When the ceasefire took effect last night Palestinians in Gaza celebrated while Israeli news shows were full of vehement criticism from both the left and the right of the way the war was ended for Israel. The Palestinians in the streets appear to be celebrating the fact that Hamas kept shooting rockets despite the Israeli strikes, the missiles fired at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and the support demonstrated during the war by Egypt, Turkey and several other states for Gaza in general and Hamas in particular.
The reaction on the Israeli side isn’t nearly as jubilant. There is no memorable victory shot and there are many suspicions about how long the cease-fire will last. Unlike Hamas’ smiling Khaled Meshaal, the Israeli ruling troika of Bibi, Barak and Liberman looked uncomfortable at the press conference declaring the cease-fire while many Israelis, including many of their supporters, were hoping for a knockout blow against Hamas despite the very limited initial objectives presented for the war by the Israeli leadership. The critical tone of Israeli politicians on the news shows also isn’t very hard to explain. The elections are coming up and each of the multitude of party leaders is playing up the differences between themselves and the current government.
Let’s analyze the Hamas “victories”.
- 1) Hamas has claimed victory on the basis of the claim that it was an Israeli objective to destroy the infrastructure of Hamas and of Gaza and that Israel failed on this score. This sounds good in theory, except the Israeli leadership from day one declared very limited objectives and the destruction of Hamas and Gaza were never among them. On the other hand it is pretty likely that both Hamas and Gaza sustained quite serious structural damage that will take a lot of time and money to rebuild, and attempts to rebuild will likely require coordination with Israel to allow the entrance of large amounts of construction materials and equipment. The ruins left behind by this war are not likely to go unnoticed by the population once the initial euphoria of the cease-fire wears off.
- 2) Hamas has declared that it has forced Israeli concessions on lifting the blockade, opening border crossings, not operating on the Gaza side of the security barrier and a full range of other issues. The only problem with this claim is that such concessions are nowhere to be found in the one-page document that Israel and Hamas agreed to before declaring the cease-fire. The document is explicit in obligating both sides to refrain from attacks on the other, but it leaves all other issues to future negotiation and Hamas has minimal leverage once it commits to ending violence. Israel has not agreed to anything (at least in writing) other than an end to attacks and in future negotiations one would suppose it could expect a quid pro quo from Hamas or Egypt or the US for any concessions that it does make.
- 3) Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched missiles at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Most of the long-range missiles were destroyed on the ground. Of the ones that were launched many were intercepted or landed in unpopulated areas. The missiles that did hit did not do a lot of damage and had little effect in changing Israeli attitudes regarding the war, which suggests that they are somewhat ineffective in changing any strategic equations.
- 4) Hamas continued firing rockets at Israel all the way up until the ceasefire was declared despite Israeli strikes. This achievement, probably made easier by hiding launchers in heavily populated areas which Israel avoided targeting, certainly suggests that Hamas has had a lot of success in importing all the components and knowledge needed to build an underground network of tunnels and other infrastructure that can survive persistent Israeli strikes and keep operating. This is indeed an impressive display of Hamas’ capabilities. However, this achievement is undermined by the success of the Iron Dome system. While not 100% effective, Iron Dome has demonstrated that a rocket defense system can be built that can deal relatively effectively with rapid barrages of incoming rockets and short-range missiles. It is safe to assume that the system will be expanded and improved over the next few years so that in a future conflict Israel will have more batteries and the effectiveness of the entire system is likely to be higher due to upgrades. This turns Hamas’ rocket and missile arsenal into a much less potent threat and fundamentally puts into question the strategy of turning Gaza into a rocket base. The same problem applies to Hezbollah’s strategy of stockpiling rockets and missiles in Lebanon.
- 5) I’ve seen the argument made that Hamas has achieved international support and legitimacy as a result of this war due to the stream of Arab and Muslims visitors to Gaza during the war. This isn’t really a credible argument because earlier this year both Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Meshaal toured the countries that supported Hamas in this conflict. For example, Khaled Meshaal met President Mursi of Egypt in Cairo on July 22nd. He visited Ankara on March 16th to meet Turkish President Erdogan. Ismail Haniyeh visited both Turkey and Egypt this year, and also paid a visit to Tunisia on January 5th. The Emir of Qatar came to Gaza in a widely covered visit on October 23rd. What has happened is that Hamas has broken out of its political containment as a result of the changes taking place in the region, but that has very little to do with the outcome of this war. What has been more interesting to watch has been how little actual practical support Hamas got from any of its allies and how reliant Hamas has gotten on the good graces of Qatar, Turkey and Egypt, which despite the tensions they might have with Israel, are all in the American orbit. It is then not a surprise that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed up to mediate the cease-fire given American influence on all sides. It will be interesting to see what impact these changes will have on Hamas, but they are very likely to impose some very significant constraints on Hamas’ freedom of action.
What has Israel achieved?
- 1) Israeli objectives at the beginning of the war were to stop the rocket fire for a long period of time and to reestablish an element of deterrence vis-a-vis the Palestinian factions in Gaza. It is too early to judge whether this has been achieved, but it should be pointed out that Hamas has been forced into a ceasefire and a commitment was made to Egypt by all Palestinian factions to not attack Israel while at present it does not appear that any concessions were made on the Israeli side. Even if some concessions on the part of Israel are eventually made, no fundamental changes are on the menu. Despite the early jubilation in Gaza it seems unlikely that in the near future Hamas will forget the assassination of its top military man or will be able to ignore the piles of rubble that used to be Gaza’s infrastructure. This might cause it to think twice before launching the next round of hostilities.
- 2) For the first time in years outside the reflexive anti-Israel countries and circles Israel achieved wall-to-wall support for its military operation and its war objectives. This war was an effective demonstration that limited and easily justifiable war objectives combined with an effective public relations campaign and a commitment to minimizing civilian casualties result in Israel getting a fair hearing for its actions. This is important because it undermines the narrative that suggests that all Israeli military operations are always doomed to be public relations disasters. Also, it appears that support for Israeli actions is not very tightly linked to the current state of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations or the lack thereof. Additionally it should be pointed out that the alliance with the United States is strong and Obama backed Israel in this conflict 100%. There may be a political price to be paid later to this support, but this was a very strong reassurance that the support of this administration for Israel is rock solid.
- 3) The war also demonstrated decisively that the “new” Middle East is not terribly different from the old Middle East. The tone might have changed on the part of some of the actors but the overall picture is not very different. The peace treaty with Egypt is stable, the government is rational and remains in the American orbit, and Cairo is still the address for the mediation of disputes between Israel and Hamas as it was in 2008. It might be too optimistic to argue that the current regional configuration is beneficial to Israel, but the possibility is there that Hamas will be forced to significantly moderate its positions given who its new friends are.
- 4) Iran seems to have been largely marginalized in this conflict. While the head of Islamic Jihad admitted receiving Iranian arms and cash, he was very quick to fall into line in Cairo and let Hamas take the lead on all issues. This would suggest that Islamic Jihad is still a relatively weak actor and it is somewhat constrained in future action by both Hamas and Egypt. With Hamas firmly in the Egyptian orbit and Islamic Jihad relatively weak and with both groups having used up some portion of their rocket and missile inventories, they are far less likely to participate in any conflagration involving Israel and Iran. The success of Iron Dome also undermines Iran’s deterrence by putting in question the value Hezbollah’s rocket and missile stockpile.
- 5) Israel’s home front has demonstrated impressive resilience and the political parties a unified front in the face of a war fought on the eve of an election. Now that the elections are back on the agenda this is likely to be quickly replaced with acrimony but the display of resilience and unity in themselves are something that will have to be taken into account by Israel’s adversaries.
Conclusion – Hamas achieved nothing. Israel achieved objectives.
Any rational analysis leads one to conclude that this round of fighting ended with an Israeli victory in that Israel was the one that managed to achieve its objectives while paying a relatively low price in the process. There is the ever present chance that this cease-fire will collapse and everything written above is liable to be discarded when it does. Nonetheless, as it stands now the current situation is fundamentally superior to the situation that reigned in south Israel for the past few years. As such, the celebrations in Gaza will be short-lived, but hopefully as a result of this operation the quiet will last for a while.