How Hamas Won

Israel's Tactical Success and Strategic Failure

Israeli tanks outside the northern Gaza Strip, July 18, 2014.
Israeli tanks outside the northern Gaza Strip, July 18, 2014. (Ronen Zvulun / Courtesy Reuters)

No matter how and when the conflict between Hamas and Israel ends, two things are certain. The first is that Israel will be able to claim a tactical victory. The second is that it will have suffered a strategic defeat.

At the tactical level, the success of the Iron Dome missile defense system has kept Israeli casualties near zero and significantly reduced the material damage from the rockets fired from Gaza. Israel’s ground invasion, launched on Thursday, will also reap rewards. Indeed, it already has: Israeli forces have exposed and destroyed several Hamas tunnels, including some that were intended to allow cross-border activity into Israel and others that facilitated the movement of goods, ammunition, and militants within Gaza itself.

Such tactical achievements should not be minimized. But they do not equal a strategic victory. War, as Clausewitz famously taught, is the continuation of politics by other means. Wars are fought to realign politics in a way that benefits the victor and is detrimental to the loser. But the Israelis have lost sight of this distinction. 

In fact, Israel has a history of claiming victory when in fact it has suffered defeat; the October 1973 war is the best example. Israel claimed that it had won because its forces ended their war on the western side of the Suez Canal with Egyptian forces partially encircled behind them. The reality is that Egypt achieved the strategic victory. All along, Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat’s objective was to seize and hold some territory in order to dislodge stuck political negotiations and, ultimately, recover the occupied Sinai Peninsula for Egypt. Sadat got what he wanted.

Israelis might believe that, even though they are not likely to see a political realignment at the end of this war, at least Hamas won’t have achieved its own strategic objectives. The absence of large numbers of Israeli fatalities, the thinking goes, is a mark of Hamas’ failure. But Israelis are wrong there, too. Killing large numbers of Israelis would be a treat for Hamas, but it is not vital to the group’s definition of strategic success. 

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