There should be no doubt that Israel achieved the narrow military objectives it set for its army when it commenced “Operation Pillar of Cloud,” its latest assault on Gaza in mid-November. The operation began with the assassination of Hamas commander Ahmed al-Jabari on Nov. 14 and ended with a ceasefire agreement Nov. 21.
When the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced its assault, its stated goal was protecting Israeli civilians by crippling the “terrorist infrastructure” of armed Palestinian groups like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Specifically, the Israeli air force combed the densely populated Gaza Strip for rocket launch sites and top-level militants firing projectiles into Israel. A week into the operation, the IDF claimed to have hit 1,500 targets.
It’s clear that one of the most powerful militaries in the world, armed with high-tech U.S. weaponry ranging from F16 jets to Apache helicopters, struck most of its targets. And when the ceasefire agreement was reached, Israeli leaders sounded triumphant. “We hit their senior commanders, we destroyed thousands of rockets which were aimed towards the south and most of those aimed towards central Israel, and we crushed Hamas’ control facilities,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement announcing the ceasefire.
But Israel will come out of this assault the loser, no matter how many targets it hit. It’s a reminder that the Israel-Palestine conflict will not be won militarily; the only lasting solution will be political.
Israel’s image is tarnished by the high civilian death toll; the country’s weakened regional position has been exposed; and Hamas will survive another day, boosted by having resisted the might of the Israeli military, despite dissent against its authoritarian rule. This Pyrrhic victory is a replay of Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza in 2008–09, dubbed “Operation Cast Lead.”
“Netanyahu perhaps gained domestically by demonstrating that he’s willing to go to war very aggressively,” said human rights attorney and activist Noura Erakat in a phone interview, but “Israel, on the whole, has lost a lot. And I can only say this by looking at how the media has responded.... During Operation Cast Lead there was some sort of sympathy that Israel had to do something about the rocket fire. It falls on deaf ears when Israel does it again four years later. And when it becomes evident to many that Israel’s strategy is to pummel Palestinian society every four years and not achieve long-term solutions, then...I think Israel has lost on this level.”
Even on a strictly military level, Israel’s massive assault on Hamas — an easy feat considering the vast power disparity between the two sides — will not radically change the status quo that has existed since the Islamist movement won control of Gaza in 2007. After the 22-day operation in 2008–09, Israel claimed victory, but a year later, Israel was telling U.S. officials it was worried that Hamas was re-arming.
“In Israel, they talk of ‘mowing the lawn’ in Gaza, a callous idiom used to refer to the periodic bombardment of a besieged territory in the hopes of reducing the capacity of militant groups every few years,” Yousef Munayyer of the Palestine Center pointed out in the New Yorker. “Each time they ‘mow,’ however, they sow seeds of hatred for the next generation. How successful, morally or militarily, is a war whose repetition is planned?”
Beyond the military question is Israel’s international reputation coming out of this assault. The Israeli government’s strenuous efforts to brand the country as liberal and democratic, already undermined by the continued occupation and human rights abuses, will be set back further by the death toll in Gaza. In eight days of pounding Gaza, an estimated 156 Palestinians died — including 103 civilians, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Thirty-three children and 13 women were killed and almost 1,000 were injured, virtually all civilians.
Perhaps the most striking case is the killing of the al-Dalou family. Twelve members of the same family were wiped out by an Israeli air strike that the military says was meant for the head of Hamas’ rocket-launching unit. As Haaretz reporter Avi Issacharoff noted, “Just as the pictures showing the results of the Israeli bombing of Kafr Qana in July 2006 changed the face of the Second Lebanon War and turned world public opinion against the Israeli operation, in the same way the bombardment of the house in Gaza and the killing of all 12 of its residents is liable to elicit Arab, European and, above all, American pressure on Israel to stop the aerial attacks immediately.”
The United States has blocked efforts to hold Israel accountable for war crimes.
Last month’s assault was also the first major test of how the Arab uprisings have changed Israel’s position in the region. While the Israeli nightmare of an “Islamist winter” with dire consequences for the state seems overblown, countries in the new Middle East did flex their muscles, albeit for their own interests. Egypt and Tunisia, longtime U.S. allies in the midst of a revolutionary process that has brought to power Islamists who are more sympathetic to Hamas, sent high-level delegations to Gaza to express solidarity. Turkey’s prime minister, still angry over Israel’s 2010 killing of nine Turks on board a Gaza aid flotilla, called Israel a “terrorist state.”
These were powerful symbols of a new Middle East, though the rhetoric never turned into drastic action. Egypt has been navigating carefully between Israel and the United States on one side and Hamas on the other. Compounding Egypt’s predicament was its desire for regional stability to help repair its reeling economy. But Egypt did garner renewed prestige by using its contacts with Hamas to help broker the ceasefire agreement and acting as the guarantor.
Finally, there’s the fact that Hamas, while militarily weakened, emerged from Israel’s assault strengthened politically. They were sought out by Arab leaders during the assault. And the ceasefire agreement signed between Hamas and Israel states that the crippling economic closure of Gaza will be loosened and that Israeli assassinations of Hamas leaders would cease, though it remains to be seen whether the blockade is permanently eased.
Although Israel continues to use Hamas’ rule in Gaza as evidence that it has “no partner for peace,” in the long run, Hamas will reap the dividends of its rational and nimble position post-Arab Spring. Hamas’ leadership has thrown in its lot with the revolutionary wave sweeping the Arab world, abandoning Syria as its main patron.
And Palestinians in the West Bank are now looking to Hamas with a new eye. Hamas demonstrates an ever stronger contrast with Mahmoud Abbas, the head of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. Abbas,whose regime depends on U.S. and European financial support and has suppressed Hamas’ activities in the West Bank, went to the United Nations in November to push for Palestine to be accepted as a “non-member” state. Abbas was successful in his bid, and Hamas backed his efforts as part of a newfound push to reconcile the rival Palestinian factions.
But the success of the U.N. bid will likely not change anything on the ground, similar to how last year’s U.N. bid failed because the United States blocked the effort. And once that becomes more apparent on the ground in the West Bank, Hamas’ model of armed resistance will look more enticing. “Hamas has provided a model, albeit a painful one, of how you get Israel to the table. Abu Mazen [the nickname for Abbas] who offers everything, meets with no one,” wrote Mark Perry, a historian and former advisor to Yasir Arafat who has had extensive contacts with Hamas, in an email. “Ironically, the biggest loss Israel suffered is they proved to the world that the only time they’ll talk to a Palestinian group is when they feel pain.”
Israel’s assault on Gaza has ended, and the status quo is back. Israel remains a powerful state, but its position in the region is changing. Dealing with a changed Middle East and a reinvigorated Hamas is no victory for Israel.
A version of this article was originally published on Alternet.org.