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Win-Win? Israel could claim victory in Gaza but so, too, could Hamas. It depends on how they each define success

By Michael Oren

There most likely won’t be a Mount Suribachi moment with Israeli paratroopers raising the Star of David over the Tall Habulah, the highest point in Gaza. Nor will an IDF commander announce over his field phone Gaza’s equivalent of “the Temple Mount is in our hands.” Victory, for Israel, will probably come in stages, beginning with the death or capture of Yahya Sinwar and other Hamas leaders, the destruction of their headquarters, and the demolition of their vast underground battlements. Victory will be secured only years later after the last of Hamas’s active cells have been uprooted and a modicum of security established in the Strip. Under international supervision and an effective inter-Arab force, Gaza could be demilitarized and rebuilt. The empowerment of a homegrown, moderate, and peaceful leadership—tragically, the most long-term and least attainable goal—would cap Israel’s victory in the Gaza war.


But with exactly the same outcomes, Hamas could also claim success. Understanding how, though, requires the discarding of all rational definitions of victory. Even then, comprehending how Hamas, its rule overturned, infrastructure destroyed, and leadership dead, could consider itself victorious defies modern logic. To grasp it, one must truly think like a jihadist.


My own understanding began with a photograph once shown to me during a Shin Bet briefing. It was a portrait of Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh standing atop the rubble of what had once been his office. He was smiling and flashing a “V” sign. 

“Is this a photograph of victory or defeat?” I was asked. 


To which the Westerner in me replied, “Why, defeat, of course.”


“Wrong,” came the answer. “It doesn’t matter if his home or all of Gaza is destroyed. As long as Haniyeh can emerge, smile, and give that sign, he—and all of Hamas—wins.”

 If only one terrorist is left standing, the Shin Bet was telling me, and hoisting that “V”, then Hamas will crown itself the victor. But success, for Hamas, is far more than a matter of one man’s survival; it is also the damage it has managed to inflict on Israel.


That damage is already immense and expanding daily. Increasingly isolated and condemned in the world, demonized as racist and genocidal in countless city streets and campus protests, and delegitimized in many young generation minds, Israel has paid dearly for the victory it has yet to achieve. Its economy is moribund, its tourist attractions empty, and its military cemeteries steadily filling up. Well into the war’s third month, with tens of thousands of IDF troops bogged down in Gaza, millions of Israelis are still running for their bomb shelters as Hamas rockets continue to rain on their homes. In the north, thanks to Hamas, Hezbollah, with minimal expense, is managing to pin down half of the IDF and displace tens of thousands of Israelis. The Houthis in Yemen are interrupting international shipping through the Bab al-Mandeb Straits while other Iranian proxies strike U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria with near impunity.  Relations with Israel’s sole superpower ally, though still visibly strong, are not-so-secretly strained. 


Israelis remain unified in their commitment to defeat Hamas, but terrorist leaders are no doubt wondering, “how much longer”? When will the demonstrations to oust Netanyahu and his divisive government, in abeyance since the start of the war, resume? When will the pressure of the hostage families and their supporters—compounded by news of hostage deaths either at the hands of Hamas or the IDF—force Israel to agree to lengthier truces and perhaps a permanent ceasefire? When will the reservists, for many weeks separated from their families and livelihoods and grappling with combat fatigue, say Maspik, “Enough”?


More crucially than internal Israeli dissension, for Hamas, is the newfound unity in the Palestinian and wider Arab worlds. All polls indicate that the horrors of October 7, specifically, and Hamas in general, are ebulliently popular throughout the Middle East. Conversely, support for the Palestinian Authority and the authoritarian, pro-American regimes that back it has fallen to historic lows. Even if there is only one terrorist to surface from the ruins of Gaza, he will be hailed throughout the region as a hero. 


That realization is hardwired into an organization that does not think in terms or weeks or months but rather in years if not decades. For Sinwar and others like him, the prospect of a violent death is not a disincentive but an opportunity for martyrdom. Previous Hamas leaders such as Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi were assassinated and readily replaced, tunnels were demolished and rebuilt. Hamas, meanwhile, gained power while Israel progressively frayed. Still, for all of its monumental military buildup, Hamas knows it cannot destroy Israel with guns and rockets alone. Rather, it aspires, as its arch-enemy Yasser Arafat once plotted, to make Israeli life insufferable. “[By] preventing immigration and encouraging emigration … destroying tourism … weakening the Israeli economy and diverting the greater part of it to security requirements … [and] maintaining an atmosphere of …anxiety,” Arafat told the PLO in 1968, “the Zionists will be forced to realize that it is impossible for them to live in Israel."


Yet, Hamas’s sense of victory draws from even deeper origins. The organization reflects a Palestinian identity which is historically rooted in victimhood. By devastating much of Gaza, Israel has been accused of perpetrating a second Nakba—the catastrophe of 1948 for which the terrorist units responsible for the atrocities of October 7th were named—and the Palestinians are embracing the charge. Victimhood, obsessively documented by the media and broadcast throughout the world, rallies global sympathy for the Palestinian cause, attracts massive aid money, and amplifies the “from the river to the sea” mantra. Masochistically, maddeningly, the rubble Israel leaves in Gaza becomes the building blocks of a strengthened Palestinian identity,


How, then, with so much seemingly going in favor of Hamas, even as the IDF crushes it, can Israel verifiably achieve victory? How can Israel avoid the fate, lamented by the heartbroken singer of the Abba classic Waterloo, to “feel like I win when I lose”?


Victory, for Israel, involves all the achievements listed above—annihilating Hamas, fostering a prosperous, peaceful Gaza—and more. Victory will remind the signatories of the Abraham Accords, hard pressed by their publics’ pro-Palestinian opinions during this crisis, of the strategic value of those agreements, and convince Saudi Arabia that it, too, should make peace. Populations throughout Europe, many of which face similar Islamist threats, will stand more firmly beside Israel, as will the bulk of Americans who traditionally like a winner.


True, Israel cannot defeat the idea of Hamas, no more than the Allies could destroy the idea of Nazism. But without the Third Reich behind them, neo-Nazis pose a far less ominous threat. Hamas, too, will be degraded and its followers denied a sovereign backer. Like ISIS and al-Qaeda, they will become just another stateless terrorist group clamoring against Israel and the West. 


Far more substantively, victory will enable Israel to restore our internal security as well as our regional deterrence. Victory will enable us to live up to Israel’s promise of providing a safe and an ever-vigilant home for the Jewish people. Victory will enable us to live and keep thriving as we have done through the many wars wage intermittently since 1948. And victory will perhaps convince some Palestinians leaders, as it did to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Jordan’s King Hussein, that peace, and not war, promises the best future for our children and grandchildren. 


Victory, for Israel, means we will eventually rebound from this, as from all previous wars. We will continue to develop one of the world’s most astonishing nation-states, to ingather new immigrants, invest in Jewish learning, and offer transformative technologies to the world. For Hamas and the Palestinians, victory means destruction, hopelessness, and an elevated international empathy that reenforces their sense of victimhood but brings them nowhere closer to ending it. Such a victory will be, in the fullest sense, Pyrrhic.


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