“When the Gods wish to punish us, they grant our prayers” (Oscar Wilde). I will surprise you – I’m referring here to Hamas.
On the face of it, Hamas could not have wished for a greater “victory” over Israel than what occurred last weekend. No need to repeat the horrendous loss of life and limb that Israel has suffered. But wars are not won with an initial triumph; the victor is determined by who’s left standing at the end.
Ask the Japanese — not after Pearl Harbor in 1941, but after Hiroshima in 1945. Ask the Nazis, not after Hitler tore up the treaty he signed with Stalin and invaded Russia, but a few years later when the Red Army entered Berlin. Even better, ask the Egyptians and Syrians – not after the day of Yom Kippur in 1973 but three weeks later with the IDF a mere 25 miles from Damascus and only 60 miles outside Cairo, with the Syrian army destroyed and the Egyptian army encircled. And then there’s 9/11 – leading to the assassination of Bin Laden and decimation of ISIS a few years later. One can bring many other similar examples through military history.
The underlying principle is a relatively simple one. When an attack is considered within the bounds of the “accepted rules of war,” the response of those attacked will tend to be measured. However, sneak attacks, without direct cause – especially when they involve heavy loss of civilian life – are considered beyond the pale.
The response is to awake a sleeping giant. America in 1941, the Soviet Union that same year, and Israel in 1973, all stirred from their military torpor and began to devote huge resources to the defense of their homeland, and subsequently went on a ferocious counterattack. The word “ferocious” is appropriate because it entails much more than gathering up military resources. The real “problem” for the initial attackers is that their assault galvanizes the civilian sector of the victimized country. If before the invasion a society behaves as if the situation is “normal,” going about its business as if the day was sunny, the storm(troopers) wake the population out of its complacency. With alacrity, they move into a war footing, placing all previous internal divisions aside.
Among other strategic errors, this might be Hamas’s greatest mistake – thinking that a country like Israel witnessing months of massive protest against its government might somehow continue to be divided and weak even after (or perhaps – because of?) such an attack. However, this misses a fundamental principle of human psychology. To take Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, personal security always trumps other needs (except for food and sleep; and even those can be foregone for a few days). In simple terms, when there’s a threat to one’s life (and those close and dear), nothing else counts except defense, preferably on the offense. What’s true for the individual is no less so for society at large under existential threat – especially one as close-knit socially (not necessarily ideologically) as Israel.
Hamas is beginning to learn this lesson too. In this case (even more so than the Japanese and the Germans), the response by the country attacked (Israel) will be extremely violent, precisely because it comes after several “minor” military campaigns over the past decade and a half that have not resolved any issues for either side. At some point, Israel was going to have to say: “enough is enough.” Last weekend’s Hamas invasion was the straw breaking this (Israeli) camel’s back. As PM Netanyahu stated: “what was will no longer be.”
Will the world tire of Israel’s invasion of Gaza, with photos of destroyed neighborhoods and mounting (unintended) civilian deaths? Most probably yes, after a while. However, this time there’s a crucial difference – the second strategic error that Hamas made in its incursion into Israel: slaughtering (no other word fits) hundreds of innocent civilians, and then uploading videos of this for all the world to see. It will be ludicrous for Hamas to complain about Gazan civilians dying (again, Israel tends to forewarn Gazan civilians to leave buildings that will be bombed) after the massacre of Israeli citizens that they performed (yes, for the terrorists this was a “performance”; their huge number of social media uploads attests to that).
So their wish was granted: achieving a (temporary) triumph over Israel. Now they are undergoing the second half of that aphorism: punishment. The Hamas terrorists won an early pyrrhic victory; the gods of vengeance are not happy – and when it’s over, the Hamas leaders and their murderous terrorist soldiers will be very sad indeed. Assuming that any will be left standing.