The calculus of Israel-Hamas war

Israel-Hamas war

EVERYDAY since the start of the Israeli-Hamas war the civilian death toll has been published.

The figure has risen at a depressing pace. Every tenet of war screams that it is wrong that civilians should die at a rate that so far outstrips that of the combatants. After all for the latter every bullet, bomb dropped is intended to kill them, but for civilians the opposite should hold true as great care is taken that every bullet fired and bomb dropped does not hit them.

One must surmise that the intention of publishing these casualties is to somehow affect the calculus of war. It is hoped, in some quarters, that someone somewhere will look at these figures and think this war is no longer worth the cost. A death is a momentous figure that spreads ripples of untold suffering and pain throughout a family and community. But the calculus of war has always been a grim inhumane affair, totting up lives lost and destroyed against metres gained nebulous interests advanced.  Unfortunately, the sole purpose of publishing these figures is one sided, that is, to pile pressure on Israel and stir up public opprobrium over how the war is being conducted.  The figures give the marchers across the globe something to chant and focus their anger on. However, if peace is to be achieved these figures should also be directed at Hamas. Hamas began this war and Hamas too can end this war.

At present, world public opinion has placed the responsibility for ending the war solely on Israel. It is almost as if it is Israel that provoked the war. International public opinion cannot separate the course of the war from its cause. As a result, the two issues have conflated leading to a highly subjective and prejudiced response that demands that Israel stops the fighting and killing. Most are happy to overlook that it was Hamas that started this latest round of bloodletting, forgetting that this is a fight against two armed sides. It will, therefore, take pressure on both sides to stop the blood flow.

In any war there is a calculus. This is the balance between a belligerent’s war aims and the cost of either achieving or defending them. No combatant continues to fight when this calculus is not in its favour or there is no hope of it being so. Hamas before launching the October 7 attacks had war aims covering the subsequent conflict because it knew better than anyone else what the fighting would be like and the resultant devastating civilian casualties. After all part of its strategy is to induce mass civilian casualties as has happened. That is why its military infrastructure is so closely intertwined with the civilian. Israel has to go through the civilians to get to the military. It is a diabolical strategy but it is also so very effective.

The fact that Hamas continues to fight shows that this calculus is still, from its perspective, in its favour or it has reasonable expectations of achieving those war aims. In other words, as those daily civilian casualty figures are toted up the Hamas leadership must view them with some degree of satisfaction. If this was not the case, then the war would have come to an end. That is if that death toll became a price too steep to pay for the attainment of Hamas’ war aims. In essence the world expects the tragedy of the Palestinian people to be intolerable to everyone except Hamas.

Wars end not only when one belligerent achieves its war aims but also when the other either concedes on its own aims or capitulates completely.  A combatant can concede that the cost of fighting far outstrips the importance of that which they are fighting for. An example is when the Ian Smith regime conceded that continuing the fight against the nationalist forces would entail the destruction of much of the very country that it was fighting for. It conceded that it would have to modify its war aims from preventing black majority rule to maybe just maintaining a modicum of white privilege through a negotiated settlement. Wars can also end with the losing side totally capitulating on its war aims commonly known as unconditional surrender. Japan took two nuclear bombs and then capitulated on whatever war aims were motivating its hopeless last stand.

Hamas is still in the fight. It has not conceded on its war aims. The civilian Palestinian deaths are at present an acceptable price to pay for whatever it set out to achieve with the attacks on Israel.  The latter also entered the war with its own war aims that obviously included the destruction of much of Hamas’ military capacities and the death of its leadership. At present the horrendous civilian death toll and the international censure is for Israel an acceptable price to pay to achieve its aims. For Israel this is key because the mythological status surrounding the Jewish state was tested, found wanting and forever shattered on October 7, 2023. Israel’s security landscape was forever altered, profaned even by the breathtaking audacity, intrepidness and success of the Hamas attacks. To restored the status of the vaunted Israeli security establishment entails securing not only a military victory in terms of destroying Hamas’ military manpower and material but also killing all the major participants in the planning and execution of the attacks. Just like it did after the Munich massacre. To restore the mystic.

The present, therefore, is not the time for Israel to end the war, but it could be for Hamas. That is if the deaths, hunger and general suffering of its own people matter to it. The international community, therefore, must acknowledge this fact by also pressurising Hamas to end the war. Hamas can concede on some of its war aims or even totally capitulate just as the Japanese did in 1945 when the cost of the war far exceeded any of their war aims. As it is said a good plan in war rarely survives the first contact with the enemy. Hamas has found its enemy as grimly determined and ruthless as itself. It is a contest of the will to kill, to cause untold human suffering. In carrying out the atrocious October 7 attacks, Hamas showed its will, Israel is showing that it too is capable of the unthinkable. It is perhaps time one side, the one losing the very people it is supposed to be fighting for, to blink and concede.

The international community has to adopt this coldblooded logic to pressurise Hamas to capitulate. The vitriolic condemnation of Israel sustains Hamas’ will to fight and its abstruseness at the negotiating table. So long as the daily casualty figures elicit a one-sided and wholesale condemnation of Israel then the Hamas leadership will continue to reap dividends from the atrocities that they have brought down upon their own people.  If international public opinion would go silent on Hamas, and maybe extend tacit support to Israel, Hamas would be deprived of its reason to fight. Peace for the Palestinian people will not come from an emboldened Hamas with the chant of millions marching for its cause throughout the world ringing in its ears. But from one that is beaten on the field of battle, and condemned in the court of world public opinion because peacemaking is always about cutting one’s losses. Hamas is particularly vulnerable to public opinion because it cannot hope to achieve a military victory against Israel, it must enlist and manipulate international political pressure in order to achieve its political aims.

  • Ignatius Tsuro is a commentator on social and political issues. He writes in his personal capacity.

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