A rock concert’s music had just begun blaring into the sky above the packed Sultan’s Pool, the ravine that crouches between Jerusalem’s ancient walls and its trademark windmill, when an announcer emerged on stage and ordered the thousands at hand to quietly head for the gates as rockets fired from Gaza were making their way to Jerusalem.
The crowd did as it was told, unwittingly helping launch a month-long suspension of open-air gatherings throughout Israel. A new round of violence between Gaza and the Jewish state had commenced – the third since Israel’s unilateral retreat in summer 2005 from the 365-sq-km coastal strip.
Named by the IDF Operation Protective Edge, successor to Pillar of Defence in 2012 and Cast Lead of 2008-09, the fighting had yet to produce a ceasefire by mid-August – and on the night of 19 August it resumed, when rockets were fired from Gaza several hours ahead of an extended five-day ceasefire’s expiration, and Israel responded by bombing Hamas targets. Yet the violence that raged between July 8 and August 7 seems to have peaked while some new military, political, and diplomatic facts were emerging through the scattering battle fog.
The first conclusion is that Hamas had been strategically depleted.
The Islamist organisation that violently seized power in 2007 expected its rockets to fill Israel’s cities with casualties, and its tunnels to harvest a crop of hostages who would then be ransomed for terrorists serving life sentences in Israeli jails. Both hopes were dashed.
The unleashing of more than 3,300 rockets and 2,500 mortars at Israeli residential areas proved futile, as the rockets were efficiently intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system, while the Israeli public displayed discipline and rushed to bomb shelters whenever sirens went off.
The tunnel raids did prove potentially lethal. One, by Kibbutz Nahal-Oz, ended with five Israeli soldiers killed, another by Kibbutz Sufa, involved 13 infiltrators some of whom were hit and some of whom fled.
Realising the infiltrations were meant to lead terrorists into the belt of farming communities that straddle the border, the government ordered the IDF to penetrate Gaza and demolish the tunnel system that had been dug there in recent years. The army did as it was told, blasting 32 such tunnels, often amid fierce fire exchanges with Hamas troops. That is how most of the IDF’s 64 fatalities in the operation occurred.
In all, Hamas emerged from the fighting deprived of its surprise element, with its secret tactics exposed and its strategic weapons decimated.
The tunnels are largely gone and an Israeli technological project that will detect them in future is reportedly approaching completion. The rocket arsenal is down to about a third of its original volume, and replenishing it will be difficult due to changing political conditions. In addition, Hamas lost hundreds of troops, though only a few senior commanders, as most of those hid underground throughout the conflict.
On the Israeli side, the assaulting troops were led by colonels and a quarter of the fallen soldiers were officers.
With the fighting started by Hamas firing across Israel’s internationally recognised borders and patently targeting civilians, the IDF arrived at this confrontation highly motivated, another asset that Hamas apparently failed to contemplate before launching this war.
Moreover, unlike the Second Lebanon War of 2006, Israeli pundits now largely agree that the IDF arrived at this clash well trained and properly equipped. At the same time, some criticised what they saw as a preference for firepower over stratagem in the IDF’s deployment of jets, artillery, tanks, and infantry brigades buttressed by 85,000 reservists, while avoiding lean and smart commando operations. Others say such imaginative tactical operations were not relevant because the government did not order the IDF to target Hamas’ leaders in their hideouts under the cities of Gaza.
This, indeed, is where the balance sheet reverts from military to the political calculations.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu led Israel’s war while aided primarily by Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon – so much so that some other members of the nine-member inner cabinet reportedly felt marginalised and offended.
Curiously, the fighting in Gaza created some common ground between the Israeli right and left. The right, led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Economics Minister Naphtali Bennett, demanded Hamas be knocked out, even at the cost of fully conquering the Strip and its population of up to 1.8 million. In their view, anything short of full suppression of Hamas would be marketed by its leaders as a victory.
On the left no one spoke of occupying Gaza, but many joined the right in lamenting Netanyahu’s failure to eradicate Hamas. As seen by some on the left, Hamas’ defeat would result in its succession by the Palestinian Authority and the resumption of the peace process.
Netanyahu found himself wedged between critics who were themselves strange bedfellows. For his part, the Prime Minister’s considerations seemed governed by scepticism on all fronts. Concerning an ambitious military operation he apparently suspected it might cost more casualties than some predicted and yield fewer positive results than they assume. Concerning the PA, he is sceptical about its administrative abilities and also about its willingness to make the hard decisions essential for true peace. That is why Netanyahu’s emissaries arrived for repeated rounds of indirect ceasefire talks in Cairo ready to listen more than to propose.
Hamas, for its part, arrived at the talks under pressure to emerge with some kind of achievement that would justify its launch of a war that reportedly took more than 1,900 lives in Gaza, both military and civilian (impartial and professionally gathered figures have yet to emerge) and left many Gaza homes and other infrastructure damaged or destroyed. As of this writing, such an accomplishment seems elusive.
Hamas’ quest is to emerge from the fighting with Gaza’s southern flank, the one that borders Egypt, reopened, and with signed agreements permitting the construction of a seaport and airport.
This way, Hamas would be able to say it reopened Gaza, conveniently ignoring its own responsibility for Gaza’s isolation in the first place, thanks to Hamas’ frequent attacks from there on Israel and its collaboration with Egypt’s enemies in the Sinai desert.
As things currently stand, chances are actually good that Gaza’s border crossings will gradually open. However, this is only likely to occur amid an international effort to marginalise Hamas.
According to a German-British-French proposal, Gaza will be rebuilt under the auspices of an international body that will also be assigned with preventing the Strip’s military re-armament. At the same time, the Rafah border crossing into Egypt will be opened, and Palestinian Authority troops will be stationed there as well as in other places. Salary payments to Hamas’ 42,000 government employees will also be resumed.
Israel, for its part, reportedly agreed to contribute to such a dynamic by allowing Gaza’s fishermen to venture deeper into the Mediterranean. Another proposal in this context has been to create a shipping lane from Gaza to Cyprus, where merchandise and passengers will be checked by Europeans.
Such arrangements, should they eventuate, will be presented by Hamas as a victory, but few outside the movement will take them as such, even within Gaza. The decimation of Hamas’ munitions stockpiles, coupled with the loss of its military supply lines and the return to Gaza of its nemesis, Fatah, will constitute for Hamas a harsh setback.
This unfolding picture reflects not only the military blow Hamas has been dealt, but also a diplomatic environment that could hardly be more unfavourable for Palestinian Islamism.
True, there has been concern in Israel over the bout’s potential diplomatic fallout. As the fighting intensified and the number of Palestinian casualties rose, Israel was urged by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, US President Barack Obama and French President François Hollande and others to exercise more restraint, while the UN Human Rights Council said it would investigate Israel’s conduct.
All these are nothing Israel hasn’t faced before. Moreover, the IDF deployed jurists throughout its operations to verify that its targets are legitimate under international law.
Hamas’ international standing, by contrast, reflects a growing alarm worldwide with Islamism’s gains in recent years, from Nigeria’s Boko-Haram, Iraq and Syria’s Islamic State, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran’s Ayatollahs to Afghanistan’s Taliban and China’s Uighur miltants. Antagonistic though these varieties of Islamism may be to each other, they comprise a continuum when it comes to their intolerance of the rest of the world.
British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed this fear when he wrote in the Sunday Telegraph about Iraq’s Islamic State that if it is not fought, its terror might reach the streets of London. Cameron was voicing growing fears across Europe in the face of an increasingly brazen Sunni Islamism. Hamas is rightfully seen as part of that trend, an image it fostered for itself by its systematic targeting of Israeli civilians while hiding behind its own civilians.
Indeed, the European quest to marginalise Hamas appears genuine and looms as a strategic setback for Gaza’s leaders almost on par with the blows it was dealt by the IDF.
Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem’s Sultan’s Pool, thousands were flocking to its annual artists’ fair, even though the Cairo negotiators had yet to produce white smoke. Normalcy had yet to reach Gaza, but Israelis lost no time in re-embracing it.