Palestinian children waving Hamas flags cheer as they stand on Israeli military equipment, which witnesses said was left behind by Israeli forces during a ground offensive, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip August 5, 2014.
REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
Tel Aviv â€” If body-counts and destroyed weaponry are the main criteria for victory, Israel is the clear winner in the latest confrontation with Hamas. Thereâ€™s no doubt that Israel could conquer the entire Gaza Strip and completely wipe out Hamasâ€™s military apparatus. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has chosen not to do so and now enjoys his highest approval ratings ever.
But counting bodies is not the most important criterion in deciding who should be declared the victor. Much more important is comparing each sideâ€™s goals before the fighting and what they have achieved. Seen in this light, Hamas won.
Hamas started the war because it was in dire straits; its relations with Iran and Egypt were severed. But soon enough Hamas was dictating the duration of the conflict by repeatedly refusing cease-fires. Furthermore, it preserved its capability of firing rockets and missiles at most of Israelâ€™s territory, despite the immense effort the Israeli Air Force invested in knocking out launch sites.
Hamas also waged an urban campaign against Israeli ground forces, inflicting at least five times as many casualties as in the last conflict and successfully used tunnels to penetrate Israeli territory and sow fear and demoralization. It made Israel pay a heavy price and the I.D.F. eventually withdrew its ground troops from Gaza without a cease-fire.
Israeli leaders have now set the demilitarization of Gaza as one of their goals. But itâ€™s difficult to picture how this could be achieved. Hamas would never agree to disarm unless faced with a protracted Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip, which is something Mr. Netanyahu has declared he wonâ€™t undertake.
So how did a terrorist guerrilla organization overcome the strongest army in the Middle East?
Hamasâ€™s achievements on the battlefield are the fruit of a concerted effort to draw lessons from previous Israeli defeats.
In July 2006, Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers on the Israel-Lebanon border. In response, Israel sought to destroy the group. It failed â€” and even the more modest aims of returning of abducted men or demilitarizing southern Lebanon, proved unattainable. Israel came out of that war battered, leading to the departure of almost the entire top military command, and a number of hard-hitting internal inquiries.
Israel overhauled its intelligence and ground fighting capabilities and applied the lessons of Lebanon in two subsequent clashes with Hamas. Operation Cast Lead in 2008 began with the destruction of 1,200 targets in an immense aerial bombardment. And Hamas was stunned when it saw that Israel didnâ€™t recoil from putting boots on the ground in Gaza.
In November 2012, Israel fired the opening shot by assassinating the Hamas military chief, Ahmad Jabari. Then it bombed most of Hamasâ€™s rocket launching sites and staged a ground incursion. The Hamas forces were thrown into disorder and mostly fled.
Israel agreed to an early cease-fire, for a reason that has remained a closely guarded secret: The Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, generously financed by the United States, had run out of ammunition. Israel learned the lesson and made sure that sufficient quantities of Iron Dome missiles were available this time around.
But Hamas didnâ€™t walk away empty handed in 2012. It learned lessons and acted on them. First, Hamas took stringent counterintelligence measures to avoid Israeli electronic surveillance. Israel consequently knew much less than it should have about the increased range and payloads of Hamas rockets, the distribution of rocket storage depots and the firing of rockets by remote control.
Second, in order to prepare for an Israeli invasion, Hamas replaced its battalion commanders with new men who had undergone training in Lebanon or Iran. It developed a systematic urban warfare doctrine to ensure maximal Israeli casualties and to protect its high command from assassination.
Finally, Hamas invested in the construction of a vast and complex network of tunnels that reached into Israeli territory and formed units of frogmen to attack Israel from the sea. These were major advances.
Israelâ€™s leaders are determined to represent Defensive Edge as a victory, and it is therefore unlikely that public inquiry panels will be set up as they were after the Lebanon war in 2006 or that heads will roll.
However, the I.D.F. will have to reinvent the way it counters guerrilla warfare. It will once again have to try to recruit agents in Gaza, now that it has become clear that electronic spying is insufficient because Hamas has become more careful.
Israelâ€™s foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad, will now have to pay more attention to Hamas operatives in Qatar and Turkey and intercept Hamasâ€™s communications from weapons suppliers, like North Korea.
Israel may also decide to focus on striking Hamas personnel outside Gaza, without taking responsibility. When the Mossad assassinated a top Hamas official in 2010 in Dubai, the large amount of negative publicity led to a cessation of such acts, but they may now be judged more effective than massive military action. Likewise, special operations will get more attention. Hamas surprised Israel, but Israel has carried out almost no imaginative or daring targeted operations in this latest war. Ehud Barak, the most prominent commando fighter in Israelâ€™s history, proposed some such schemes when he was defense minister in 2010, but they were not adopted.
Finally, the defense ministry will be given unlimited funding to devise an underground electronic â€œfenceâ€ based on oil and gas prospecting technology, that will be laid all along the border between Israel and Gaza to detect tunnels as they are built.
For Israel, this round of fighting will probably end politically more or less at the point where it began but with significant damage to Israelâ€™s deterrence.
And the feeble efforts at negotiation efforts between Mahmoud Abbasâ€™s Palestinian Authority and Israel now seem completely irrelevant, as military commanders on both sides go back to their drawing boards to plan the inevitable next round.
And as much as Israel is seeking to marginalize Hamas and empower the weakened Mr. Abbas, Hamas is, for the first time in its history, on the verge of being internationally recognized as an equal party in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Ronen Bergman, a senior political and military analyst for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, is writing a history of the Mossad.