Israeli and Palestinian claims of victory after 50 days of fighting in Gaza are part politics, part populist. Putting a brave face on an ugly war is necessary to cover up the terrible losses both sides have incurred. But these losses are not the same for both sides. In fact, it’s the contrast between their losses that in essence defines the war and its results.
On the one hand, Israel has seen its most precious strategic achievement since independence – its military deterrence – diminish during this war. And clearly, it was shocked by Hamas’ tenacity and the creativity of its rather limited means.
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Simply put, Israel cannot scare the Palestinians into submission through the threat of devastating use of force or massive retaliation, nor can it stop them from retaliating deep inside Israel. This is the closest thing to a “balance of terror” that’s achievable under military occupation.
Despite its superior firepower and its sophisticated missile defence system, rockets lobbed from Gaza paralysed Israel’s southern communities, and its central and coastal plains were targeted for the first time from the strip. Likewise, when Israel attempted a limited invasion of Gaza, the better-prepared Hamas fighters outmanoeuvred its highly trained army and killed scores of them.
On the other side, Palestinians suffered great human, civic and economic losses; more than 2,000 casualties, mostly civilian, tens of thousands of houses and businesses were destroyed, and over 100,000 rendered homeless yet again. One wonders how many times a Palestinian refugee will be displaced.
Behind the images of defiance coming out of Gaza, plenty of tears and blood have been shed and will most probably continue to be shed. As the Palestinians begin to take stock of the death and destruction, they are likely to be as angry as they are hurting.
All of which begs the question: Why does the Israeli Right reckon bombing the Palestinians would turn them into better neighbours? And, how does killing their children render them more peaceful?
Civic vs strategic
The contrast here is paramount, because at the end of the day, for Israel, the loss is primarily strategic, while for the Palestinians it’s mostly civic and humane.
The terror of Israel’s so-called “war on terror” has surpassed anything we’ve seen in previous wars. It flies in the face of any and all Israeli claims of a “clean fight”.
Of course, Israel was careful to blame Hamas for the human suffering in Gaza, accusing the Palestinian movement of using civilians as human shields. But not only has this been proven largely false and unsubstantiated, the intensification of bombardment over the last few days of fighting revealed the true aim of Israel’s strategy: causing great damage and suffering to the people in order to exact concessions from their leaders. These are war crimes by any standard.
While this does not excuse or justify Hamas’ random or not so random lobbing of rockets on Israeli towns, Israel couldn’t expect any less considering its offensive firepower. Unconventional fighting between occupier and occupied cannot be judged by conventional standards of war. Nor should its results.
It’s meaningless for Israel to boast of winning another war against Gaza – a third in six years; or of triumphing, yet again, against Hamas, when the latter seems to grow stronger and more popular with every war.
How many victories has Israel achieved since 1948 on the long path of more conquest; how many more will it fight until it realises it can’t win if Palestine refuses to lose or to go away!
Clearly, Israel has not learnt the primary lesson of asymmetrical wars. Namely, the strong is bound to become weak when fighting the weak for long.
States make wars to achieve favourable peace. But Israel, which has already been recognised over 78 percent of historic Palestine, continues to fight wars as a way of crisis management; a way to gain time when time is anything but on its side.
Take the newly introduced rockets for example. If Palestinians can produce them at a mechanics garage in Gaza, what will stop them from producing more in the West Bank? Won’t that expose the whole of Israel to new threats and render its separation wall, or “security fence” as they like to call it, superfluous?
Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s known to be more cautious in waging war and negotiating peace than his predecessors, has tried to take advantage of the strategic chaos in the region, and more favourable conditions in Egypt, in order to defeat Hamas, corner Abbas, and get Obama’s attention. Alas, he has achieved none of his main objectives.
Hamas has grown more popular, Abbas’ national unity government with Hamas ever more indispensable to maintain any ceasefire, and Obama no less indifferent. Worse, Israel’s impunity is down a notch or more as its image is tarnished with more Palestinian blood.
And if the Palestinians go the International Criminal Court, a potential indictment of Israel for war crimes would be a major diplomatic and perhaps economic blow. Meanwhile, the diplomatic wrangling has begun around the talks of an open-ended ceasefire. Expect the two sides to negotiate with no less vigour than they fought on the battlefield.
Whether the Egyptian regime will act fairly to ensure the lifting the siege on Gaza, or will act in complicity with the Israeli occupation to tighten the siege in order to weaken Hamas, remains to be seen. What’s clear, for the time, being is that after so much death and destruction, we’re back to square one – just as we were after the last war, and will be following the next.
It’s rather foolish to go at it again and again hoping for a different result. As they say in Jerusalem: If you beat water again and again, it’ll remain just that, water.
Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.