Voice

On Israel's Defeat in Gaza

Hamas will dig out from under the rubble and the world will remember the image of four boys killed on a beach.

There is no doubt that Israeli leaders feel justified in their actions in Gaza. Polls show that over nine out of 10 Israelis supported the recent war. Hamas is a very bad actor. Israel has every right to defend itself.

Yet, whenever this most recent conflict is seen to be over, it will not be remembered for the security logic behind it or the speeches justifying it. Nor will it be remembered for the tactical gains that Israel may have achieved. No, the lasting image this war will leave the world is of four boys on a beach, playing soccer and then running for their lives, hurtled from a carefree moment of childhood to oblivion in the blink of an eye.

There is no Iron Dome that can protect Israel from images like that. There is no Iron Dome that can undo the images of suffering and destruction burned into our memories or justify away the damage to Israel's legitimacy that comes from such wanton slaughter. Most importantly, the Iron Dome protects Israel only from the damage others try to inflict upon it; it cannot save the country from the damage it does to itself.

Let's accept for a moment every single argument made by the Israeli leadership for their actions in Gaza: Missile attacks are intolerable. Kidnapping and killing Israeli boys is a horror. Hamas is a terrorist group. It uses human shields to protect its munitions and its fighters. It actively invites Israeli attacks that inevitably wreak havoc upon innocent Palestinians. Every country has a right to defend itself. Other countries have done worse to protect the security of their citizens. It is easy to accept all these things. They are all true.

Also, let's set aside the counterarguments. Set aside the reality that this war was started as much as response to Israeli government anger over the Palestinian unity government as it was to address the security concerns above. Set aside that it was in part an emotional response to the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens as it was to missile attacks. Set aside that these missile attacks launched from Hamas-controlled Gaza have inflicted relatively limited damage since they started over a decade ago and that Israel's response to these attacks has been -- by any measure -- disproportionate. These things may also be true, but there are counterarguments to the counterarguments.

If you were an Israeli and you had lost one relative, or watched your child huddle in a shelter through even just one missile attack, your concern would be the safety of your family. Further, it would be impossible to look at the threat posed by any individual attack or any series of attacks as being isolated or limited; greater risks still loomed. As Jeffrey Goldberg points out in his well-argued and thoughtful piece, "What Would Hamas Do If It Could Do Whatever It Wanted?" it is a fact that Hamas lists among its stated goals the destruction not only of Israel but of all Jews.

And of course these counterarguments to the counterarguments are no less compelling than those of Gazans who feel that blockading 1.8 million people in a bleak urban environment is oppressive, and who have every right to demand the freedom, dignity, and personal security they are not receiving -- people who rightly feel that no matter what Hamas's tactics, there is nothing that justifies the killing of their children, not to mention their innocent sisters, brothers, mothers, and fathers.

That is the horrible reality of this situation. With an open mind, it is easy to see the perspectives of both sides. With an open heart, it is easy to understand the fear and the heartbreak and the impulse for survival that have pushed both groups to the desperate acts they have committed.

But if, in committing this show of egregious force, Israel's primary goal was to enhance its security, it likely achieved only near-term gains on that front. Hamas remains. The populace from which it recruits is inflamed. Its global funders in faraway places like Qatar remain safe and intact and no less inclined to write checks. Indeed, they have gained standing through this conflict and been invited to join the table in diplomatic exchanges where, had they not been funders of terrorism, they would have had no place.

If Israel's goal was to delegitimize Hamas, whatever it achieved during these last three weeks came at the expense of its own reputation. No matter how many articulate, pommy-accented spokespeople Israel rolls out to discuss human shields, they are trumped by the images of dead and wounded women and children, the stories of displaced families, the ground truth of an advanced, technologically sophisticated, militarily powerful nation laying waste to a land it occupies in order to root out a small cadre of fighters who pose little strategic threat to it. In short, Israel was waging a military action against an adversary that was waging a political campaign and thus adopted the wrong tactics and measured their progress by the wrong metrics. In fact, there is no denying that the Israeli tactics (it seems very unlikely there was any real strategizing going on) in this war do not pass the most basic tests available by which to assess them, those of morality, proportionality, and effectiveness.

Strategically, this is about neither missiles nor tunnels. It is, at its heart, like most aspects of Israel's long struggle with the Palestinians, about the terms by which the people of Palestine will get the state that is theirs by every right and precept of international law and decency. Therefore, Israel's action has to be assessed in terms of whether or not it will help or hurt its own standing in that negotiation, in which both sides participate by virtue of their daily actions whether there's a formal negotiating table in place or not. And for all the reasons cited above, it can only hurt. Further, it must be asked whether the bloodshed in Gaza will make it more or less likely that the world will embrace Palestinian efforts to claim independence with or without Israeli cooperation. What is more, even if Hamas is weakened by the actions of the past few weeks, and the world (including perhaps Hamas) realizes the benefits of allowing the Palestinian Authority's current leaders to take the lead on behalf of the Palestinian people, that transfer to a more legitimate leadership takes away one of Israel's favorite excuses for not making progress toward an agreement. Absent Hamas and absent the divisions it brought, you have a more unified and internationally acceptable Palestinian regime.

The situation on the ground in Gaza in the wake of the violence of this past month does not help much to identify a winner or a loser from this knot of absolutes and moral ambiguities, rights and violations, human needs and political agendas. Israel can rightly claim to have inflicted great damage on Hamas, destroying rockets and tunnel complexes and exposing their cowardly and reckless tactics for what they are. Hamas can claim to have won simply because they survived and will live to fight another day, in that instance with a new army of recruits inflamed into action by this last war.

Such claims aside, the reality is that it is almost certainly more true that both sides lost than it is that either won. Israel's standing internationally is further damaged, as is whatever slight credibility Hamas may have had as an advocate for the Palestinian people. It will cost billions to rebuild Gaza. The economic crater created by the conflict will harm both sides.

In the end, Israel lost in large part because despite its massive military and resource and advantages and Palestinian poverty and the comparative weakness of Hamas's fighters, the Palestinians have one secret weapon that, like the images and narrative of the past conflict, trumps the Iron Dome. They have the clock on their side. With each day their population grows as does the injustice under which they suffer. With each day Israel's arguments for delaying the establishment of that state grow weaker.

But for all the care we may and should give to looking at such a crisis in a balanced way, at the end of the day, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that one side actually did come out of this the loser. That is because when the final results and long-term implications of those results are tallied up, they are likely to suggest Israel both won less and lost more than did the Palestinian people.

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COLUMN

Who Won the Gaza War?

Turns out the biggest winner wasn’t even fighting.

When elephants fight, the old African proverb intones, it is the grass that suffers.

I think we can pretty well determine now who the big loser was in the third Gaza war: the 1.8 million Palestinians of Gaza (53 percent of whom are under the age of 18). It will take years to rebuild the ruined landscape of the Gaza Strip. Factor in the 1,800 innocents and combatants killed, the thousands wounded, the tens of thousands displaced, and the damage to homes and infrastructure, and I think it's a safe bet to conclude that Gazans lost.

But who won? The answer to that will only become clear in the weeks ahead. Will there be a durable peace agreement that brings greater economic prosperity to Gaza; creates greater security for Israel, even some form of limited demilitarization; and restores some measure of authority in Gaza to Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority (PA) -- real or imagined? 

It's still too early to say, but for now, here's how I'd score the performance of the five major parties to this crisis: Israel, Hamas, the PA, Egypt, and the United States.

Israel: B+

On a tactical level, the Israelis mowed the grass (again). And this time they cut it pretty sharply. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) estimates that in addition to the 900 Hamas fighters killed in action, it destroyed 3,000 rockets. Hamas launched 3,300 without great effect; and 3,000 remain. Thirty-two known tunnels were destroyed, although the IDF admits that nine of the 12 exit shafts leading into Israel were not picked up by intelligence at the time the conflict started. Iron Dome worked to an extraordinary degree; there were only three Israeli civilian casualties, minimal economic damage, and a home front that remained resilient and energized. Moreover, Egypt remained a constant companion, while the rest of the Arab world basically held Israel's coat while it rolled up its sleeves and pummeled Hamas. Finally, there is a growing support for the idea of "demilitarizing" the Gaza Strip, an action that two months ago would have never been taken seriously.

On the negative side of the ledger, Israel's international image was blackened and there was tension in relations with the United States -- but hardly anything that could have been described as real pressure. The key dynamic that will sustain Israel's win is whether a cease-fire leads to durable arrangements that fundamentally weaken Hamas. If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can say that he broke Hamas's back as Ariel Sharon broke the back of suicide terrorism in the Second Intifada, he'll have accomplished something -- at least among a domestic audience. With an emboldened right-wing, Netanyahu's popularity and political future may depend on it, but it is going to be difficult to achieve.

Hamas: C-

That Hamas accepted a cease-fire that essentially offered the same terms it had rejected three weeks earlier strongly suggests an organization that has suffered a bad defeat. But remember: This is an asymmetric conflict in Palestine, where politics, bluster, fantasy, and reality mix seamlessly. Hamas won something merely by not being destroyed outright. Its military leadership remains intact; it was able to launch rockets into Israel right up until the cease-fire; it temporarily forced Ben Gurion Airport to close; it managed to kill six times the number of IDF soldiers as in the two previous rounds combined; and it rattled Israel's nerves and security by launching several tunnel-infiltration operations during the confrontations. Palestinians won the hearts and minds game. Hamas was viewed as the go-to party, leading the resistance against Israel while the PA sat on the sidelines. Indeed, it's quite remarkable that for the first time, Hamas now has a seat at the negotiating table in Cairo as part of the so-called unity government.

Hamas's problem isn't the last four weeks -- it's what lies ahead. It is badly isolated in the Arab world; in particular, both dependent on and squeezed by Egypt. More than that, it must find a way to justify, explain, and compensate Gazans for the painful reality that its rockets courted such death and devastation. It has raised high expectations -- ending the blockade and siege -- that it alone cannot meet. Hamas cannot govern Gaza without help; it needs both the Palestinian Authority and Egypt; and this means it will enter negotiations in a weakened position. The question is: How much influence is it prepared to concede to the PA and what kind of restrictions on its activities are acceptable? For an organization run by a diehard military wing, that won't be easy.

The Palestinian Authority: C+

Once again, it was Hamas that controlled the action, not Abbas. In fact, Hamas succeeded -- at least temporarily -- in unifying Palestinian ranks. If Abbas believes that Hamas will just roll over, having done the fighting in Gaza, and allow Fatah to take over the Strip, he's not thinking clearly. Still, Abbas is likely to benefit from the state of affairs. There's a growing constellation of forces gathering against Hamas -- the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Jordan -- who will push to empower Abbas at Hamas's expense. Israel will be crucial in this regard. Assuming Netanyahu is now prepared to do something he's been reluctant to do -- bet on Abbas -- Fatah's gains could be quite substantial. And now that the game has shifted from confrontation to diplomacy, Abbas should fare better. But in the end, Abbas's success depends on the future of the now defunct Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Betting on that now, however, is facing very long odds.

Egypt: A-

Egypt's new government under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi actually comes out of this round faring better than anyone else -- in part, because it was only semi-invested. The Egyptians had no illusions about this conflict. They wanted to cut Hamas down to size, keep the Qataris and the Turks out of the equation, and marginalize U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, too, for that matter. Indeed, it was Egypt that produced what appears to be the successful cease-fire. And Cairo is now the venue for the follow-on negotiations at a longer-term agreement. Egypt once again demonstrated its centrality in Arab-Israeli politics by maintaining good ties with Netanyahu and the PA. Even Hamas understands that it needs Cairo's assistance to maintain control of Gaza. That said, if talks in Cairo falter and Gaza spirals back into conflict, Egypt could lose some prestige. But Sisi still will have bolstered key regional ties with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and with the Israelis. And a successful outcome might improve delicate relations with Washington, too.

The United States: C

Right now, Washington comes out of the Gaza conflict looking pretty weak and feckless. Kerry understandably -- but wrongly -- believed the time was right for two earlier attempts to make a cease-fire deal. It wasn't. But in attempting to stem the conflict early, he managed to get himself into a situation where bringing the Qataris and Turks into the game alienated the Israelis -- who in turn blasted him, though perhaps unfairly. President Barack Obama's concern over civilian casualties won't do much to deepen the shattered confidence and trust between him and Netanyahu. And a working relationship that's functional will be needed if Kerry's hope to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is to stand a chance in the less than 1,000 days that remain in his tenure. This, of course, could change if Washington manages to play an effective role in facilitating or brokering a durable set of post cease-fire arrangements or somehow manages to push the Palestinian Authority back to the peace table. But the fact remains that the last four weeks haven't been one of America's finest moments in Middle East diplomacy.

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