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GAZA WAR : A strategic victory claim by both sides, which is not :

Monday, September 15, 2014


By Yokhanan Phaltual.
An ambiguous open-ended ceasefire has been agreed between the Israeli and the Palestinians on 26 August 2014, which ended the Operation Protective edge. The war was the longest and bloodiest of three Israeli military campaigns waged against the Hamas in the Gaza strip since 2009 after the Hamas terrorist group took over the control of Gaza from its arch-rival Fatah in 2007.
Both sides claimed winners and both sides got criticism from all corners. It is possible to talk about who did well and who emerged weaker in this conflict. But from the war neither side got the concessions and demands it was seeking.
 At a glance Hamas looks like it came out ahead. Before Israel’s Operation protective Edge, Hamas was politically isolated, financially bankrupt and unable to pay its civil servants  the circumstances forces Hamas to reconcile with its  arch opponent Fatah by forming the Unity government in April 2014. In this context, the war was a welcome endorsement. Hamas, for the third time in five years, confronted one of the world’s best armies and managed to hold on to power, calculating correctly that Israel would never embark on long and bloody ground war in order to  topple it. The Hamas rockets sent people across southern Israel running into shelters, killing six Israeli civilians, including one foreign worker from Thailand, and paralyzed most international flights at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International airport for two days in July. Israel’s economy took a relative hit and there was a resurgence of anti-Israel demonstrations and pro-Palestinian rallies in many European countries and South America.
 Two of Hamas’s major sponsors and backers, Iran and Qatar, have hailed the ceasefire agreement it reached with Israel as a victory and thanks the Hamas and the Palestinians for the resistance and sacrifices during the 50 days conflict. Qatar, which is home to Khaled Meshaal, the exiled chief of the Islamist Movement Hamas, was ready to contribute to the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip as soon as possible. They praised the Hamas for stubbornly and flatly rejecting Israel’s lone demand of disarming Gaza.
Unfortunately, the conflict which began on July 8 when Israel launched Operation Protective Edge has cost the lives of 2143 Palestinians and 72 (65 IDF soldiers and 7 civilians) on the Israeli side. Gaza has been set back decades. More than 5000 houses were destroyed and thousands were damaged and on the verge of collapse. Gaza has been suffering water and electricity shortages. Three hundred thousand residents-15 % of its population- turned into homeless refugees within the small enclave of Gaza. Hamas’s 32 attacking tunnels have been demolished. Its rockets and mortars shells reduced to a residual arsenal of 20 percent- from 10,000 to approximately 2000.
Some observers think Hamas got the better end of the ceasefire deal. Hamas got a number of its pre-war demands and Israel agreed to let more construction materials through the crossing than before. But, actually Hamas got anything except that which had been offered at the start of the military campaign. The ceasefire terms are not all that different from the terms after the 2012 Gaza war. In theory Israel and Egypt agreed to all Gazan greater freedom of trade and movement, but will it really happen in practice. Israel and Egypt plan and hope it will ensure weapons; ammunitions and any dual-use goods are prevented from flowing into Gaza. If it actually happens, this could be a huge deal. The Palestinian Authority (PA) hasn’t had a major security presence in Gaza since Hamas kicked it out during the 2007 Palestinian civil war. Therefore, there is one major novel provision of the ceasefire deal, the PA, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to take over responsibility for administering Gaza’s border from Hamas, or at least more power. Fatah could be in a position to turn that security control into actual political gain in Gaza, at Hamas’s expense.
The war weakened Hamas militarily and politically. Hamas popularity is in jeopardy. Hamas has established a reign of fear and terror. The massive public executions during the war of alleged traitors and collaborators indicate that there’s small and growing bubble of opposition to it. Nevertheless, the overall temporary bump in popularity that it got is likely not to recede fast as it is unclear yet if Israel and PA are able or willing to take advantage of the opportunity.
ON THE OTHER SIDE, the real index with which to check Israel gain or loss is against the war’s declared aims, that is, quiet and stability. The leading trio, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Israel Defence Force (IDF) Chief of Staff Lt. General Benny Gantz, who have shown reason and self restraint in order to avoid more casualties, were determined not to surrender to populist voices, including from the cabinet colleagues. The trio decided the war neither to occupy Gaza nor topple the Hamas regime.
Israel PM Netanyahu hails great diplomatic and military blow to Hamas. He said that Hamas absorbed a blow that it hasn’t absorbed in its history. He attempted to respond to the outpouring of criticism for his unilateral decision in which he sealed a ceasefire deal with the Hamas by commenting that the Hamas has been critically hit and didn’t receive any of the demands it set. He further stated “When the mission of destroying the tunnels was completed we pulled the forces back so as to prevent Hamas from killing our soldiers or abducting them from the tunnel- goals they were waiting for. Still we continued to strike from the air and killed around 1000 terrorists of the enemy, including military officials in the command echelon. The Hamas demanded a seaport, an airport, the release of prisoners and Qatari and Turkish intermediaries, but didn’t get them”.
Despite Netanyahu’s positive spin on the campaign, Gaza belt Israeli leaders slammed the ceasefire as surrender. Several Ministers in Security Cabinet opposed the deal, but were not given the opportunity to vote in it. Even as the PM touted a great military and diplomatic achievement against Hamas, a new poll showed the Israeli public overwhelming disagrees with his assessment and overwhelmingly disagrees with his leadership. The poll which was conducted by Shiluv Millward Brown and iPanel found that a full 59% of Israelis felt Israel did not win in the war. A paltry 29% said the Operation Protective Edge was an Israeli victory.
The Gaza war looks like finally over with the ceasefire agreement signed on 26 August under Egyptian intermediaries. If the current ceasefire itself is just a ceasefire, it will depend on how the ceasefire is implemented and talks the build on it. Discussion of key demands like seaport and airport in Gaza, and swap of hundreds of terrorists for the bodies of two IDF soldiers who were killed in the Operation in a month time will depend on genuine and serious negotiation between the Palestinians and the Israeli.
But, the problem is – will the two parties willing to make concessions? They are unlikely, since the Israeli PM has been extremely hesitant to make major concessions in this area even under heavy American pressure in late 2009. The talk is unlikely to change that as the right-wing members of Bibi Netanyahu’s coalition opposed the ceasefire deal, at least publicly. Netanyahu’s governing coalition depends on right-wing parties, including his own Likud list. He is improbably to jeopardize his conservative base by helping the Palestinians now.
 While the two factions Fatah, headed by PLO and PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas have been at loggerheads ever since Hamas defeated Fatah in the 2006 Gaza elections, and then began a bloody purge of Fatah party members which triggered prolonged and deadly clashes between rival terrorist militias.
 The reconciliation is coming under increase strain when Israeli Intelligence- Shin Bet- reveals during the war that a Hamas cell in West Bank had planned a coup of its own against the rule of Mahmoud Abbas. And another reason for the growing tension is that some 40,000 Hamas employees in Gaza have not been paid their wages for months, while Fatah party employees continue to receive theirs even if they hold no official position under the Hamas regime there. And like before the PA will be wary of handing foreign donors’ money to Hamas. The Palestinian Authority (PA) denied to pay backlogged wages of Hamas and thus wage war between “unity partners” continues.
The big question is – can the two rival factions form a collective platform against Israel in striking deals?
Having said all that much depends on the ceasefire being honoured and the outcome of the process of negotiations. Only then will it be possible to declare the winners and losers.
(The writer is a columnist in “Sangai ” Daily Newspaper and contributor to Menashe Hayom’s Magazine, served as Shavei Israel Administrator in India and made aliyah this year.)

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