After four weeks, the Israel-Hamas war may be entering a new phase. Israel’s leadership hopes that it is winding down militarily, and is partially redeploying its military forces, even though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stressed that “all options” remain open. We can begin to draw some interim conclusions, but for now the fighting continues, and there are no guarantees that the worst is over.
Looking first at Hamas’s gains to date, it can claim to have profoundly shaken Israel’s sense of security. A month ago, most Israelis considered it to be a dangerous terrorist organization, capable of murderous attacks. They weren’t aware it had several thousand well-trained fighters. They weren’t aware of the sophistication of its war machine — its effective hierarchy, its weaponry, its terror tunnels. And those Israelis who did know about the tunnels underestimated the catastrophe they could have wrought. We may never be certain that all the tunnels have been found. It will take a long, long time for residents of Gaza-envelope communities to sleep soundly at night.
Hamas has fired more rockets, further into Israel, than in the two previous rounds of conflicts since it seized control of Gaza in 2007. It has further battered the traumatized south, where a generation has grown up knowing that it might have to dash for shelter any second. And it has brought Tel Aviv and places even further north into the line of fire; no respite even in that part of Israel that wanted to believe itself immune from Hamas. And as of this writing, it’s still firing.
Its leadership has survived intact, hidden safely away in the underground bunkers it constructed deep in the heart of Gaza. Most of its thousands of death-cult fighters have survived too. Much of their weaponry is intact. All ready, it hopes, for another, nastier round of killing.
Its shared assertion with Hezbollah, to the effect that Israel would not send its ground forces all the way into the urban neighborhoods in which it had entrenched itself, survived too — a propaganda victory to be used to project the sense of Israeli weakness and vulnerability, and thus build motivation for the wars to come.
The hearts of decent people go out to helpless victims; for all that Israel was battered and bloodied, Gazans were battered and bloodied far more — precisely as Hamas had planned
It has killed 64 Israeli soldiers, at time of writing — the heaviest toll the IDF has sustained since the 2006 Lebanon War. It killed 11 of those soldiers by sending its gunmen through the tunnels even as the army raced against time to find and destroy them. It killed nine more soldiers at gathering points on the Israeli side of the border — exploiting the army’s unacceptable failure to keep those soldiers further from harm. And it killed numerous soldiers inside Gaza with anti-tank weaponry, with gunmen popping out of tunnel openings into areas the IDF had thought secure.
It battered the Israeli economy, destroying tourism in the short term.
It sent three-quarters of the foreign airlines that routinely use Ben-Gurion Airport running for cover, albeit briefly.
It exposed divisions in the Israeli leadership — a minor success, to be sure, given that it was no great secret that Messrs. Netanyahu and Liberman, for instance, don’t always agree on everything.
It has destroyed the belief in the possibility of a two-state solution among an additional (currently unquantifiable) swath of the Israeli electorate, who became more wary about relinquishing what Netanyahu describes as “adjacent territory” given the enemy’s demonstrable inclination to fire rockets over and tunnel under the border. This is good news for Hamas since it opposes genuine Palestinian accommodation with Israel, and thus fears any strengthening of the moderate Israeli and Palestinians camps.
It has prompted a wave of anti-Semitism in Europe, which undermined the sense of security in many communities which were hardly confident before the conflict began.
It has profoundly blackened Israel’s name internationally. The fact that Hamas was both doing its best to kill Israelis, and had deliberately placed Gaza civilians in harm’s way by firing from and tunneling beneath their houses, may have been recognized widely. But the cold facts were overwhelmed by the sight of Gaza’s smashed neighborhoods, the mounting death toll, and the despair of Gazans and of the international organizations there. Israel had right on its side; Hamas had devastation among “its” citizens. The hearts of decent people go out to helpless victims; for all that Israel was battered and bloodied, Gazans were battered and bloodied far more — precisely as Hamas had planned.
Israeli commentators have asserted over and again that Hamas has lacked a “high-quality achievement,” by which they presumably mean a more dramatic single terror attack or rocket strike, and/or success in lifting “the siege” on Gaza to enable it to bring in still more devastating weaponry. Yet as things stand, Hamas can add to its list of gains the “high-quality achievement” of surviving to do all of this again, equipped with all the improved weaponry, strategy and manpower it can muster.
Set against those Hamas gains, however, Israel can claim significant achievements of its own.
Almost all of the 30-plus major attack tunnels have been dealt with. Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, argued repeatedly in recent days that Israel did not underestimate the danger posed by the tunnels, but could not afford to initiate a conflict to tackle them. Such preemption would have triggered the same Hamas rocket attacks we’ve borne all over the country, but many Israelis would have protested that their government had brought this upon them. And international tolerance for the Israeli action would have been even lower. Now, though, a central part of the Hamas strategy, which it spent years and many millions developing — has been largely defanged, for the time being. Hopefully Israel is looking more carefully, too, at what Hezbollah’s tunnelers may be up to.
The Iron Dome rocket defense system has performed miracles. Hundreds of rockets, whose impact could have caused immense loss of life and widespread devastation, were blown out of the sky. Hamas wanted to see Tel Aviv in ruins. Instead it saw massed Tel Avivians singing “The people of Israel live” at a trade fair in the port late last week organized to boost southern Israel’s small businesses.
Israel thwarted an attempted Hamas infiltration by sea, and presumably foiled other terror plots of which the public is not aware.
Israeli troops killed hundreds of Hamas gunmen, proving capable of overcoming the enemy on its home territory, despite the years of planning and preparation, bomb-planting, tunneling and booby-trapping Hamas had put in. The IDF fought courageously in near-impossible conditions on the ground, against gunmen who melted away into the underground.
The families of the bereaved were, without exception, noble in their indescribable pain. Heroic
For all the overseas criticism of a resort to force seen by almost all Israelis as essential, some in the international community are today more aware of the danger posed by Hamas and other groups that follow its cynical methods. Even the UN secretary-general professed shock that Hamas failed to honor the truce he had played a part in brokering on Friday. And parts of the Arab world have been strikingly unsupportive of Hamas.
Israel’s population showed impressive resilience under rocket fire, and unity behind the IDF and the political leadership.
The families of the bereaved were, without exception, noble in their indescribable pain. Heroic. “I loved him utterly,” said one bereaved father of his dead son, speaking to a TV reporter not long after he had received the worst news a parent can ever hear. “But I will not break,” he said tearfully, defiantly. “Our family will not be broken. Israel will not be broken.”
So much for the respective achievements that seem clear. Ultimately, though, the verdict on the past four weeks of conflict will depend on how the next phase plays out.
Centrally, we wait to see if Israel has indeed deterred Hamas and its offshoots and rivals in Gaza from targeting us. “When this is over,” Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said on Saturday, “Hamas won’t dare fire on us for years.” We shall see.
Will most Gazans prove willing accomplices in a renewed galvanizing of effort against Israel?
Crucially, too, we don’t yet know where the negotiations in Egypt will lead. Israel is not there, but is doubtless indirectly involved, anxious to ensure that security precautions it takes are bolstered, not undermined, by Egypt’s Gaza policies.
Netanyahu has spoken of the need for Hamas to be disarmed, of linking Gaza’s rehabilitation to its demilitarization. Fine words indeed. But, for now, words only.
If access to Gaza is eased, and Hamas is capable of exploiting this, it will do so. It will continue to divert all resources allowed into the Strip that can serve its murderous purposes, thus requiring greater oversight on what goes into Gaza, not less. Hamas, if it can, will build more tunnels, and deeper. It will manufacture and bring in more weaponry, and more dangerous weaponry. It will dream up new ways to outflank Israel.
We wait to see if Gazans will turn on Hamas for exploiting them in the way that it has — for ruining their lives, for getting them killed, while its leaders took shelter. The people of Gaza have been devastated by this war. At the same time, many of the people of Gaza firmly support Hamas. Will most Gazans prove willing accomplices in a renewed galvanizing of effort against Israel? One IDF general, describing a neighborhood in Gaza in which his soldiers were operating, said 19 of 28 homes had been utilized in one way or another by Hamas — booby-trapped, or used to store weapons or to conceal a tunnel opening. Did those 19 families choose to partner with Hamas, were they paid off, left no choice, or a mixture of all that and more?
Time will tell, too, how widely Arabs in the West Bank and inside Israel have been embittered, how affected by the efforts of Hamas and its allies inside Israel and the territories to foment protest and violence.
And finally, only time will tell if any kind of political process can be salvaged — if Israel has any viable routes to try to build a future in which calm can be sustained both by the military deterrence of enemies and the constructive partnership of friends. Israel was battered in a conflict it did not initiate by a terrorist government that told anybody who was listening of its goal to wipe us out. And yet Israel has received precious little empathy or support. Netanyahu spoke Saturday of “new opportunities” post-conflict with other powers in the region. It’s not entirely clear which powers he was referring to. From today’s vantage point, prospects for diplomatic optimism seem more remote than ever.