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The nature of Israel's defeat

Will any of Israel's political and strategic goals be achieved through this offensive? As the death toll rises, the only meaningful outcome seems a draining of fragile reserves of international sympathy

With its latest onslaught on Gaza, Israel wishes to accomplish two things. The Israeli aim is to weaken Hamas in the domains of governance and militancy. It wishes to strike against the unity government that Hamas and Fatah had tried to create a few months ago. Secondly, Israel wants to destroy Hamas’ rockets and the tunnel system that the latter uses to store its weaponry.

But is Israel achieving its stated goals?

As it presently stands, it would appear that Israel has faced several difficulties in achieving what it had wanted. Perhaps it is too early to call them defeats, and we need to wait a little while longer to see how the situation evolves, but certain unmistakable events are to be noted that point toward considerable hurdles Israel has faced in Gaza this time.

The governance aspect first. Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group has pointed out that Israel immediately set out to undermine the Hamas and Fatah unity initiative by refusing to allow 43,000 Hamas civil servants in Gaza to be paid their salaries, as well as by refusing to loosen up the harsh border controls between Gaza and Egypt. However, in what appears to be a marked trend in the latest Israeli attack, the United States did not seem to share the same amount of enthusiasm with its close ally over this line of policy.

The Obama administration in fact recognized the new Palestinian government, much to the anger of Israel. Even though, as Thrall has explained, the Americans did not follow up their backing with any real effort to help establish the unity government and tame Israeli attempts at sabotaging it, recognition of the Hamas-Fatah rapprochement by the US was still significant since it points to competing views in Washington and Tel Aviv.

This was proven when the Americans actually squarely places the blame on Israel for the stalemate in Palestine. It amounts to, as Mouin Rabbani said, the United States telling the world that Israel is simply not interested in peace. Matin Indyk, a former member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and former ambassador to Israel, went as far as resigning from his post of special envoy to the peace talks due to Israel’s refusal to cede any ground to the Palestinians. 

If the environment was already somewhat unfavourable for Israel even before the attack, it is much more difficult now. If Israel had set out to curtail Hamas’ influence in the West Bank, it is failing in doing so. Even Mahmud Abbas, the most pro-Israeli of the Palestinian politicians, has not hesitated in backing the taking up of arms, as he was heard citing the Quranic verse, "Permission [to fight] has been given to those who are being fought, because they were wronged. And indeed, Allah is competent to give them victory."

As the West Bank, which had be kept under control for Israel by the Palestinian Authority, erupts in protests, Hamas flags are flying in places such as the Qalandiya checkpoint. Inside Gaza, mowing the lawn to re-establish its deterrence capacity has not worked for Israel. There was never a chance that indiscriminate killings of civilians would break the back of Gazans.

On the military front, Israel does not seem to be faring any better. According to George Friedman, the Chairman of the Stratfor Global Intelligence, the Israeli army is unable to destroy Hamas’ rocket piles through aerial assault alone, mostly due to the lack of military intelligence from the ground in Gaza. Friedman states that "the only solution would be a large-scale assault on Gaza designed to occupy it such that a full-scale search for the weapons and their destruction on the ground would be possible." But as the IDF soldiers carry out the operation inside Gaza, they are encountering stiff resistance from Hamas. It is no small matter that, in one single ambush, around 30 Israeli soldiers were killed. Israel is experiencing a steady loss of soldiers.

There has been almost 1,400 Palestinians deaths, the callous murder of boys playing soccer on the beach, razed neighbourhoods, and the repeated shelling of UN schools and hospitals was never going to win Israel any sympathy in the court of world opinion; however, the Palestinian cause has been promoted in unexpected places on this occasion. Scores of American and European celebrities have come out in support of Gaza. Hamas’ leader Ismail Haniyeh was on the Charlie Rose show a few days ago, where he skillfully defended his point of view.

The increasing exposure of the Palestinian narrative in the mainstream media following the Israeli onslaught is complimented by some surprising stern reactions by Israeli allies. In an editorial in the Mirror, the former Deputy Prime Minister of the UK condemned Israeli actions as war crimes. Traditional Israeli friends in Latin America such as Chile and Brazil have recalled their envoys. But most importantly, the cold shoulder America gave to Israel before the operation does not look to be a one-off incident. On July 27, the draft of John Kerry’s cease-fire proposal was leaked to the Middle Eastern press. Remarkably, Kerry’s proposal did not cater to Israel’s main military goals. There was no mention of demilitarizing Gaza, destroying Hamas rockets and the tunnels. The response in some quarters of the Israeli press is telling. David Horovitz wrote in the Times of Israel that the ”leaked comments from unnamed senior government sources to Army Radio, Channel 2 and other Hebrew outlets have described the secretary [John Kerry] as amateurish, incompetent, incapable of understanding the material he is dealing with – in short, a blithering fool.”

The US seems to have dismissed the earlier Egyptian-proposed cease-fire. In fact, as world leaders meet in Paris to come up with a solution to the situation, Egypt’s absence is conspicuous. Not just Egypt, but Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority have also seem to have been sidelined. In their place, Turkey and Qatar, who are sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, appear to be the American favourites for Gaza at the moment. An unnamed PA official did not hide his dismay as he told the London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat that “Kerry was in fact trying to create an alternative framework to the Egyptian initiative and our understanding of it, in a way that placates the Qataris and the Turks.”

Hamas has shown its strength by sticking to its guns by making it clear that there would be no cease-fire unless Israel ends the siege on Gaza; and by ignoring the Egyptian proposal, the US has legitimized Hamas demands to a great extent. The Kerry proposal demanded Israel to make “arrangements to secure the opening of border and non-border crossings, allow the entry of goods and people and ensure the social and economic livelihood of the Palestinian people living in Gaza.” It also asked Israel to transfer funds for the salaries of Gaza’s public employees – something Israel refused to do in order to undermine the Hamas-Fatah unity government. Combined with the complete omission of the tunnels and Hamas rockets, it appears not only that Israel does not have the unconditional backing of the US, but also that the US seems to be open to a solution that would, at least mildly, benefit Israel’s rivals.

It can be argued that Israel’s violence in Gaza stems not from its strengths but from its weaknesses. As the world demands a change in the status quo, Israel is resorting to more and more military force since any change in the status quo in favour of the Palestinians will be a defeat for Israel.

But if Israel does not achieve a military victory soon, it will have no choice but to cede ground. Israel cannot sustain the operation if Hamas stands its ground, if more and more Palestinians take to the streets in the West Bank, if large rallies across Western cities in support of Gaza continue, and if pressure form Western countries intensifies on Israel to end the siege on Gaza.

Alas, that might not happen and we might go back to the status quo. However, even if that turns out to be the case, the changing Western reaction will most certainly force Israel to ponder hard before it decided to attack Gaza next time. 

 - Jahanzeb Hussain was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan. He has studied and lived in Montreal, Paris, and Vancouver, where is presently based. He is a graduate from Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, with a degree in Political Science and French. He writes on South Asian politics mostly at Collateral Damage. He has worked with Newsline, Pakistan’s premier English language current affairs publication. Jahanzeb is also one of the core editors of Ricochet Media.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo Credit: A building destroyed in recent air strikes by Israel on Gaza (AA)