Has Hamas been Humbled?

Fighting ends but no closure in third Gaza war

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19 ספ' 2014 (כל היום)
Has Hamas been Humbled?

After 50 days of hostilities and a dozen failed truces, there was something different about ceasefire number 13. As Gazans flooded the streets to set off fireworks and celebrate 'victory' in this summer's war with Israel, uniformed Hamas gunmen also came out of hiding to fire their weapons into the air.

This sight had been missing in all the earlier pauses in fighting. From day one of this third Hamas rocket war with Israel in the past six years, Hamas fighters had mysteriously disappeared from view. Many hunkered away in the vast honeycomb of terror tunnels underneath Gaza's urban sprawl, while others shed their fatigues to blend in with the civilian population, all to avoid detection by the dozens of Israeli 'eyes' hovering overhead.

As an uneasy calm settled over the land in late August, both sides claimed to have come out on top. But it may take some time to figure out who really won - if anyone.

After getting drawn into eerily similar conflicts with Hamas in 2009 and 2012, Israeli leaders faced a stark choice this time. They could either launch another limited incursion into Gaza and perhaps face yet another escalation of rocket fire a couple years down the road - referred to in the IDF as the 'mowing the grass' option. Or the Israeli army could retake Gaza and forcibly uproot the terror infrastructure like in the West Bank in 2002, but at unbearably high human and diplomatic costs.

With the Iron Dome system once again neutralizing the rocket threat on Israel's civilian heartland, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu did send troops into Gaza but with a narrow mission - to destroy the newly-uncovered network of attack tunnels running under the border to threaten nearby Israeli communities. Even though IDF casualties began mounting, the country was still solidly behind the security cabinet's moves in 'Operation Protective Edge' up to this point.

Yet when these ground forces finished the task and were quickly withdrawn, Hamas rocket fire persisted for another month and the broad Israeli support for Netanyahu steadily evaporated. By the end, many Israelis left-and-right questioned whether the prolonged and inconclusive battle with Hamas had damaged Israel's deterrence against even greater regional foes.

On the Palestinian side, most Gazans at first also supported the rocket campaign against Israel, despite their heavy losses. But they too eventually lost faith in Hamas, and especially in its ability to gain anything through the endless truce talks.

Nonetheless, senior Hamas figure Ismail Haniyeh emerged from hiding in Gaza to boast that a Palestinian militia had stood toe-to-toe with Israel for seven weeks and "crushed the myth" that its vaunted military was invincible. But Hamas also came out looking soundly defeated.

As many as 1,000 Palestinian militiamen were among the estimated 2,100 casualties in Gaza, with another 10,000 people wounded. Over 5,000 homes and buildings linked to Hamas were destroyed, while up to 100,000 Gazans were left homeless. The destruction inside the crowded strip of land is said to be far worse than any previous war. Hamas also wasted much time and resources on digging miles of terror tunnels that are now all collapsed. Plus its arsenal of rockets is severely depleted.

On the Israeli side, the death toll included 66 soldiers and six civilians. And although the damage was limited, Hamas did manage to launch nearly 4,000 rockets and mortars into Israel despite the IDF's vigilant efforts to suppress the missile fire. Meanwhile, life became intolerable for those living closer to Gaza, while Israelis nationwide will need time to regain their sense of security.

Still, the tally sheet from this war will not be complete until the truce talks resume back in Cairo to discuss all the issues left unresolved by the conflict. For Israel, the game plan now will be to deny Hamas victory by not conceding any diplomatic gains going forward.

From the very start, Hamas and Israel exchanged blows while also engaging in indirect talks to end the fighting through Egyptian mediation. Hamas initially tabled a list of steep demands to halt the rocket fire, such as a lifting of the blockade on Gaza and the free flow of goods, release of Hamas operatives re-arrested by Israel recently, allowing an airport and seaport in Gaza, and paying the salaries of Hamas employees. Israel countered by calling for an unconditional halt to the rocket barrages and the disarming of Gaza.

In a new twist, Egypt sided with Israel, prompting Hamas to bring in its allies Turkey and Qatar. In an even odder twist, the Obama administration sought to include these pro-Muslim Brotherhood regimes in the negotiations, straining Washington's relations with Jerusalem and Cairo.

The US apparently assumed that Turkey and Qatar were more able to control Hamas. But after the Islamist terror militia either rejected or breached 12 ceasefires over the course of the conflict, it was clear they answer to no one and cannot be trusted. Even the Palestinian Authority, which signed a unity pact with Hamas just months ago, learned that all the while its main rival was plotting Fatah's overthrow in the West Bank.

Yet Hamas eventually relented, basically agreeing to Egypt's original ceasefire offer, which puts off talks on its list of demands for a later day. For some Israeli leaders, this signalled capitulation. But more likely it just meant Hamas was getting low on rockets.

Meantime, Israelis come out of this war frustrated that the world does not treat Hamas the same as al-Qaeda and the ruthless Islamic State in Iraq. The foreign media in particular gave Hamas 'equal time' and often slanted coverage once again, which they would never do with these other radical Muslim terrorists despite the fact they all have little regard for human life and violently seek a global caliphate.

But there is also reason for optimism in that Egypt and Saudi Arabia have shown a willingness to cooperate with Israel in standing against both the Iranian threat and the Sunni jihadist militias. Netanyahu seems to have held back some on Hamas, thereby avoiding even greater Palestinian casualties in Gaza, in order to cement this new regional alignment in hopes it will pay higher dividends in future.

The first order of business will be teaming with Cairo to prevent Hamas from rearming. Achieve that and Israel will indeed have won the third Gaza war.

 


This article first appeared in the September-October 2014 edition of the ICEJ's Word from Jerusalem magazine.

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