Last summer’s war in Gaza ended with most Palestinians gleefully proclaiming a smashing victory and most Israelis disgruntled at how little the war achieved. Just shy of one year later, however, a truer picture has emerged: Hamas, at least, is under no illusions about who won and who lost. In fact, according to two separate reports last week, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas’s full name) recently admitted that it can’t afford another bout of “resistance” like that anytime soon.
The London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat quoted sources in Gaza as saying another war is inconceivable unless Hamas acquires anti-aircraft missiles. And while the sources neglected to say so, that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon thanks to Egypt’s crackdown on arms smuggling from Sinai into Gaza.
The sources attributed this decision to what they described as massive civilian casualties caused by Israel’s aerial bombings. Hamas, they declared, was surprised by Israel’s willingness to target members of its military wing even when they were hiding among civilians. But that’s a disingenuous explanation even if you buy Hamas’s claim of massive civilian casualties (which I don’t), because according to Hamas itself, those casualties began on the war’s very first day. Thus, had this really been its concern, it wouldn’t have rejected or violated no fewer than 11 cease-fires before finally accepting an unconditional truce on day 50. And its claim to have reached this realization only in the war’s final days could be credible only if its claim of massive civilian casualties during all the preceding weeks was false.
Consequently, I suspect the explanation senior Hamas officials gave Haaretz is more accurate. They, too, said Hamas didn’t intend to start another war unless it found a way to neutralize Israel’s aerial superiority. But they also cited the fact that the war ended up achieving nothing.
Throughout the fighting, Hamas promised its people that even though they were suffering, it would be worth it: The international community would rebuild their homes and grant massive development aid; Gaza’s borders with both Israel and Egypt would be opened wide; Gaza would get an airport and seaport. But in reality, none of this has happened.
International aid has largely failed to materialize, and as one recent poll shows, Gaza residents blame this mainly on Hamas. Reconstruction work has barely begun. The Egyptian border remains tightly sealed. No airport or seaport is on the horizon. Israel’s naval blockade remains in place. Indeed, the only positive change has been a modest easing of restrictions at the land border with Israel. And that simply isn’t enough to justify the devastation the war wreaked on Gaza.
Just how unpopular this has made the prospect of another war is evident from another finding of the poll mentioned above: Though a whopping 84 percent of Gazans support “armed struggle” against Israel in principle, an identical proportion – 83 percent – want Hamas to maintain a cease-fire with Israel in both Gaza and the West Bank. In the West Bank, where 56 percent support “armed struggle” in principle, 74 percent want Hamas to maintain a cease-fire in both areas.
Hamas, of course, insists it wasn’t defeated; it’s just switching tactics. Al-Hayat’s sources said the group will henceforth focus on terror attacks from the West Bank, but that’s hardly a major threat: Most Hamas attempts to perpetrate major attacks in the West Bank in recent years have fizzled, because, having made itself a danger to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, its operatives there are now under relentless pressure from both. Haaretz’s sources said that Hamas’s recent diplomatic successes – its leader was recently invited to both Riyadh and Moscow – have convinced it to focus on diplomacy for now. But that could end up being a net gain for Israel: The Riyadh meeting has already sparked a crisis between Hamas and Iran, which is a far more dangerous patron from Israel’s perspective.
In short, despite these sops to Hamas’s pride, the organization that declared a great victory a year ago is now effectively acknowledging that it suffered a massive defeat. And that’s good news for Israel, the Palestinians, and anyone else who cares about preventing death and destruction on both sides.