Too Soon To Tell

Hamas's Temporary Popularity Bump

Daniel Serwer on how populations always rally to their governments during bombing, and the real test is after the dust settles.

Those reading Anna Lekas Miller's report should not be surprised that Palestinians in Gaza are praising Hamas, despite the destruction wrought by Israeli bombs. Rallying around the flag is the normal popular reaction to bombing. It happened in Britain during World War II, in Germany later in World War II, and in Vietnam in the 1960s. Rarely has bombing alone coerced an enemy (see Robert Pape's Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War).

Bombing does not cow an enemy population either. The obvious exception is the use of atomic weapons against Japan to end World War II in the Pacific. But in a non-nuclear situation, dissatisfaction often rises after the dust settles on the ruins. Once the euphoria of perceived victory wears off and the impact of the destruction on daily life becomes clear, Hamas’s current popularity bump may well fade.

Other apparent exceptions prove the rule: land invasion, not bombing, is what turns the tide of war. In Bosnia, the NATO bombing brought an end to the war, but only because the Bosniak and Croat forces on the ground were taking territory rapidly from previously impregnable Serb forces. The Serb population inside Bosnia rallied to the cause even as those forces were retreating rapidly. Likewise in Kosovo, the Serbian population (and prominent opposition politicians) supported Slobodan Milošević during the bombing.Belgrade yielded only after the Americans made it clear a ground assault was imminent. Weeks of bombingbefore the Gulf War in 1991 produced no visible popular dissatisfaction with Saddam Hussein. The American air war against the Taliban in Afghanistan succeeded only because of on-the-ground efforts of the Northern Alliance. Hamas, and Gaza’s population, have good reason to be happy that a land invasion was averted.

Dissatisfaction with the powers that be is more likely after bombing, not during it. With even a few weeks to see the damage done—when the pace of reconstruction inevitably disappoints—people begin to feel the pain. By the summer of 1999, just a few weeks after the Kosovo war had ended, Milošević was facing serious unrest in the Serbian heartland of Šumadija. Isolated politically and diplomatically, he suffered electoral defeat in the fall of 2000.

There is no guarantee that something like this will happen in Gaza, where the bombing has strengthened Hamas’s claim to leading the “resistance,” drawn it a higher international profile and given it an excuse to crackdown on even small signs of opposition. Hamas faces nothing like the mostly unified opposition that brought down Milošević in the aftermath of the NATO bombing. But I’ll be surprised if Gazans are feeling as good about this war or about Hamas a month or two from now as they do today.