasing precision.
The rocketing of Hamas targets in Gaza, or even an IDF incursion into the Strip, will not cause Hamas to cease to exist. A breach in the unwritten cease-fire between Hamas and Israel might last a week or it might last forever, but Hamas will still be there.
Why do I write this with confidence? Because if Prime Minister Netanyahu had at his disposal the capability to destroy Hamas using armed force he would have done it a month or a year ago and not this week. The contingency plans for attack on Hamas from the air, from the sea and on the ground have been in the binder on the shelf for years.
The expected trade-off between costs and benefits did not justify dusting off the binders a month ago and, significantly, not much has changed.
The emotional impact of three boys’ murder has, seen from across a continent, been huge in Israel. That emotional impact may continue indefinitely to withstand the pull and stretch of Israeli politics and society. Perhaps Israel will emerge harder; perhaps Israel will emerge more compassionate. Perhaps Israel will emerge more unified, but no change will vitiate the political and military realities.
It will, for a while or forever, be ignored that the boys who were slain were from National-Religious families who sent their kids to school in Gush Etzion rather than closer to home. It will, for a while or forever, be ignored that the kids were hitch-hiking in Gush Etzion rather than riding a bus in Gush Dan. Their crochet caps and their mothers’ kerchiefs aren’t a factor now, but that might no longer be ignored.
What cannot be ignored is that Hamas will not be destroyed from aircraft with human or robot pilots. It cannot be destroyed from the turrets of tanks or from the gun barrels of the artillery.
This is not my declaration of approbation for Hamas, it’s my summary of military history. If the shambolic Syrian insurgency could survive Bashar Assad’s harrowing of Homs, Hamas can survive kinetic assault from positions of ethical and physical safety.
To destroy Hamas would require either a political strategy which renders the organisation irrelevant, or operations in which slightly older Israeli boys will die on their feet in large numbers in the alleys of Jabalya and Gaza City. No desire for vengeance can drive that reality out of Bibi’s head or Bogey’s.
This can only be a minor victory for Hamas, a tactical victory. It has not brought them much closer to ruling the West Bank, and certainly no closer to ruling all of Mandate Palestine in warm neighbourly relations with their cousins in the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams. The insignificance of this victory is why they were ready to disavow the murder even before the rest of us knew it was a murder.
For Israel this has been an awful defeat but a minor one. Israel can find victory in mourning the dead and then treating the triple killing like the filthy cowardly crime it is.
Murders happen. Families and neighbours move on somehow. Murderers are brought to justice or escape justice. It is wrong that in the West Bank, the East End and the South Side; gang bangers murder innocent people. It is wrong; yet with exquisite cruelty the world goes on turning.