Aftermath of Gaza assault: Black eye for Israel and strengthened Hamas

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Gaza celebration
Palestinians in Gaza celebrate after a ceasefire agreement came into effect that ended the Israeli bombardment (Photo: AFP/Getty)

Now that the most recent assault on Gaza has come to an end, there should be no doubt that Israel has achieved the narrow military objectives it set out for its army when it commenced “Operation Pillar of Cloud” last week. The operation began with with the assassination of Hamas commander Ahmed al-Jabari last week, and ended with a ceasefire agreement on November 21.

When the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced the start of its assault on the Palestinian Gaza Strip, it laid out an objective of protecting Israeli civilians by crippling the “terrorist infrastructure,” meaning the infrastructure of armed Palestinian groups like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. More specifically, the Israeli air force combed the densely populated Gaza Strip to look for rocket launch sites and top-level militants firing projectiles into Israel. A week into the operation, the IDF claimed to have hit 1,500 targets in the Gaza Strip.

It’s clear that one of the most powerful militaries in the world, armed with high-tech American weaponry ranging from F16 military jets to Apache helicopters, struck most of its targets. And when the ceasefire agreement was reached, Israeli leaders sounded triumphant. “We hit their senior commanders, we destroyed thousands of rockets which were aimed towards the South and most of those aimed towards central Israel, and we crushed Hamas’ control facilities,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement announcing Israel’s agreement to the ceasefire.

But the triumph will fit the definition of a pyrrhic victory, a nominal win that comes at great cost. And Israel will come out of waging this assault as the loser, no matter how many of its targets it hit. It’s a reminder that the Israel-Palestine conflict will not be won militarily; the only lasting solution will be political.

Israel’s image will be blackened by the high civilian death toll; the country’s regional position has been exposed to be weakened; and Hamas will survive another day, boosted by resisting the might of the Israeli military, no matter how much dissent against its authoritarian rule exists in Gaza. The fact that Israel will win the war but lose the battle, so to speak, is a replay of what happened during Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza in 2008-’09, which was dubbed “Operation Cast Lead.”

“Netanyahu gained, not Israel. Netanyahu perhaps gained domestically by demonstrating that he’s willing to go to war very aggressively,” Noura Erakat, a human rights attorney and activist, said in a phone interview. Indeed, polls show that the assault on Gaza boosted Netanyahu ahead of Israeli elections in February.

But “Israel, on the whole, has lost a lot,” Erakat added. “And I can only say this by looking at how the media has responded…During Operation Cast Lead there was some sort of sympathy that Israel had to do something about the rocket fire. It falls on deaf ears when Israel does it again four years later. And when it becomes evident to many that Israel’s strategy is to pummel Palestinian society every four years and not achieve long-term solutions, then…I think Israel has lost on this level.”

Even at the most basic military level, Israel’s pummeling of Hamas—an easy feat considering the vast disparity in power between the two sides–will not radically change the status quo that has existed since the Islamist movement took over running Gaza in 2007. After the 22-day operation in 2008-09, Israel credibly claimed victory. Again, the military power dynamics favored Israel. But a year later, Israel was telling American officials it was worried that Hamas was rearming. Israeli officials meeting with U.S. military officials in November 2009 noted that “one of the goals of Cast Lead was to damage Hamas’ ability to produce its own weapons. In this regard, the IDF was successful, but Hamas is reconstituting its capabilities,” according to a WikiLeaks cable.

And it’s an assault that Israel will likely repeat again in the next couple of years, as Yousef Munayyer of the Palestine Center pointed out in The New Yorker. “In Israel, they talk of ‘mowing the lawn’ in Gaza, a callous idiom used to refer to the periodic bombardment of a besieged territory in the hopes of reducing the capacity of militant groups every few years. Each time they ‘mow,’ however, they sow seeds of hatred for the next generation,” Munayyer wrote. “How successful, morally or militarily, is a war whose repetition is planned?”

Beyond the military question is how Israel looks to the world coming out of this assault. The Israeli government has put a lot of resources into branding Israel as a progressive, liberal place, but the continued occupation and human rights abuses are quite clear to those who look closely. And now the death toll in Gaza will further blacken Israel’s image. After eight days of pummeling the Gaza Strip, an estimated 160 Palestinians died—including 105 civilians, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. Twenty-eight children and 13 women were killed during the offensive, and the overwhelming majority of the nearly 1,000 Palestinians injured were civilian as well.

Perhaps the lasting image that will motivate activists and lawyers to push for Israeli accountability for potential war crimes again is the killing of the al-Dalou family. Twelve members of the same family were wiped out by an Israeli air strike that the military says was meant for the head of Hamas’ rocket-launching unit. As the Haaretz reporter Avi Issacharoff noted, “just as the pictures showing the results of the Israeli bombing of Kafr Qana in July 2006 changed the face of the Second Lebanon War and turned world public opinion against the Israeli operation, in the same way the bombardment of the house in Gaza and the killing of all 12 of its residents is liable to elicit Arab, European and, above all, American pressure on Israel to stop the aerial attacks immediately.”

Whether efforts to hold Israel accountable for the killing are successful, though, is another question, given the U.S. role in shielding Israel from any attempt to achieve justice for war crimes.

The Israeli assault on Gaza over the past week was also the first major test of how the Arab uprisings changed the Israeli regional position. While the Israeli nightmare of an “Islamist winter” with dire consequences for the state coming to pass seems overblown, the new Middle East did flex its muscles, albeit for their own interests. Egypt and Tunisia, longtime U.S. allies in the midst of a revolutionary process that brought Islamists more sympathetic to Hamas to power, sent high-level delegations to express solidarity with the people of Gaza as the Israeli onslaught wore on. Turkey’s prime minister, still angry over Israel’s 2010 killing of nine Turks on board a Gaza aid flotilla, called Israel a “terrorist state.”

These were powerful symbols of a new Middle East, though to Israel’s comfort, the rhetoric never turned into drastic action. Egypt has been walking a tightrope, with Israel and the U.S. on one side and Hamas on the other. All players in the region have been bearing down on the Egyptian state. Compounding the Egyptian predicament was the fact that they wanted stability in the region as a way to help repair their reeling economy. But Egypt did come out of the Israeli assault with renewed prestige, as it used its contacts with Hamas to encourage the group to reach a ceasefire. The terms of the agreement point to Egypt as the guarantor.

Finally, there’s the fact that, by many accounts, Hamas emerges from Israel’s assault weakened, but only in the strictly military sense. Politically, Hamas has been strengthened. As +972 Magazine‘s Noam Sheizaf writes, “the details of the ceasefire are not clear, but if – as some reports indicate – Israel and Egypt loosen the blockade on the Strip a bit more, Hamas could claim a meaningful achievement that benefits the population of the Gaza Strip, thus strengthening its claim as the leading party in the opposition to the occupation.”

Given that Israel does benefit from pointing to Hamas as an existential, irrational threat, the continued fact of Hamas rule in Gaza may help Israel in the short-term, in terms of explaining its position to the world. But in the long run, Hamas will reap the dividends of its rational and nimble position post-Arab Spring. Hamas’ leadership has thrown in their lot with the revolutionary wave sweeping the Arab world and has left behind Syria as its main patron. In the long run, Hamas’ regional legitimacy will be enhanced.

And Palestinians in the West Bank may look to Hamas now with a new eye. Hamas demonstrates an ever stronger contrast with Mahmoud Abbas, the head of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. Abbas, whose rule depends on U.S. and European financial support and has suppressed Hamas’ activities in the West Bank, is going to the United Nations at the end of the month to push for Palestine to be accepted as a “non-member” state. But it likely will not change anything on the ground, similar to how last year’s UN bid failed because of the U.S. blocking the effort. “Hamas has provided a model, albeit a painful one, of how you get Israel to the table. Abu Mazen [the nickname for Abbas] who offers everything, meets with no one,” wrote Mark Perry, a historian and former advisor to Yasir Arafat who has had extensive contacts with Hamas, in an email. “Ironically, the biggest loss Israel suffered is they proved to the world that the only time they’ll talk to a Palestinian group is when they feel pain.”

Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip has now ended, and the status quo is back. But with a new Middle East asserting itself, and backing Hamas as a legitimate political player, Israel’s military victory will be fleeting. Combined with the black eye Israel’s image will have received again, the world may very well look back on “Operation Pillar of Cloud” as the moment when unchallenged Israeli hegemony in the region went the way of history. Israel remains a powerful state, but its position in the region is fast-changing. Israel will have to deal with a changed Middle East and a reinvigorated Hamas, and for them, that is no victory.

A version of this article originally appeared in AlterNet.

About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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18 Responses

  1. Annie Robbins
    November 26, 2012, 11:54 am

    Erekat accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of systematically …… trying to push Gaza closer to Egypt.

  2. BillM
    November 26, 2012, 12:07 pm

    Very good and thoughtful article, though I think you overplay Israel’s “military victory.” There is frankly no evidence for any sort of military victory except a body count and a swath of destruction. Ask the Vietnamese if that signals a military victory.

    Hamas and the other factions displayed military tool (longer range rockets) not seen before. They also displayed an abilility to stare down the Israeli military and avoid a ground assault. Not one inch of Palestine was taken by ground troops. Note how different this was from Cast Lead in 2009. I’m curious if you can point to these reports:

    Finally, there’s the fact that, by many accounts, Hamas emerges from Israel’s assault weakened, but only in the strictly military sense

    The only such accounts I saw were from the Israeli military. No independent observer seemed to believe that Hamas was weakened militarily.

    Separate, as you note, A key factor is the role of Egypt, which has seen greatly enhanced prestige (though Morsi may have overplayed his hand domestically). One point that I haven’t seen brought up is the enormous bribe paid to Egypt. Right before the truce, the IMF finally approved a $4.8 billion low-interest loan to Egypt:

    The fact that Egypt needed to be bribed on that level shows just how worried the US is about Egypt upsetting the whole game. Whether or not Morsi pulls off his power play, Egypt is strongly limiting Israel’s freedom of action, and that matters more in purely military terms than Israel bombing a few (or a few hundred) “rocket launching sites.”

  3. piotr
    November 26, 2012, 12:52 pm

    I think that Israel had weak diplomatic position in this round because it was fairly obvious who was picking the fight. Not obvious enough for American media perhaps, but otherwise IDF narrative why they assassinated major Hamas figure is very weak: the “tit-for-tat” list is long, but the most recent entries were IDF killing civilians, then Palestinian resistance firing at soldiers, then IDF going bonkers, then “more powerful rockets” by Hamas. To me it seems that the current round really started when IDF strifed Gaza in “retaliation” for the drone which is really childish (remember, deadly toys make bad gifts for little brats).

    Compounding the weak diplomatic position was the upcoming vote in UN. Outcome is not much in doubt (there can be delays or not), but the self-proclaimed goal of Israeli diplomacy is to keep European support of PA membership as low as possible. Not a good time to be “as nasty as I wonna be”. Perhaps the list of European “yes” and “abstain” votes does not matter, but it will be a diplomatic defeat as defined by the government of Israel in advance.

    Finally, Israeli government was in a vise between war fever that it easily whipped out and the diplomatic constraints. The war fever “worked like a charm”, but it pushed toward senseless bloodshed and non-sensical hasbara, like journalists being legitimate targets on the account of “being stooges of Hamas” and “not being foreign”, and an antenna on a roof being a justification for killing and wounding everybody in the building. Even in Jewish press it does not sound serious.

    In short, you can have all-powerful military, but if your goals are not logically consistent, you will not achieve all of them. Like preserving civilized image and inflicting carnage that would satisfy incited population, or “eradicating Hamas” and avoiding troops being killed (while the population is not sufficiently paranoid to tolerate substancial casualties). It does not help that the top of Israeli government is currently populated by idiots. Netanyahu missed his vocation as furniture salesman (his graphic-aided presentations would be very good with a better product), Lieberman should remain Tourism Minister or “special portfolio minister”, and Barak never remembers what his views were on the day before.

  4. Mooser
    November 26, 2012, 1:05 pm
    • seafoid
      November 26, 2012, 4:26 pm

      He needed 7 seats to get back into the Knesset I think and the people have gone another ratchet rightwards so he had no chance. Better to quit while he was ahead.

      Obviously 90% of Israeli Jews can’t be deluded.

      Barak was the great white hope in 2000. He was going to give everyone in the Middle East a pony.

      • Inanna
        November 26, 2012, 10:22 pm

        And unicorns.

  5. Elliot
    November 26, 2012, 1:59 pm

    Good article.
    1) Netanyahu’s reference to including “Hamas’ control facilities” in the list of legitimate target is a cover for the destruction of Gazan institutions including the bank in Gaza City. The Israeli intention was – as always – not just to kill combatants but to terrorize civil society into submission.
    2) Munayyer’s quote of the Israeli doctrine of “mowing the lawn” has an ominous connotation. The verb לכסח lekasey’ach also means to “beat up”. It’s a disgusting double entendre: pummeling Gaza is the bully’s chore.

  6. Nevada Ned
    November 26, 2012, 2:30 pm

    Israel’s latest assault on Gaza, promoted by the Israelis as a military victory, was in fact a political and moral defeat for Israel.
    It was not the first time.

    Consider 1982. Israel invaded Lebanon and killed 17,000 Palestinians and Lebanese. Arafat and the PLO turned Israel’s invasion into a political triumph: while back in 1967, Egypt, Jordan and Syria combined succumbed to Israel in 6 days, Arafat and the PLO held out in Beirut for six weeks. Somehow Arafat proclaimed a political victory. For the first time, Israel developed a peace movement. Years later, Hezbollah was founded, and waged a stinging guerrilla war against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, which ultimately made the Israeli occupation of Lebanon so unpopular that even the Sharon regime decided to pull out of Lebanon.

    Or consider 2006: Israel attacked Lebanon again, this time intending to crush Hezbollah. Instead, the war ended in a month, in an inconclusive draw. And achieving a draw against the Israel Goliath amounted to a victory for Hezbollah.

    And the latest (2012) round of fighting? This time Hamas achieved diplomatic gains while having near-zero military gains. (Only three Israeli Jews were killed). Veteran Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery proclaimed that “the big winner was Hamas”.
    Follow this
    Israel’s military “victory” is more like a draw, this time against an opponent that is militarily even weaker than Hezbollah.

    • Maximus Decimus Meridius
      November 26, 2012, 4:30 pm

      Agreed. It’s the law of diminishing returns for Israel. Before they could boast of being able to take on the combined military might of all Arab countries and still win. Now, the ability to pummel football stadiums is seen as some sort of ‘victory’. This is why Israel loves to talk up the influence of Iran on Hizballah and Hamas, especially when the ‘war’ is not going well for them. That helps – or so they think – to preserve the illusion that Israel is fighting a real enemy, rather than murdering families watching TV in their homes.

  7. amigo
    November 26, 2012, 3:39 pm

    Barak, no doubt is going to be spending a lot of time with his Lawyers preparing for his War Crimes trial at the Hague.

    Hopefully they lock this vile creep up and throw away the keys.

  8. piotr
    November 26, 2012, 5:17 pm

    Sober analysis shows unequivocal victory of Israel that gained all objectives in the operation that did not have any. Or 1500 of them, dependent who is counting.

    For strange reason, a smallish operation got a big name, and now attention is on the subsequent Palestinian outrage, “unilateral” vote in UNGA. Here I expect that Israel will score victories where it matters. To cite,7340,L-4312013,00.html :

    The diplomatic efforts, led by the Foreign Ministry, will focus on utilizing ties with as many countries as possible, in order to strengthen the opposition to the Palestinian bid.

    The diplomatic efforts are however fruitless at the moment, as it appears that only a few states will oppose the Palestinian bid, among which are the United States, Israel, Canada, Czech and possibly Germany.

    What difference does it make if Czech Republic or Latvia oppose, abstain or vote for PA membership? What really matters is the position of Belorus: granted, they will vote for, but will they continue the admirable policy of not releasing records that could shed light on personal finances of Israeli FM? THAT actually makes some difference. However, leftist rot can be detected inside Israeli cabinet :-( !? WTF:

    ccording to Yedioth Ahronoth, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is certain that Israel should respond fiercely and topple the rule of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. On the other hand, those who advocate a more moderate approach claim that Israel’s political power is limited after the Gaza operation and that Israel should therefore judge Abbas by his actions after the bid.

    OK, one always can find a black sheep. But the list of “advocates of more moderate approach” is astounding: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon and ministers Dan Meridor and Benny Begin — I am not sure if all of them think Israel has lost diplomatic stature after Gaza operation, but this is what reports. Meridor and Begin labor under a delusion that Likud should continue the “democratic traditions of Jabotinsky” (there is some justification here, but really, quite a bit of a stretch; the justification is that after independence forbears of current Likud were in opposition to Mapai and cared about having some personal rights) but the first three? Netanyahu doubts his own success?

    By the way, the moderates are in favor of “retaliation against Abbas” in the case PA files law suites against Israel, with obvious benefits of delaying the show of eating their own words until after the elections.

    • Avi_G.
      November 27, 2012, 2:44 am

      will focus on utilizing ties with as many countries as possible, in order to strengthen the opposition to the Palestinian bid.

      “utilizing ties” is code for, ‘threaten, extort, blackmail, coerce and pressure’.

      • Citizen
        November 27, 2012, 4:06 pm

        @ Avi_G
        Isn’t that also the content of the tiny swing vote that gave Israel a seat at the UN?

  9. BillM
    November 26, 2012, 6:32 pm

    Separely from the military dimension, I don’t think it is at all clear that Netanyahu won personally from this. He’s up temporarily in the polls, but 2 months is a long time in politics, and many Israelis are unhappy with this settlement. Netanyahu has lost any ability to claim he hasn’t started any wars (a claim he has been using until now).

    • piotr
      November 27, 2012, 12:44 am

      In the last poll I have seen, Likud Beitenu lost support.

      There is a predictable polarization, gains to the left and to the extreme right. Two months will see many changes, because it seems that party system is in the middle of a major shake-up.

      War fever combined with somewhat meek ceasefire increased support for extreme right. But social issues and acceptance of the ceasefire increased the support for Labor, and social issues and the opposition to the war increased the support for Meretz. Kadima collapsed totally, Lapid is scooping the remnants. Shas split and now the “progressive ex-Shas” polls quite well.

      And now there is UN vote coming. It should be a non-event, but the government proclaimed it to be an issue, so Lieberman may well end up being discussed as the worst FM evah. This may dent Likud-Beitenu further. But if so, who will scoop the votes? Far right, insipid center, “let us concentrate on cottage cheese” Labor?

  10. Avi_G.
    November 27, 2012, 2:39 am

    It’s clear that one of the most powerful militaries in the world, armed with high-tech American weaponry ranging from F16 military jets to Apache helicopters, struck most of its targets.


    The problem is that by definition, whatever Israel hits, it calls a target. Just because Israel claims to have targeted and destroyed rocket sites, doesn’t mean that it actually did so.

    • BillM
      November 27, 2012, 9:56 am

      Exactly right. We know from the casualty figures that over 2/3s of the casualties were innocent civilians, whom Israel was presumably not trying to hit. It stands to reason that Israel also missed a large proportion of its fixed targets as well.

  11. Citizen
    November 27, 2012, 4:12 pm

    Imagine if there had been no Iron Dome. Israel will extract more free Iron dome from USA, all a set up for attacking Iran? Bonus was mowing the lawn, a customary part of Israeli election process.

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