An uneasy calm hangs over Israel and the devastated Gaza Strip, where nearly 2,000 have Palestinians died in a month-long Israeli military offensive. In Cairo, an Israeli delegation and a team of Palestinian negotiators, including representatives of the Islamist group Hamas, are attempting to broker a longer truce.
As my colleagues Griff Witte and Sudarsan Raghavan write, Israeli hard-liners wanted Operation Protective Edge to fully purge Hamas from Gaza, a task that would have led to an inordinate amount of bloodshed and likely even more Israeli military casualties -- 64 Israeli soldiers were slain in the current round of fighting. Nevertheless, "war must be given a chance," urged former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren in an op-ed last month in The Washington Post.
But it appears the hostilities are dying down, for now. Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and the European Union, declared victory. "We won," said its political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, in a statement released Tuesday. Given the carnage and the suffering experienced by the 1.8 million Gazans for whom Hamas, as the territory's ruler, is responsible, it seems a Pyrrhic utterance, at best. But Hamas was far from defeated. Here are some reasons why.
The optics were terrible for Israel
More than during its earlier offensives in Gaza, Israel lost the media war. On its Twitter feed, the Israel Defense Forces published cartoons and graphics illustrating the cynicism and perfidy of Hamas tactics. But those images had to vie with the shocking footage and photographs seen by millions around the world of innocent civilians killed by Israeli missile strikes and shelling. Whole families were snuffed out; neighborhoods were leveled; schools sheltering children were bombed.
Opinion polls showed Israel losing support in the West, even in the United States. International leaders condemned the violence; the U.N. secretary general raised the specter of Israeli war crimes. Questions regarding the legality of Israel's actions in countering Hamas's rocket fire and infiltration tunnels will linger in the weeks and months ahead. Critics say the force deployed by Israel was disproportionate and amounted to "collective punishment," which is considered illegal under a number of international conventions. "Israel's moral defeat will haunt us for years," wrote left-wing Israeli journalist Amira Hass.
Hamas's leadership was well aware of the P.R. price Israel would pay: "The image of destruction seen by the world is the proof to the extent of the IDF's defeat and its failure in fighting the brave resistance," Haniyeh said in his statement.
Hamas thrives on conflict
Hamas is an institution whose raison d'etre is to resist Israeli occupation with the strength of arms. Every single time Israel has decided to "mow the grass" -- as the chilling euphemism goes -- in Gaza, Hamas's main base of operations, it has hurt the militants, but the grass and weeds have always grown back. Operation Protective Edge, as my colleagues report, has badly damaged Hamas's operational capabilities, dismantling tunnels by which Hamas could launch attacks on Israel, destroying command centers and killing hundreds of supposed Hamas fighters. The group's arsenal of rockets is also now considerably depleted.
But this does not mean Hamas is in a worse place than when the Israeli offensive began in July. As WorldViews explained earlier, the Islamist faction was facing growing anger among a restive population in Gaza who were fed up with the grueling conditions imposed by Israeli and Egyptian blockades, as well as Hamas's own misgovernance. It needed to pay the salaries of tens of thousands of public employees in Gaza and sought a loosening of the tight controls placed on Gaza's borders.
Bereft of many allies abroad, Hamas grudgingly joined a unity government with the Fatah party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who holds sway over the West Bank. But that deal was actively undermined by an Israeli government that refused to recognize the political legitimacy of any institution that had a Hamas presence. An escalation in June -- sparked by the disappearance and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, which Israel pinned on Hamas despite a lack of evidence -- led to the conflagration that saw Hamas fire rockets into Israel and the IDF launch Operation Protective Edge.
But for Hamas, to mangle Clausewitz, the firing of rockets was politics by other means. "For Hamas, the choice wasn't so much between peace and war," writes Nathan Thrall, Jerusalem-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, "as between slow strangulation and a war that had a chance, however slim, of loosening the squeeze." With Israel now at the negotiating table, there's a chance that gamble paid off.
The conflict weakens Abbas
Whenever conflict of this scale breaks out between the IDF and Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups, it hurts Abbas, who as president of the Palestinian Authority is the main Palestinian interlocutor in the peace process with Israel. Hamas loves characterizing Abbas and the PA as ineffectual, American-backed handmaidens of the Israeli occupation. And they certainly obliged in the build-up to the recent fighting, when PA security forces helped Israel round up dozens of suspected Hamas operatives during mass arrests in the West Bank. As the Post noted in the early stages of Operation Protective Edge, the fighting "elevates militant Palestinian elements at the expense of relative moderates."
In the last month, Hamas flags were seen flying in Nablus and other West Bank towns, a sign of Palestinian frustration with Abbas and support for the faction that's standing up for the Palestinian cause. "Hamas knows it can’t defeat the Israeli military, but the Gaza war holds out the possibility of a distant but no less important prize," writes Thrall. That is, "stirring up the West Bank, and undermining the [Palestinian Authority's] leadership and the programme of perpetual negotiation, accommodation and US dependency that it stands for."
Israel faces its own reckoning
Even if Hamas emerges significantly weaker -- its numbers thinned, war chest and arsenal diminished, foreign partnerships in tatters -- the onus is on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to shepherd the parties back to the long-stalled peace process. It's unclear whether he or his hawkish cabinet are genuinely committed to it; Abbas recently complained, "I don't have a partner for a two-state solution." Many now see the establishment of separate, parallel Israeli and Palestinian states as an impossibility. A majority of the elected deputies in Israel's Knesset, where the right wing has gained in ascendancy, don't seem to want it, either.
Netanyahu still pays lip service to the peace process, but the pressure is on him now to help create the conditions where both Palestinian support of Hamas can fade and Gaza can breathe freer. The Post's David Ignatius sums up the challenge:
The question is whether Netanyahu has the courage and political clout to move... toward a new framework for Gaza, rather than return to the battered status quo ante — with continued Hamas rule and the recurring wars that some Israelis have described as “mowing the lawn.”
It will be hard for the Israeli leader to embrace this new vision for Gaza because he would have to reverse his earlier opposition to the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, which he denounced as an embrace by Abbas of Hamas’s terrorist ideology. Netanyahu would also have to be prepared to truly open Gaza to the free flow of people and goods in return for disarming the terrorist groups.
Hamas may be a long way from disarming, but Israel’s war hawks may still have to accept the need for compromise.