Ramallah, occupied West Bank – As the Gaza war passes the 30-day mark, more than 1,800 Palestinians and 67 Israelis, most of them soldiers, have been killed, leaving many to wonder how the fighting will end and if it will result in any strategic gains for Hamas or Israel.
Both seemed interested in halting the war, as evidenced by a 72-hour lull that began on Tuesday and indirect talks that were held in Egypt. But the truce was not extended, and Palestinian groups in Gaza fired at least twenty rockets into Israel during the first hour after it expired on Friday.
Talks in Cairo have apparently stalled, after the Israeli delegation left, having refused to accede to some of the largest Palestinian demands, like the construction of a seaport in Gaza.
The top echelon of Hamas’ leadership has so far managed to remain intact, surviving intense aerial, ground, and naval bombardment that has damaged or destroyed more than 30,000 homes in Gaza, as well as the coastal enclave’s sole power and main sewage treatment plants. Many schools, mosques, and government buildings were levelled, and employment-generating industries were dealt severe blows that threaten to plunge the fragile economy further into crisis.
Hamas might be able to sell the war as a success to its constituents in military and strategic terms: The Palestinian faction managed to hold on to some of its rocket stock, and inflicted substantial Israeli military casualties, killing 64 soldiers in less than three weeks of ground fighting.
Hamas' military gains can be divided into two categories: Palestinian fighters proved far more resilient than Israelis had expected, and the group managed to diminish Israel's prestige and power of deterrence.
“Hamas’ military gains can be divided into two categories: Palestinian fighters proved far more resilient than Israelis had expected, and the group managed to diminish Israel’s prestige and power of deterrence,” said Khalil Shaheen, an analyst with the Palestinian Centre for Policy Research.
At a press conference on Wednesday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also tried to sell the war as a clear victory for Israel. “The security situation of residents of [the south] is better, is safer than it was before the operation,” he said.
Surveys and interviews over the past few days suggest that the Israeli public is not convinced, however. A poll released by Israel’s Channel 2 on Sunday found that 73 percent of Israelis believe deterrence in Gaza has been “weakened” by the operation. Fifty-six percent opposed withdrawing ground troops this week. “We’ll be back again,” soldiers leaving Gaza told Yediot Aharonot.
Netanyahu himself is still polling well, and the ceasefire has temporarily silenced critics on the right. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who last month called for a resumption of the occupation of the strip, now wants to hand it over to the United Nations – an organisation he has long demonised.
Talk of reoccupation ended last week after army officers gave a sobering presentation to the security cabinet. Taking over Gaza and clearing it would take five years, and kill hundreds of Israeli soldiers and thousands of Palestinian civilians, they said. Ministers rejected the plan, though with the end of the 72-hour truce some are again calling for “drastic” measures against Hamas.
A diplomatic solution remains elusive. A Hamas delegation is currently in Cairo as part of a Palestine Liberation Organization-led negotiating team, and despite earlier reports that it would not negotiate a ceasefire, Israel sent its own team to Cairo on Tuesday.
But there are few signs of progress; Yitzhak Molcho, a Netanyahu confidante whose negotiating style once earned him the nickname “Dr. No”, led the Israeli delegation.
The talks have stalled over a few key issues, including the Palestinian demand that Egypt reopen the Rafah crossing with Gaza. The army-backed government in Cairo, which labelled Hamas a terrorist organisation earlier this year, is not eager to make any concessions.
“Egypt knows what Israel wants. We trust Egypt,” said Yitzhak Levanon, the previous Israeli ambassador in Cairo. “Rafah is not on the table… since the beginning of this campaign, Egypt has not changed its position on this crossing.”
Hamas has insisted from the start of the war that it will not accept a permanent ceasefire if Israel does not lift the blockade.
“Even [US President Barack] Obama yesterday urged an end to Gaza’s isolation,” Shaheen said. “I think this demand will eventually be met in one shape or another. But it might not be in the way the Palestinians envisioned.”
The group can already claim victory for disrupting Israelis’ daily routine, after its rockets led to a temporary shutdown of its international airport.
Israeli officials estimate that the month-long war has already cost the country more than $2bn, much of the cost being in military expenses. But the war also shaved a month off Israel’s peak tourist season, and shuttered businesses across the south, as workers were mobilised for army service and customers stayed home.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid promised on Thursday not to raise taxes to plug the inevitable budget deficit. Rafi Melnick, a former top official at the Bank of Israel, said the war would probably knock half a percentage point off Israel’s GDP. “The biggest impact is in the tourism sector,” he said. “But this is a small industry in terms of GDP… I think the Israeli economy has developed some resilience for these things.”
In the West Bank, the war proved that the political stalemate is unsustainable: Just like after the wars in 2008-2009 and 2012, Hamas is being hailed for its “resistance” against Israel. The geographic and political divides between Gaza and the West Bank, where protests and boycotts of Israeli goods have kicked off, have also lessened.
Hamas has picked up on the rising sense of support, calling for weekly demonstrations in the West Bank to capitalise on heightened feelings at a time when Palestinians in Gaza are being bombarded.
“I’m an only child and I almost lost my life, but I know I will go back to protesting so long as Gaza is under attack and siege,” said Hassan Samhan, a 19-year-old student who was shot during pro-Gaza demonstrations at a West Bank military checkpoint on July 24. “If we don’t participate, then who will?” asked the teen from his hospital bed in Ramallah.
Just months ago, Hamas was under mounting pressure to pay salaries to more than 50,000 civil servants, as its coffers were drying up in the wake of an Egyptian crackdown on the tunnel industry. Unable to cover the payroll, Hamas was pushed into inking a “unity deal” with Fatah, and a national consensus government was born.
is better, is safer than it was before the operation.”]
Netanyahu spent weeks trying to kill the deal, and was furious when the US and other nations endorsed the new government. He walked away from negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas precisely because of the agreement.
Netanyahu now wants to implement some of the terms of the deal in a permanent ceasefire with Hamas: Israeli negotiators want the agreement to give the Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces control of Rafah crossing. “We have cooperated, and are cooperating, with the PA on [these] matters,” Netanyahu said on Wednesday. “We’re prepared to see a role for them.”
Should that scenario unfold, Hamas can still claim victory: It can attribute its loss of power to a greater good, establishing a united Palestinian front. And Israel, having reached this agreement, would void its own argument against negotiations. This scenario clearly worries some Israeli politicians, notably Lieberman, who warned that it would be a “serious mistake” to give Abbas a role in Gaza.
It seems likely that the final ceasefire accord will require Hamas to relinquish some of its security control. But the group can still make up for its losses in the West Bank, if the new elections included in the unity deal are eventually held. Netanyahu may find that he has won a Pyrrhic victory, reducing the military threat from Hamas but giving the once-isolated group renewed political and diplomatic clout.