Ashkelon, Israel – With calm mostly restored following the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the talk in southern Israel quickly turned to a political question: What did the eight-day Israeli offensive in Gaza achieve?
Few seemed to have an answer. A solid majority of Israelis across the south believe that prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu signed the deal too early, even though many struggle to articulate what, exactly, the army would have achieved in a lengthier and bloodier war.
It was, as ever, a lopsided battle. More than 160 Palestinians were killed during the eight-day offensive, among them at least 60 civilians, according to Palestinian medical sources. Six people were killed on the Israeli side, including two soldiers. The Israeli air force bombed thousands of targets across the Gaza Strip; fighters fired back with crude rockets, most of which missed their targets or were shot down in midair.
Yet after all of that, Hamas and other militant groups retained their ability to fire rockets: More than 130 were launched on the last day of the war, according to the Israeli army, including dozens in the final hour of the conflict.
“They stopped the fire, and we stopped the war, but it’s not a real end,” said Gal Arari, a student in Ashkelon who predicted the truce would collapse in a few months. “We need to continue the fire until Gaza is deleted.”
‘A failed strategy’
For many in Hamas, the war was a clear victory: The group secured promises from both Egypt and Israel to loosen the tightly-controlled crossings into the occupied strip, and it won very public displays of regional support from the Arab officials who flocked to Gaza.
The offensive was far less successful seen from the Israeli side. It ensured, perhaps, a period of calm ahead of Knesset elections scheduled for mid-January; steadily escalating rocket fire on the south had become a political liability for prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “Of course this was about domestic politics,” said Gideon Levy, a columnist for the liberal Ha’aretz newspaper.
But it also underscored the lack of a long-term strategy for ending Israel’s intractable conflict with Gaza.
The Israeli government, which labels Hamas a terrorist organisation, imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip after the group took power in democratic elections in late 2005. It has waged two wars in Gaza in the past six years, and carried out innumerable airstrikes during the periods of “calm”.
Yet after all of that, senior officials once again found themselves in Cairo this week discussing the terms of a truce with Hamas, still the preeminent political and military force inside the besieged Gaza Strip.
“The economic blockade of Gaza was a failed strategy,” said Yossi Alpher, a former adviser to Ehud Barak, the current defence minister.
The failure of that strategy explains the widespread public opposition to the ceasefire. A snap poll conducted by Channel 2 news found 70 per cent of Israelis opposed to signing a deal on Wednesday, with just 24 per cent in favour.
The prospect of calm seemed to mean little to many people in the south, who viewed the ceasefire as only a brief pause in the fighting. Roei Muadi, an engineer who lives in Ashkelon, said the air force should have continued bombing. He struggled, as did many Israelis, to articulate what a “victory” would look like – but said Israeli jets should have struck “everything that is Hamas.”
“If it’s buildings, if it’s people, terrorists, everything,” he said. “Even if innocent people will be hurt, unfortunately this is what happens in war.”
‘They will hold it against Netanyahu’
It is too early to say whether public opposition to the war and the ceasefire will end up helping or hurting the prime minister’s electoral fortunes.
Netanyahu is expected to win another term in office, but his Likud party – now joined in an alliance with the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu – faces a number of challenges.
The rocket fire was one; another is the possible reemergence of the previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert, or former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, both of whom are contemplating a run for office at the helm of a (still hypothetical) centre-left bloc. His merger with the largely secular Yisrael Beiteinu could cost him support from religious voters.
The ceasefire ended the rocket fire – for now – and the eight-day war overshadowed Olmert’s and Livni’s political plans. Most of Israel’s political parties quickly fell in line and offered their support to Netanyahu. But the election is still two months away.
“If the ceasefire doesn’t hold, they will hold it against Netanyahu,” Alpher said.
“Imagine if, a week before elections in mid-January, 150 rockets fall in southern Israel. Think of what that does to Netanyahu, and Barak, and [foreign minister Avigdor] Lieberman. That is a gamble, from their standpoint.”
That gamble has, in some ways, already backfired for Netanyahu, because it boosted Hamas and weakened the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, who looked utterly irrelevant over the past eight days.
A survey conducted on Thursday found that 29 per cent of Israelis thought Hamas had won the war– compared with 20 per cent who believed their own country was victorious.
In their public remarks over the past week, Netanyahu, Barak and Lieberman all downplayed the objectives of the war, describing the offensive as a limited operation to “restore calm” in the south. But years of hardline rhetoric have convinced most Israelis that Hamas needs to be destroyed, not weakened – even though that goal is unattainable without causing widespread destruction and civilian casualties in Gaza.
“We’ve set an impossible goal for ourselves, trying to eliminate Hamas,” said one security source in Tel Aviv who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Some observers said the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire could mark the beginning of a shift in policy towards Hamas. “The way this operation ended, with an understanding between Israel and Egypt, and Hamas and Egypt, it could turn into a strategy of dialogue and accommodation, as the ceasefire holds, perhaps with Egyptian help,” Alpher said.
And a few people interviewed in the south on Thursday did express hope that the government will rethink its approach to Gaza. “It can’t just be [about] punishing them or taking revenge,” said Yossi Ostrov, a factory manager from Ashdod.
But most Israelis predicted a repeat of the cycle of the past few years: a brief period of calm, followed by another war.
“I think it was – I don’t know if it’s worth it, because it achieved nothing, but we have to do something,” said Sefi Solomon, a student in Sderot. “It’s 12 years now, and it’s really difficult to talk about solutions.”