Hamas has been defeated, but not destroyed. Its destruction was not the goal of Israel’s military campaign. What Israel wanted was a weakened Hamas to continue to rule Gaza. The separation between Gaza and the West Bank serves Israel’s interest in weakening the Palestinian national movement, which remains a mortal enemy (not a peace partner) for the foreseeable future.
Israel decided to once again “mow the grass” in Gaza under the assumption that it is engaged in a protracted intractable conflict, where a patient strategy of attrition is needed to significantly degrade the capabilities of Hamas to harm Israel. This was achieved, since approximately a third of Hamas’ missile arsenal and most of its missile production infrastructure was destroyed. It is likely that most of the attack tunnels (32) were demolished, and almost 1,000 Hamas fighters and some of its leaders were eliminated. More targeted killings and an earlier removal of some of the self-imposed constraints on the use of airpower might have speed-up the Hamas acceptance of a cease-fire and might have spared Gaza much destruction.
The Hamas defeat is evident because it finally capitulated to Egypt’s cease-fire proposal that had been rejected since July 15. The unlimited cease-fire, as Egypt and Israel insisted upon, constitutes the precondition for future negotiations and had no input from Qatar and Turkey, both Hamas supporters. All crossings into Gaza will continue to be controlled by Israel and Egypt, making sure that the rearmament of Hamas will not be easy. Egypt even forced Hamas to swallow a bitter pill with the presence of the Palestinian Authority at the Rafah crossing. The Hamas “victory speeches” cannot erase the fact that Hamas eventually gave in to the Egyptian-Israeli pressure unconditionally.
Despite much criticism of Israel’s “disproportionate” use of force abroad, for 50 days, quite a long period of time, Israel was allowed to pulverize Hamas installations and their surroundings. It was clear that a large number of Arab states supported tacitly the Israeli endeavor to administer a heavy blow on Hamas. Important international actors, such as India, China and Russia, were rather mute on the Gaza issue for their own reasons. Moreover, the U.S., the EU and parts of the international community demand the demilitarization of Gaza. Of course, this is not attainable without collecting Hamas weaponry by force. Yet, it delegitimizes Hamas violence, while lending legitimacy to Israel’s defensive measures.
Any assessment of Operation Protective Edge must weigh in the prices paid by Israel. The Iron Dome system neutralized almost all rockets fired at Israel’s population centers. Most of the country was little affected by the Gaza war, although the sound of sirens probably had negative psychological effects. Disciplined behavior on part of the civilians minimized the loss of lives, although the death toll was 72 (over 60 of them soldiers), with hundreds wounded. The limited damage to property mainly occurred in the proximity of the Gaza. Direct and indirect costs of the war that amount to several billions of dollars are bearable for the strong Israeli economy.
The caution and the reluctance to use ground forces displayed by Israel were useful in garnering domestic and international legitimacy, but might have a corrosive effect on Israel’s deterrence. Such qualities, commendable in a democracy, are not enhancing deterrence in the Middle East neighborhood. Eagerness to fight, determination and ruthlessness are the prerequisites for building deterrence.
Unfortunately, the military campaign against Hamas underscored tensions in U.S.-Israel relations. The ambiguous attitudes and actions toward Israel on part of the Obama administration signal less willingness for the U.S. to back its closest ally in the Middle East. Moreover, the U.S. was largely irrelevant in the Gaza outcome as it foolishly tried to involve Turkey and Qatar in the crisis management as it failed to perceive the centrality of Egypt in the Gaza equation. The Gaza war was another example of the confused U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East during the Obama administration. The American misfortune was also an Israeli loss as Jerusalem prefers a strong and relevant America.
Operation Protective Edge left Gaza in Hamas hands. There is a widespread feeling of unease among Israelis with this outcome. The frustration is understandable, but not warranted. It is beyond Israel’s abilities to impose its preferred leaders on its Arab neighbors. But it is not easy to come to terms with the thought that there is no resolution to the conflict in sight. With this realization, comes the understanding that another round of violence is around the corner. Nevertheless, for some time, polls have shown that most Israelis understand this predicament well, and during the war Israeli society displayed tremendous resilience and solidarity. Indeed, the routinization of protracted conflict remains a main challenge for Israeli society.
The domestic political impact of the Gaza war will depend upon the length of the period of calm it achieves. The longer it will be, the more likely it is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will turn into the main beneficiary. The time he needs is only until the next scheduled election, November 2017, which could happen earlier if the government chooses to hold early elections. If deterrence does not hold and Hamas decides to challenge Netanyahu by firing into Israel earlier, he has of course the option to “mow the grass” more vigorously. This seems a popular option.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Israel Hayom