Another war, another debate. When I was last in Israel in August 2006, the war against Hezbollah was just winding down and a great debate was starting. Who won? The results were equivocal enough that both Israel and Hezbollah could claim vindication. Although Hezbollah had lost 600 or so of its fighters, it could take heart from the fact that it managed to hit Israel with hundreds of rockets that killed 43 civilians and had managed to slow down the Israeli military juggernaut and kill 118 soldiers.
The intervening two and a half years in the murky Middle East have provided more evidence for both sides to support claims of victory. For Hezbollah, there is the fact that it has managed to fully rearm itself and is now believed to have more missiles than it did before the war with Israel. It has also managed to extend its sphere of control. After its armed spree in Beirut last year, it won veto power over the Lebanese government.
But there is also evidence that Hezbollah was surprised and caught off guard by the ferocity of Israel's retaliation for the kidnapping of its soldiers; senior Hezbollah leaders said as much. And though the recent hostilities between Israel and Hamas would have been the perfect opportunity for Hezbollah to renew hostilities while Israel was distracted, it declined to do so. When a few rockets were fired recently from southern Lebanon into northern Israel, Hezbollah officials rushed to reassure Israel that they were not responsible. This suggests that Israel had managed to establish some degree of deterrence against this terror organization.
But that is not how most Israelis or most Arabs saw it. What they took away from the 2006 war was the perception that Hezbollah had stood up to Israel better than any previous adversary. Israelis lamented, and Arabs celebrated, that this was the first war Israel had not won, at least not decisively. Israel engaged in a collective soul-searching over what went wrong which led to the firing of the defense minister and the armed forces chief of staff and to the convening of a commission to draw lessons from what was widely seen as a bungled operation.
Since then, Israel has worked slowly and methodically to reestablish its deterrence. Two small steps in this process were the aerial bombing in September 2007 of a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor and the car bombing in February 2008 (widely believed to be the work of Mossad) that killed Hezbollah terrorist mastermind Imad Mugniyah in Damascus. A far bigger step occurred on December 27 when Israel launched what turned out to be a three-week onslaught into the Gaza Strip after Hamas dispensed with a six-month ceasefire and resumed firing rockets into southern Israel.
Hamas, like Hezbollah, survived the war not so much because of its military prowess but because of Israel's self-restraint. Destroying Hamas would mean high casualties among Palestinians (and possibly among Israeli soldiers). Even worse from the Israeli public's perspective, it would force Israel to resume the role of occupier that it gave up in Gaza in 2005, because no conceivable alternative--not the "international community," and not Fatah--could come into Gaza on short notice with any hope of displacing Hamas as the effective administration. Not wanting to run the Gaza Strip again and not wanting to experience the possible alternative of Somalia-style chaos on its southern border, Israel chose to fight a highly limited war against Hamas--more like a punitive expedition really.
The Israeli Air Force kicked off Operation Cast Lead at 11:30 A.M. on December 27 with a devastating series of strikes by 70 F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers armed with satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions. Flying at 28,000 feet--too high to be seen--they hit over 100 targets including a police graduation ceremony that an oblivious Hamas was holding in the open air. Surprise was complete and the attack was devastating. An estimated 200 Hamas fighters died in the war's opening minutes. Over the next week Israeli aircraft hit hundreds more targets--not only Hamas commanders and fighters but also buildings where they have conducted their operations and launched the missiles that hit Israeli towns.
On January 3, after eight days of bombing, Israeli ground forces entered the fray. The offensive was conducted by one division, or about 10,000 soldiers. They quickly drove through the middle of the Gaza Strip all the way to the Mediterranean, isolating Gaza City to the north from the tunnels in the south that are used to smuggle in supplies from Egypt. Israeli forces then fought a war of attrition in the northern Gaza Strip for the next two weeks until Israel declared a ceasefire in the early morning hours of Sunday, January 18, to be followed 12 hours later by a Hamas ceasefire.
Naturally Hamas claimed total vindication. "God has granted us a great victory, not for one faction, or party, or area, but for our entire people," said Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya. "We have stopped the aggression and the enemy has failed to achieve any of its goals." But one doubts that even Haniya believes his own bombast.
Israeli operations, after all, killed some 1,300 Palestinians of whom at least 600 are definitely Hamas operatives--individuals Israel has identified by name. It is likely that the figure is considerably higher (perhaps as high as 1,000), but midway through the war Hamas stopped holding public funerals for its dead, thus making it harder to keep track of its losses. In addition, Israel eliminated hundreds of tunnels that are used to smuggle military materiel into the Gaza Strip, while destroying an estimated 1,200 rockets.
It is true that Hamas managed to keep firing short-range rockets into Israel, but they caused scant casualties. More important, Hamas did not manage to produce dramatic images of burned-out Israeli tanks or captured Israeli soldiers. There was no major setback this time to compare with Hezbollah's ability to cripple an Israeli warship in 2006 with a sophisticated cruise missile. Israeli units skillfully bypassed or blew up the various improvised explosive devices that Hamas had installed to block an invasion. In most cases, rather than risk soldiers in booby-trapped houses, the Israelis leveled the empty structures with tank blasts or with armored D-9 bulldozers. Electronic jamming was so effective that many residents of southern Israel complained that their garage door openers weren't working. Such tactics proved highly effective. Only 10 Israeli soldiers died in the war and half of them were victims of "friendly fire."
In contrast to the halting, ham-handed operations against Hezbollah, this time the Israel Defense Forces appeared well-prepared and purposeful. They had learned the lessons of 2006, especially about the need for closer cooperation between the ground and air forces.
What they did not manage to do, because it was never their purpose, was to finish off Hamas for good. Israeli officials did not publicly announce that they were willing to leave Hamas in power, because they wanted to keep their enemies off balance, but that was the reality under-lying Operation Cast Lead. As a result, there is little doubt that Hamas, like Hezbollah, will rise from the rubble to emerge as strong as ever--and probably stronger.
Some Israeli officials express hope that the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas can reenter Gaza on the back of the trucks that will be bringing in reconstruction supplies. Fat chance. Hamas used the war to reassert its control in Gaza by killing, wounding, or torturing at least 100 Fatah officials who were accused of "collaboration" with Israel. All indications are that the Palestinian Authority's close association with Israel has only further damaged its already eroded standing among residents of both Gaza and the West Bank, while Hamas has claimed even more firmly for itself the mantle of "resistance movement" against the hated "Zionist entity."
Hamas's friends in Iran, moreover, already have considerable experience in helping its clients rebuild after an Israeli war. They helped Hezbollah do such a good job of reconstruction in 2006 that Hassan Nasrallah's hold on southern Lebanon was actually strengthened. The same thing is likely to happen in Gaza no matter how hard outside donors try to route assistance outside of Hamas channels. Given the degree of Hamas control in Gaza, it is in a perfect position to claim credit for any reconstruction that occurs and to blame whatever does not happen on Israel. "I'm not very optimistic in our ability to cope with reconstruction as well as the Iranians do," a retired Israeli general admitted to a group of visiting military analysts organized by the American Jewish Committee.
The only faint hope of hindering Hamas in the future rests in Egypt's presumed ability to close off tunnels running from its territory into Gaza. Israel only agreed to suspend Cast Lead after Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak gave vague assurances that he would move against the smugglers and after outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pledged that the United States would offer equally unspecified assistance in this endeavor. All these pledges are likely to prove as hollow as the promises by the United Nations and European Union in 2006 to prevent the rearming of Hezbollah.
The Americans and Europeans simply do not have any way of stopping an elaborate smuggling network that runs via the sea from Iran to Sudan and from there overland to Egypt and finally under the ground into the Gaza Strip. The smuggling routes are under the control of Sinai Bedouin, while the Gaza tunnels are privately owned by various Palestinian clans and entrepreneurs and licensed by Hamas, which taxes their activities. This is a big business, since smuggled goods include not only weapons but everything from food to drugs. The smugglers offer big payoffs to Egyptian soldiers to look the other way.
Mubarak has had little incentive to stop this lucrative operation. What does he care if Hamas kills Israelis? Better that, from his perspective, than that they should unite with their Muslim Brotherhood compatriots to fight his own regime. In any case, the Sinai is not fully under the control of Egypt's sclerotic government. The Bedouin are an independent force who can express their displeasure with Cairo by staging bombings, as they have done repeatedly, at Sinai beach resorts, thus hurting Egypt's lucrative tourist trade. It is hard to see why the current war between Israel and Hamas should lead Mubarak to change his hardheaded geopolitical calculus by tangling with either Hamas or its Bedouin business partners.
Hamas will rearm and prepare to fight another day. Although it lost at least 600 fighters, it still has more than 10,000 left. It has accrued prestige that will allow it to mount an even stronger challenge to the decrepit Fatah bosses of the West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas's term as president of the Palestinian Authority expired earlier this year but he dares not call another election for fear that Hamas would win. "If the IDF leaves the West Bank, Hamas will take over in five minutes," says Khaled Abu Toameh, the Jerusalem Post's fearless Palestinian correspondent. "Hamas continues to be as strong as ever."
Part of Hamas's strength derives, paradoxically, from its claims to victimhood. Somewhat at odds with its boasts of "victory" was its rush to showcase all the suffering caused by the Israeli offensive. Hamas, like Hezbollah, is skillfully directing the attention of the news media at the damage caused by Israel, while diverting attention from the reason for that damage--Hamas's habit of hiding among civilians. Israel made every possible effort to avoid collateral damage. It made hundreds of thousands of phone calls and dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets warning residents of Gaza to leave areas that were about to be targeted. When the Israeli Air Force detected Palestinian civilians atop buildings, it dropped tiny bombs designed to cause little damage. Only when the civilians had cleared off did the air force drop larger munitions that flattened the structure. It is hard to see how Israel could have been more sparing in its application of firepower unless it were willing to limit its response to a symbolic, ineffectual strike that would effectively give Hamas a free pass to rocket its territory with impunity.
This is a hard case to make, however, because there are no scenes of destruction in Israel to compare with those in the Gaza Strip. I got to see part of the explanation for this disparity on a trip to Sderot, the Israeli town of 23,000 inhabitants that adjoins the Gaza Strip and has been the main target for Hamas rockets. Hundreds of rockets have fallen on the city in the past eight years. During that period, Sderot has never enjoyed more than four days in a row without being under fire. But most of the rockets are homemade Qassams that have a short range and a small warhead. (Hamas is stockpiling longer-range, more destructive Grad rockets that can reach major cities like Ashkelon and Ashdod, but thankfully it does not have many of those yet.)
Numerous impact points could be seen around Sderot, including slight damage all around an elementary school. To guard against this danger Israel has developed an elaborate civil defense system centered around ubiquitous concrete shelters. Complex radar systems, some attached to giant balloons floating above Gaza City, instantly detect missile launchings and calculate trajectories. "Code red" warnings are then relayed to the target area via loudspeakers, radio, and television. That gives civilians 15 to 20 seconds to take cover. Through constant practice, most do so. Thus they survive, physically at least, though the mental toll of living under nonstop bombardment, especially for children, must be severe.
When critics of Israel complain about the supposed "disproportionality" of its response, they are, in effect, penalizing Israel for the success of its civil defense efforts, while letting Hamas off the hook for not making any similar effort to protect the population of Gaza. Instead of sheltering civilians, Hamas uses them as human shields. Its bunkers are reserved for its own high command.
But that is how the game is played in the Middle East, and once again Hamas will reap a public-relations windfall while Israel will be castigated as a human-rights abuser. The Israeli public seems to have accepted such slander as the price of battling those who would destroy it. Their support for the war effort remained overwhelming throughout.
If there is any complaint in Israel it is not that the offensive was too barbaric but that it was too restrained. Israeli soldiers, in particular, grumbled when they were pulled out of Gaza without having killed as many Hamas fighters as they would have liked. (Apparently Hamas adopted a strategy of not letting most of its militants engage in frontal attacks on Israeli forces that likely would have led to their demise.) But the outgoing government, led by lame duck Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, thought it had done as much damage as it could without inflicting unacceptable civilian casualties. And it was determined to end the offensive in advance of Israel's February 10 elections and, just as important, the inauguration of Barack Obama on January 20. (Israeli leaders did not want to begin their relationship with the new American president while they were in the midst of a war that he might feel compelled to criticize.)
It may not have been as satisfying as winning the enemy's unconditional surrender, but the Gaza war nevertheless can be counted as a victory for Israel. A highly limited and attenuated victory, to be sure, but one that nevertheless restored Israelis' self-confidence and Arabs' fear of provoking Israel, both of which had been badly damaged by the inconclusive 2006 conflict with Hezbollah. Many Israeli officials expressed to us the expectation that after this war Israel's enemies will view it as a "crazy animal" that they cannot afford to bait. "Hamas will think again, not 17 times but 17 million times, before they shoot the next bullet at us," an Israeli government official told us, although a retired general suggested that more incursions will be necessary to keep Hamas from mounting fresh attacks.
Most Israelis are under no illusion that they have won a lasting peace or anything more than the chance to get on with their lives for a few more years before they have to fight another war. They know that on the horizon looms the ultimate threat--a nuclear Iran. But for now what the Israel Defense Forces have accomplished is good enough for a disillusioned public that has come to believe that neither confrontation nor appeasement can produce a lasting victory against Palestinian terrorists.
In Washington, there is talk of "solving" the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem there is resignation that the problem has no solution, at least not in the foreseeable future. "Israelis," says Labor party candidate Einat Wilf, "have found comfort in disillusionment--comfort in not expecting too much."
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.