Analysis: How Hamas Wins by Losing

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Fadi Adwan / AP

Mourners pray over the bodies of Palestinians killed in an Israeli air strike in Beit Lahiya, in the northern Gaza Strip, on Jan. 4

Watching the TV coverage of Israel's ground offensive on Gaza over the weekend, I could have sworn that I heard the ghost of Abdel Aziz Rantissi laughing. (See pictures of Israel's sweep into Gaza.)

Rantissi was Hamas' political leader in Gaza when we met in a dark safehouse in April 2002. The second Palestinian intifadeh was at its height. The previous week, Israeli troops had bulldozed into the refugee camp in Jenin, in the West Bank, smashing the infrastructure of another militant group, Islamic Jihad, but also killing civilians. Israeli forces were easily beating Hamas forces in Gaza too; in Ramallah, Yasser Arafat was practically under house arrest as Israeli snipers took up position around the seat of the Palestinian government.

I put it to Rantissi that Palestinian militancy was failing, that groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad were only playing into Israel's hands. In any confrontation that involved guns and tanks, I said, Israel would win. Rantissi gave me a patronizing smile and explained that military defeat was the best thing that could happen to Hamas.

In Rantissi's view, it didn't matter if a few dozen — or even a few hundred — Hamas fighters were killed. Their "martyrdom" would only strengthen Palestinian hatred for Israel and sympathy for Hamas. It didn't matter if Israeli jets bombed Hamas offices, because cinder-block structures could easily be replaced. And it didn't matter if Israel took out Hamas' leaders, because they were also replaceable. "Any moment, a rocket could come through that window and kill me," Rantissi said, "but even before the smoke has cleared, there will be a replacement ready." What the Israelis didn't realize, he concluded, was that "when they win, we don't lose — we win too."

Almost exactly two years later, an Israeli missile did come through the window, killing Rantissi. Only three weeks before, a similar strike had killed Hamas' founder, the paraplegic, blind Ahmed Yassin. The assassinations of its two top men were meant to break the back of Hamas' leadership. But Rantissi was right: he and Yassin were replaced in short order, and Hamas actually grew stronger, more radical and more popular.

Rantissi's analysis, which seemed so perverse and bizarre in 2002, has now become conventional wisdom. Most commentators agree that while Israel's incursion into Gaza may leave Hamas deeply wounded in the short term, the militants will ultimately benefit.

In every scenario save a very long Israeli occupation (which is unlikely), Hamas will have an opportunity to eventually regenerate. New fighters can be trained, new rockets acquired, new smuggling tunnels built. If Israel's choke hold on Gaza for the past year hasn't stopped Hamas from arming itself, then it's a good bet that the presence of international monitors won't either.

The argument that Israel's incursion will give the nation an upper hand in any future talks — and allow it to dictate the terms of a new cease-fire — doesn't really wash. Any new truce will be brokered by third parties; while U.S. President-elect Barack Obama chooses to remain silent, France's Nicolas Sarkozy is offering himself for the role. That alone means Israel won't have everything its way. The international outcry over the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Gaza means the broker will insist that Israel loosen the economic shackles as well as withdraw troops. And when the money begins to flow in, it will flow through the Hamas networks that control every aspect of Gaza. The militants will distribute some of the money to Gazans, looking like generous benefactors; the rest they will use to rebuild their military capability.

Rantissi's ghost will be laughing the whole time.