The ostensible end of Israel-Hamas hostilities took effect at 7 p.m. Israel time Tuesday, on the 50th day of Operation Protective Edge, amid a major barrage of rocket fire. An Israeli was killed and two others were badly injured (one of whom later died) shortly before the truce began, and the alarms continued to sound down south for a good few minutes after 7 p.m., even as Hamas supporters were celebrating “victory” on the streets of Gaza. Not an auspicious start.
Hamas has breached truce agreement after truce agreement in the past 50 days, and there is no compelling reason to assume that this case will be any different. Unnamed sources in the Palestinian negotiating delegation — a curious forum comprising rival factions including Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad — claimed Tuesday night that Hamas’s leadership in Gaza insisted on accepting the same unconditional Egyptian terms that it rejected more than a month ago, and sidelined the Qatar-based Khaled Mashaal, who had previously rejected such terms. Some say that the sight of the Israeli Air Force moving to smash the apartment buildings in which Israel claims it had some of its command centers finally prompted Hamas in Gaza to call a halt. Time will tell if a terror government’s solemn assurance that it has silenced its guns has any credibility.
Entirely predictably, Hamas immediately busied itself extricating what it called success from amid the devastation it has brought down upon Gaza these past seven weeks. It fired over 4,500 rockets at Israel. It killed 64 soldiers and five civilians. It prompted several dozen airlines to shun Israel for two days last month. It terrorized southern Israel, especially in more recent weeks, when it stepped up its mortar fire and rocket barrages on the south. It killed four-year-old Daniel Tragerman inside his own home on Kibbutz Nahal Oz. For an organization committed to the destruction of Israel, these are achievements to celebrate.
By emplacing its war machine in the very heart of Gaza, it also condemned hundreds of thousands of people — the Gazans in whose interests it falsely claims to have fought — to homelessness, dire poverty, and the bleakest of futures. But for Hamas, these too are achievements. Extremism flourishes amid bitterness. Islamic radicals find willing recruits where hope of a better future is in short supply. Thus Hamas expects to profit, too, from the destruction wrought as Israel targeted all those rocket launchers and terror tunnel entrances sited in the homes, mosques and schools of the Gaza Strip. And it can also celebrate the staining of Israel’s reputation in those wide international circles where the evil, cynical nature of Hamas’s war strategy is misunderstood or ignored.
The final word on this conflict, however, is still far from being written. If this round is over, then the focus now shifts to the specifics of the long-term ceasefire arrangements, as military action gives way to diplomacy.
And if, under a long-term deal, Hamas is able to replicate Hezbollah’s strategy in Lebanon — to retain full or significant control of Gaza, to re-arm, to build a still more potent killing mechanism — then its claims of victory, appallingly, will be justified.
Only if a long-term mechanism can be fashioned that denies Hamas the capacity to fight and kill another day will the Israeli leadership be justified in asserting that its goal — ensuring sustained calm and security for the people of Israel — has been met.
The early word is that Israel has made no commitment to meeting any of the central, long-standing Hamas demands — for a lifting of the security blockade, and for the opening of a seaport and an airport. These are concessions that, if agreed in the absence of an effective supervisory mechanism, would give Hamas the ready means to strengthen itself militarily. But it is extremely hard to imagine how such an effective supervisory mechanism could be constructed. And one can only wonder whether Hamas, if it is denied concessions on those issues in the coming weeks of negotiations, will refrain from renewing the conflict.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s popularity has nosedived in recent weeks as the war has continued, as the rockets have pounded on, and as residents of the south have learned to their bloody cost that the political and military leadership were wrong in assuring them three weeks ago that it was safe for them to return to their homes. Support for Netanyahu’s handling of the conflict will rise again if time, and the long-term ceasefire terms, prove that Hamas has been marginalized and de-fanged. Many Israelis, indeed, will come to hail him for not having ordered a far more extensive ground offensive into the treacherous heart of Gaza, where Hamas lay in wait, with the consequent likely loss of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of soldiers’ lives.
But if Hamas is not marginalized, if it proves capable of rebuilding its tunnels, restocking its rocket arsenals, and plotting new strategies toward its goal of Israel’s annihilation, the Israeli strategy for handling this conflict will have been a failure, and the popularity of the prime minister will be far from the most central of Israel’s concerns.