It’s been a rough few days for both Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Some 25 Israeli soldiers and more than 500 Palestinians have been killed in fighting. The loss of life on both sides is deplorable. But the fact that many more Palestinians than Israelis have died–that the death toll has been, to use the buzz phrase, “disproportionate”–does not mean that the Israelis are the aggressors and the Palestinians the victims.
In a sense both sides are the victims of Hamas’s leaders who refuse to recognize Israel’s existence or to give up their armed struggle against it. If only the Hamas leaders had done what normal democratic politicians would have done when Israel evacuated the Gaza Strip in 2005: which is to say, if only they had focused on economic development, then none of this would have happened. Israel would have happily cooperated in boosting living conditions in Gaza; it only instituted a blockade on Gaza, with exceptions for humanitarian supplies, when it became clear that it was becoming an armed base for an attack on Israel. In fact wealthy Jewish donors even gave the Palestinians 3,000 greenhouses left behind by settlers. But instead of growing flowers, Hamas prefers to harvest hatred. The greenhouses were looted and covert rocket factories were constructed.
So for the third time since 2005 a war is raging in Gaza–one brought about directly by Hamas’s insistence on attacking Israel. No nation in the world would tolerate hundreds of rockets raining down on its territory. Because Israel was not able to stop the barrage through the use of precision airpower alone, it has now sent its soldiers into harm’s way.
Predictably, Israeli casualties have been going up as their troops have been battling through the dense urban warrens of Gaza City–restrictive terrain that to some extent obviates the firepower advantage of the IDF and allows Hamas ambushers to inflict real damage on Israeli troops. On Sunday, for example, a Hamas anti-tank missile apparently took out an antiquated armored personnel carrier, killing seven soldiers from the elite Golani Brigade. But Israeli forces still have the initiative and are working on destroy tunnels built by Hamas not only to infiltrate military supplies into Gaza but also to infiltrate its fighters into Israel.
Naturally the “international community” is eager to stop the war as soon as possible and is putting pressure on both sides to reach a cease-fire agreement. (If only there were as much pressure being applied to Bashar Assad whose war has killed upwards of 170,000 Muslims.) Few seem to remember Israel had already offered a cease-fire before the ground war started. Hamas refused, no doubt because it has been losing popularity and sees a war against the “Zionist entity” as a good way to enhance its prestige among Palestinians and the Arab world more generally. But sooner or later, as in the past, Hamas is certain to agree to a cease-fire.
What then? Essentially we will see a return to the prewar status quo. That is to say, an uneasy peace, with Hamas trying to smuggle in more weapons and Israel watching warily, both sides preparing for a resumption of hostilities. There is no victory likely for either side. The best that Israel can hope for is to manage the problem because, as I have pointed out before, the only way to eradicate Hamas is through an occupation, which Israel does not want to undertake.
The second-best solution might be to have the Palestinian Authority, which is more moderate than Hamas and after all is supposed to be nominally in charge of both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, assert its actual authority in Gaza. Yet, surprisingly, there does not seem to be much discussion of this option. That may well be a tribute to Hamas’s success–little discussed but hugely significant–in knee-capping Fatah’s infrastructure in Gaza, sometimes literally. Hamas has waged a ruthless behind-the-scenes battle to consolidate authority in Gaza at the expense of Fatah.
That seems to leave Hamas as the only game in town for the time being, barring even more radical Salafists. So the odds are heavy that Hamas will remain in charge after Israel’s operation ends–and Palestinians will continue to pay the price for its extremism time and again.