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.