While victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is always an orphan. The Latin proverb came to my mind the other day as I watched Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh boasting on live television about his group’s “historic victory” in the recent mini-war with Israel.
The 90-minute harangue was interesting for at least one reason: Haniyeh punctured the global media’s narrative, according to which Israel triggered the mini-war, ostensibly to gain some unspecified advantage, while the world was distracted by the blood-fest organized by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in parts of northwest Iraq.
“We started the war by striking Haifa with rockets,” Haniyeh boasted, while wiping the sweat off his brow.
The Hamas leader did not say who took the decision to start a war in which more than 2,000 Gazans died, nor how that decision was taken. In his vision, people count for nothing, except as cannon fodder to be used in an unequal war against a much stronger enemy, and in the absence of any credible strategy.
To hammer that point home, Haniyeh paid tribute to the handful of Hamas figures who died in the mini-war, while sailing over the fact that the overwhelming majority of those killed were civilians used as human shields. Nor did he seem too concerned about the fact that his victory was marked by the destruction of 90 percent of Gaza’s already meager infrastructure.
According to UN experts, it may take the enclave up to 20 years to rebuild what the Israelis destroyed. Some victory, indeed. Nevertheless, Haniyeh was right, at least in a sense, about having won a victory. He and his gunmen are still around, and in control of Gaza. Israel’s chicken-hawk Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, did an Ehud Olmert by starting what he did not have the guts to finish. He wreaked havoc in Gaza, but allowed Hamas not only to continue existing, but also to retain its iron grip on a helpless and unarmed population. Niccolò Machiavelli’s sound advice is not to wound a mortal enemy but let him live. Either kill him or turn him into a friend, he urged.
Haniyeh’s message to Gazans was clear: we start a war when we like and finish it when we like! You count for nothing! Worse still, it was clear that the decision to start a war had not been discussed even inside Hamas. A handful of men operating as a star chamber ran the macabre show.
However, Haniyeh’s boastful speech, in front of a crowd whose silence was more telling than the loudest of protests, may have been premature. A day later, it was the turn of the daily newspaper Kayhan, published by the office of the “Supreme Guide,” to claim “victory in Gaza” on behalf of the Khomeinist regime in Tehran.
In an editorial, the paper claimed that “the fate of the Middle East is decided here, in the Imam Khomeini Hussainiah in Tehran.” The paper quoted “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei as saying that, ostensibly to achieve similar victories, “the West Bank should also be armed like Gaza.”
The paper went on to praise Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, who was reshaping the Middle East on behalf of the “Supreme Guide.”
To back the claim, the Tehran official media splashed a series of messages from Hamas leaders thanking the Islamic Republic for backing them in the “Great Battle” against the “Zionist enemy,” all in the name of “Islamic solidarity.”
Some Tehran newspapers have a tradition of printing quotations from the late Ruhollah Khomeini, the mullah who founded the Islamic Republic, as examples of words of wisdom. The latest quote they published from Khomeini appeared to be in response to Hamas leaders’ talk of “Islamic solidarity.” The quote runs thus: “You must know that just being Muslim is of no use. You must also acknowledge the Islamic Republic.” (From Khomeini’s Sahifat al-Nour, Vol. 18, page 198).
In other words, the message to Hamas leaders is: there is no free lunch as far as Tehran is concerned. If we give you money and missiles, you ought to obey orders, as do the Lebanese Hezbollah and the gang of President Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus. The Islamic Republic does not want, indeed can’t have, allies. Like other empires, established or aspirant, it wants servants.
It is ultimately useless to debate who won the mini-war in Gaza. As the Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher, Sun Tzu, noted more than 2,000 years ago, no war is won unless one side admits defeat.
Haniyeh cannot admit defeat because that would expose him to the charge of reckless adventurism, to say the least. He and his unnamed associates ignored the advice not only of Sun Tzu, but also Carl von Clausewitz, not to join a battle without having at least a 50 percent chance of winning it. To take one’s people into an unequal war is tantamount to leading them to the slaughter.
For his part, Netanyahu is unlikely to admit that he has lost the mini-war. Such an admission would spell the end of his tumultuous career. So he too claims victory by claiming that he has destroyed the bulk of Hamas’s rocket-launching infrastructure. That may or may not be true. However, that infrastructure could be quickly rebuilt, especially as Hamas would give it priority over rehousing the tens of thousands of unarmed Gazans made homeless. Lost rockets could also be quickly replaced from the same sources that provided the ones destroyed.
The latest Gaza war broke out because both Israel and Hamas found the status quo hard to bear. Hamas knew its support base was collapsing inside Gaza. Earlier this year, the US’s PEW Research Center global poll showed that 63 percent of Gazans had a negative opinion on Hamas. Interestingly, Hamas was slightly less disliked in the West Bank where 53 percent had a negative opinion of it. That was in line with a dramatic change of mood across the Muslim world, where between 50 percent (in Turkey) and 79 percent (in Nigeria) of people rejected radical Islamists.
The status quo that led to war has not changed in Gaza. Hamas is still there with only one strategy: firing occasional rockets against Israel. And Israel is still there with an aversion to having rockets fired against it.
If Haniyeh thinks that is a great victory, he had better seek treatment for an acute attack of delusion.