Israel has decided to unilaterally end its Gaza operation without a diplomatic agreement or a substantive change in its hostile relationship with Hamas and Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank. It has decided to cease talking, and instead will rely on its “deterrence” capabilities – missile strikes and a continued blockade of Gaza – moving forward.
Meaning: Israel has officially lost a tragic ‘war’ it did not need to begin, a war Hamas did not want but in the end fully embraced as well, making both parties culpable for all that now remains. Or no longer remains. Israel’s loss is the worst possible outcome for all parties involved, from Palestinians in Gaza to Israelis in Tel Aviv and beyond. All that’s left is the continuation of an unsustainable and dangerous status quo, the reverberations of unspeakable suffering, and an even more intense and stratified conflict. Nothing has been gained. Everything has been lost.
Only this time, the costs are far greater, and will persist far longer.
On the surface, it might not appear as though Israel has lost this war given how one-sided of a military affair it’s been – given the tunnels and missile caches it’s destroyed. However, that’s only because Israel’s loss marks a simultaneous loss for innocent Palestinians and for Hamas, a loss it may not accept given the humanitarian catastrophe, the price people have paid, with no long-term improvement in their lives to show for it.
Parts of Gaza have been reduced to rubble, its only power plant crippled, its hospitals and schools damaged. Over 1,600 people have been killed and 9,000 injured, the majority of whom are innocent civilians, while hundreds of thousands are displaced in shelters. Basic resources are scarce, several diseases are beginning to fester, and an entire populace, over half of which is children, has been scarred by traumas which will persist indefinitely. Parts of this small, densely-populated strip of land have taken on apocalyptic qualities. Burn victims continue to arrive at overcrowded, barely functioning ICUs. Bodies are filling up supermarket freezers empty of food and barely able to run. Some of the homeless and displaced are wandering, dazed.
These scenes of suffering for Palestinians mark their real, human losses. However, they also represent some of Israel’s losses from this failed war. It has lost further international legitimacy, become further isolated, has managed to degrade its relationship with the United States (despite public appearances), and has lost the sympathy and support of young Americans and Europeans – from future voters and policy makers.
Israel’s losses are also represented by the precious lives it has lost, by those bereaved families now mourning soldiers who were killed in Gaza, and by the fact that its long-term security has not been improved. In fact, what has transpired will make Israel less secure as hearts within Palestinian society harden ever more. Public support for this operation in Israel, and for the rejection of ceasefires, have been meaningful only in the moment. However, they don’t represent any real victory for the country or for its politicians.
History has borne this out. Israel has lost.
It didn’t have to be this way. Hamas, which Israel helped create as a destabilizing counter to the PLO decades ago, grew into a foe, becoming an extremist entity supporting terror and calling for Israel’s destruction. However, Hamas has been evolving over the past 10 years, and its leadership, under the buckling weight of societal collapse, isolation and a lack of funds, made a significant move away from extremism and toward diplomacy when, on April 23, it signed a unity agreement with the Palestinian Authority. It was an agreement the United States championed, an agreement the Obama administration begged Israel to recognize as a real opportunity for a diplomatic breakthrough and recognition by all Palestinian factions. Instead, Israel bombed Gaza minutes after the agreement was signed, and has made every effort to thwart this agreement which Netanyahu greatly fears.
That effort culminated after the tragic kidnapping of three Israeli teens, which Netanyahu falsely blamed on a Hamas and vowed “a heavy price” would be paid. That heavy price is now visible in the rubble of Gaza.
This price is Israel’s loss, a loss which has harmed Israel’s national interests, has pushed Hamas to the brink, and has created a human catastrophe.
These losses might have been avoidable: if Netanyahu would have acknowledged the PA-Hamas unity agreement in April, as the U.S. begged Israel to do, all of this could have been avoided in favor of diplomatic efforts. If Netanyahu truly wanted peace and the creation of two states, Israel’s interests could have been served by trying to see what negotiations with a unity government might have yielded.
Instead, a Hamas still trying to maintain its unity agreement with the PA has been pushed to the brink, and if no improvement for the lives of Palestinians in Gaza result after all of the unspeakable human tolls, it may be torn asunder. Only to be replaced by an even more radical entity, buoyed by a continuously bombed and shattered people. For while many in Gaza don’t factionally support Hamas, most view resistance as fully legitimate and a clear right in the face of continued oppression. Indeed, Palestinians have a right to defend themselves, as does Israel, and Hamas as an inextricable part of Palestinian society is representative of that fact.
Both sides could have ‘won’ – the blockade which served as a collective punishment for 1.8 million people could have been lifted, improving the lives of Palestinians, and Israel could have gained unprecedented diplomatic and security assurances. Instead, it has chosen to point to Hamas, after the horrible capture of an Israeli soldier and the subsequent ‘Hannibal Doctrine’ bombing which shattered a 72-hour ceasefire, and declared it persona non grata.
Perhaps Israel and Netanyahu are right that Hamas’ leaders cannot control its various military factions, and thus should not be counseled any longer for a ceasefire. However, such counsel would not have been needed had diplomacy been attempted, had the PA-Hamas unity agreement been recognized.
Despite everything, doing so is still a possibility. Only, unlike before the Gaza operations began, Israel would have to do what it is unwilling to do: end the blockade of Gaza and give Hamas the victory it needs to survive.
Instead, both sides may lose. And that is a tragic, and dangerous, outcome for everyone.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, published recently by Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.
In Netanyahu’s press conference this evening (Saturday), he did not specify exactly what Israel’s plans are, other than the fact that they will likely be unilateral save a secret, diplomatic breakthrough. Meaning: as long as there continues to be rocket fire, Israel will continue to act militarily, though it appears the ground operation will indeed end soon after the tunnels are destroyed.
Netanyahu has left himself open, with broad language, to either a) continue any military operation possible, or b) be open to any option (including diplomacy).
Nothing would make me happier than to have this post be proven wrong, and for a diplomatic solution to be reached that improves the situation for all peoples. Nothing.
Though I’m not hopeful.