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gaza war

Israel and Hamas Won, So Who Lost?


he spectacle of tanks back from the battlefield with the blue and white Star of David flapping from their turrets, the faces of the young soldiers, their body language—all leave no doubt concerning Israel's victory. If we compare this pullback from Gaza with the one from Lebanon over two years past, there is no need for extensive commentary: Israel has retrieved the pride and reputation of its army, which had been badly damaged by that other war in the north. The world has been reminded that the Middle East contains but a single military power worthy of the name. Deterrent capability, the magical force that is supposed to protect Israel from its enemies, has returned in full strength. Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, who promised to correct his earlier failures in accordance with the findings of the Winograd Inquiry, has indeed come through.

The dry statistics show the same picture. The ratio of death in the Gaza operation was 1:100! The number of Palestinian losses, 1300 including 300 children, the flattened neighborhoods, the destroyed institutions, are just the immediately visible features of an enormous humanitarian catastrophe. Unlike Israel's cities in the south, Gaza does not have a system of sirens or warnings. There is no Palestinian Homefront Command. There are no "secure rooms" in the buildings, rather hovels with tin roofs. Hamas declared that when Israeli ground forces entered the built-up areas, the Resistance would "turn Gaza into the army's graveyard," breaking its morale. This did not happen. The tanks avoided the booby-trapped roads, moving instead through rows of houses while shaving them down—a tactic to which Hamas had no answer.

However, for the sake of a more balanced picture, we shall need to turn the page. The new page is also written from right to left, but in Arabic. Here we read that Israel failed in all its endeavors. On every platform, from the rubble of Gaza to Damascus and Qatar, the Hamas leaders declare that the victory was theirs. The chairperson, Khaled Mashel, declared that "despite the desire to liquidate it, Hamas has grown stronger and is now in every household…the Gaza War was the first in which our people proved victorious on its own land (Asharq Alawsat, January 22, 2009)." According to this view, Israel's failure to stop the rockets, along with the growth in support for Hamas, amount to victory. The details of what happened on the battlefield have no importance in Hamas's eyes. The organization admits the enemy's military superiority, but what matters for it is the fact that it stayed in power.

Israel's purpose was not to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza or liquidate the movement. Nor did it want to re-occupy the strip. Its goal was to reduce the motivation of Hamas to attack Israel, even if the capacity exists. From Hamas's standpoint, the goals that Israel set itself match the reality on the ground, confirming the view that Hamas is the only factor capable of ruling Gaza. For reasons of blood and money, Israel cannot afford to do so, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) under Abu Mazen is too weak.

Egypt is central to the conflict between Israel and Hamas. This terrible war began to unfold from the moment that the talks between Hamas and the PA, under Egypt's aegis, ground to a halt. At that time Hamas refused to accept an Egyptian document which demanded, as a precondition for opening the border at Rafah, the establishment of an internally united Palestinian government. The document included a requirement that Hamas recognize the PA under Abu Mazen as representing the people. The Cairo Agreement, which had been the basis for a six-month tahdiyya (calm) between Israel and Hamas, was supposed to reconcile the Palestinians, as well as secure the release of the imprisoned Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. Hamas, for its part, was slated to accept, informally, the framework of the Oslo Accords.

Hamas viewed the Egyptian proposal as a strategic threat that would compel it to give up armed struggle. It decided, instead, to end the tahdiyya. The renewal of rocket attacks on Israel was intended to alter the framework of the proposal, above all by changing the mediator from Egypt to Qatar. Hamas aimed to achieve an agreement along the lines of that reached in Doha, Qatar, by the Lebanese factions after the last war; this granted Hezbollah legitimacy as an armed force and paved the way for its joining a national-unity government. The dream of a second Doha Agreement stood behind unprecedented verbal onslaughts by Hamas against Egypt, accusing it of imposing closure on Gaza in collaboration with Israel.

The Arab world is split in two. On one side stand Qatar, Syria, Iran and Hamas, on the other, the moderate states headed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Qatar attempted to hold an Arab summit at Doha, but Egypt torpedoed it. Instead, there was a limited meeting of the radical axis, including Hamas, President Ahmadinejad of Iran, and President Assad of Syria. The PA, Egypt and Saudi Arabia severely criticized this Doha assembly. Egypt lined up the UN Security Council, Europe and the US behind the moderate Arab countries. The balance of forces clearly lay with the latter. This fact, combined with Israeli military pressure, had its effect: Hamas returned to Cairo in order to reach a new cease-fire agreement.

Behind the declarations of victory

The reality on the ground is naturally very different from the proclamations of the leaders. In a speech made during the war, Khaled Mashel made clear what he expected when the smoke died down: "For three years they've attempted to eliminate Hamas by closing the crossings, and that's quite enough. The time has come to negotiate with Hamas, which got its legitimacy in the elections." The truth, however, is that Israel already negotiates with Hamas via Egypt. The Egyptians themselves declare Hamas to be legitimate. Their criticism stems not from its existence, rather from the fact that it threw the PA out of Gaza. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has declared his readiness to negotiate with Hamas in the framework of a Palestinian national-unity government. The new American president, Barack Obama, will soon have to decide whether to continue cold-shouldering Hamas, as his predecessor did, or to join Sarkozy in supporting a unity government (NY Times January 22, 2009).

The political processes that are now taking place in the open indicate that the present cease fire, like the previous tahdiyya, will include a political arrangement between Hamas and the PA. This time, following the war, each side has learned its limitations. The Egyptian proposal promises that that Rafah Crossing will be opened only with the participation of Abu Mazen's PA. The Arab states on the one hand, and the European Union on the other, have announced that the money for Gaza's restoration will be given to the PA, not to Hamas. These two major levers, today prying at Hamas, seek to force it into serious talks with Abu Mazen toward establishing a unity government. If Hamas wants to preserve its achievements of recent years, it will have to become more flexible and put its Resistance on hold.

Israel, for its part, shows signs of favoring internal Palestinian reconciliation. For the first time it has indicated readiness to release a large number of Hamas prisoners in return for release of Gilad Shalit. Take, for instance, this declaration by Foreign Secretary Tzippi Livni: "As long as Gilad Shalit remains in the hands of Hamas, there is no way to solve the crisis in the Gaza Strip." In other words, a prisoner exchange will be part of the overall solution to the present crisis. The Israeli thirst for revenge over Shalit's capture has been slaked, it would seem, by the killing of Gazan women and children. Thus a consensus has taken shape, enabling the government to free the hundreds of prisoners "with blood on their hands" whom Hamas demands. This time Abu Mazen will not stand in the way, and Hamas's big achievement—the prisoner release—will diminish the mourning somewhat and help the organization to reconcile with Fatah, which it ejected from Gaza in disgrace.

So who lost, after all?

There are still plenty of missing pieces in the complex regional puzzle, so it isn't clear whether the Egyptian proposal will work. If Iran and Syria arrive at an understanding with the new American administration, perhaps Khaled Mashel will soften his position toward Abu Mazen and Israel. However, what if the Right comes to power, as seems likely, in the upcoming Israeli elections? Ehud Olmert, Tzippi Livni and Ehud Barak, who talk enthusiastically about a peace agreement, have just carried out a war of devastation that has only served to strengthen the Right. The Israeli public has concluded from the war that Hamas understands no language but force, that talks are a waste of time, and that Binyamin Netanyahu is the man to lead the country. While the world expects more flexibility from the Arab side, the Israeli side digs in. Netanyahu's card, in the election campaign, is non-recognition of Hamas and postponement of all negotiations to an indefinite future. Israel may have won in Gaza, but the centrist Kedima party, as well as Labor, have shot themselves in the foot.

Another impediment to an agreement between Hamas and Fatah, or for that matter between the Palestinians and Israel, is Abu Mazen's weakness. The recent war has shorn him of any remaining credibility. He is seen by his people as one who lent his hand to the slaughter in Gaza, for he spoke explicitly against Hamas while his forces in the West Bank cut down every expression of resistance to Israel. One article in the Egyptian document proposes early elections to the Palestinian parliament and the presidency. There is a real chance that Hamas will take both. What then? How will the new Israeli government cope with such a reality? These difficult questions show the folly of the recent war, which went contrary to plan: it weakened both the Israeli leadership and Abu Mazen, while strengthening Hamas and Israel's right wing.

But the first great loser in this war has been the Palestinian people. The killing of hundreds of helpless citizens, along with the massive destruction in property, only multiplied the chaos that has pervaded the Gaza Strip since the Oslo Accords. The Palestinian people is the victim not only of Israeli murderousness, but also of its power-greedy leaders. The Fatah regime, corrupt to the core and collaborating with the Occupation, lost the people's trust. On the other side, Hamas offers Palestinians an extremist religious program, exposing them to the kind of tragedy that befell them in this war. On the one hand, then, we have aimless negotiations, and on the other, hopeless resistance. Together these have bred internal schism, blockade, unemployment, innumerable victims and untold suffering. The struggle between Fatah and Hamas has been disastrous for the Palestinian people. It is time these organizations made way for a new alternative leadership, free from the Iranian or Saudi axis, one that will put the needs of the people first, taking into account the balance of forces in the Arab world and elsewhere.

The other big loser is the people of Israel, intoxicated with victory. The media devoted its full power to nurturing the consensus, covering the war with unprecedented bias. The interviewed soldiers, flushed with fresh kills, expressed regret that the fighting was over. The people of Israel was taught once again to hate the Arabs, to suspect them, fear them. Once again it was led down a path by its leaders. Some of these were the very leaders who had touted the Oslo Accords as peace accords while perpetuating the Occupation, expanding the settlements, and transforming Palestinian cities into prisons. Today, when the truth is clear to all—that a solution requires return to the 1967 borders—Olmert, Barak and Netanyahu do all they can to shirk an agreement. The Israeli leadership refuses to negotiate about East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights. It continues to finance the settlers. The ineluctable result of this policy will be more blood, without justification, point or aim.

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