A fragile quiet prevails in Gaza and Israel today, its duration unknown. It would be satisfying to say that Israel won, but clearly it did not. The political leadership did not allow the IDF to continue advancing until Hamas’s leadership, ensconced in bunkers underneath hospitals, could be eliminated. This act would have consummated the operation, demonstrated Israeli seriousness, and extended the current peace interregnum.
But despite what could have been, the reality is sinking in: Hamas lost. According to news reports, Hamas’s Damascus leadership ordered the group to attack withdrawing IDF forces — and Hamas refused. Hamas vowed that there was nothing Israel could do to make it stop firing rockets, and today Sderot is quiet. Hamas vowed that it would fight until the blockade was lifted, and today the blockade remains in place.
Assuming Hamas continues to hold its fire, there are a few conclusions we can draw about the war:
1. It was probably the most lopsided engagement of its size the IDF has ever fought. Only four Israeli soldiers were killed by Hamas, while over 600 Hamas fighters, leaders, and other militants were eliminated. Larger numbers were wounded or captured. That’s an astonishing testament both to the IDF’s proficiency and to Hamas’s ineptitude. Reports indicate that Hamas, despite extensive mentoring from Iran and Hezbollah, proved incompetent and cowardly on the battlefield.
2. No IDF soldiers were abducted, no helicopters were shot down, and no tanks were destroyed. These were central objectives for Hamas that were intended to create “victory images” for the group. Instead, Hamas’s followers were treated to images of Ismail Haniyah declaring victory from a bunker. The contradiction between rhetoric and reality could not be more obvious.
3. Hamas’s regional allies — Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran — sat on the sidelines throughout the war. This is rather embarrassing, given the manner in which these groups celebrate their collective dedication to resistance.
4. Hamas was unable to sustain a consistent level of rocket fire throughout the engagement. Before the IDF attacked, close to 100 rockets per day were launched from Gaza; during Cast Lead, that number dwindled into the teens. Hamas was thus unable to meet the benchmark set by Hezbollah in 2006, when the IDF was unable to reduce the level of rockets raining on Israel.
5. Over two thirds of Hamas’s missile inventory was eliminated, and 80 percent of its smuggling tunnels were either destroyed or damaged. The IDF estimates that Hamas now possesses only a few dozen Grad missiles. The major post-war danger, however, is that there does not seem to be a way to prevent Hamas from rebuilding its smuggling infrastructure. Egypt, as usual, promises to be unhelpful.
6. The political fallout among the Palestinians remains to be measured, but there is some anecdotal evidence that people in Gaza aren’t feeling terribly proud of the resistance as they wade through the rubble. As one Hamas sympathizer writes in The Independent,
The silent majority, I think, have changed their mind about Hamas. They question whether to vote for them again. [Hamas is going to allow elections? — NP] Some say whoever was in power the Israelis would do the same. But that is for afterwards. Right now we all stand by Hamas because we are together in this problem. Right now, the Palestinian people, are suffering and paying the price. Gaza is destroyed. It’s set us back 20 years. When things are more normal, people will see the catastrophe.
A report in the Guardian quotes another Gazan:
I am totally against the so-called resistance, because it proved a total failure. We used to hear these slogans of how strong our resistance is. I believed the slogans. But when the war started, nothing happened. I live in an area close to the border with Israel. I used to see hundreds of Hamas and other factions’ gunmen waiting for Israeli troops who might storm Gaza. But, since the first day of the war, none of them appeared. And Hamas still talks about a resistance that did nothing to protect our people.
The war certainly will not convince many Palestinians that terrorism against Israel is wrong (I don’t think anything could do that); but it might show them that it is unwise and dangerous, and that Hamas is a poor vehicle for their ambitions.
7. Hamas did not expect such a ferocious Israeli response to its abandonment of the lull and escalation of the rocket war. And most of all, it did not expect a ground war. Cast Lead demonstrates once again that jihadists tend to be poor strategic thinkers because they end up being convinced by their own messianic propaganda. Hamas’s leaders thought Israel was afraid to send the IDF into Gaza — a grave failure of analysis.
8. Throughout the war, Hamas demanded that Israel lift its blockade of Gaza. The war is over, and Israel isn’t lifting the blockade. Hamas hoped to use the war to generate international pressure on Israel to alleviate the blockade, but instead such pressure (at least so far) is coalescing around the need to prevent Hamas from benefiting from the reconstruction phase.
9. What was the consensus of peaceniks, doves, and Juiceboxers just three weeks ago? It was, as usual, defeatism: there is no military solution, the IDF will never stop the rockets, we must address Hamas’s grievances, Israel is only hurting itself, and can we please have a Time Magazine cover with a Star of David behind barbed wire? The same people said the same things about suicide bombings as the IDF commenced Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 and started building the security fence. I’d say the defeatists are zero-for-three: Defensive Shield lived up to its name; Cast Lead has stopped (so far) the rockets from Gaza; and look who didn’t show up to the war: Hezbollah, still smarting more than two years after its last encounter with the IDF.
Ehud Ya’ari, writing in the Jerusalem Report, sums up the campaign aptly:
Hamas has the ability to rehabilitate itself and this should not be taken lightly. But this time it will be hard to mollify Palestinian public opinion. There is no enthusiasm for Hamas’s period in power; its fighting prowess has hardly inspired awe, and there is no longer any faith in its leaders.
For Hamas, the war was a major setback, but not a devastating one — only because Israel decided not to make it so. In the long term, Israel’s refusal to press its advantage will likely become the most salient fact of Cast Lead.