The third Gaza War of July-August, 2014, did not alter the confrontation between Israel and Hamas(the Islamic Resistance Movement) in any significant way. As in the previous two military clashes since Hamas took over the Gaza strip inJune, 2007, it revolved around the demands of Hamas for a loosening of the blockade of Gaza, and ended with the blockade still essentially intact.
As recounted in the current edition of Israel/Palestine, the Hamas regime in Gaza did not receive general recognition since it did not meet the three conditions posed by the international community: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, and respect for previous agreements (primarily theOslo accords). Israel and Egypt, controlling the only land access to the Gaza strip, instituted tight border controls designed to limit the flow of goods to that needed for basic subsistence, and thus to bring pressure for a restoration of Palestinian Authority (PA) control.
Israel also instituted a naval blockade of Gaza’s coastline, on the grounds that Hamas control of Gaza was illegitimate and that the organization was a hostile force that considered itself at war with Israel. The basic strategy of squeezing Gaza to undermine Hamas rule there was generally supported not only by Egypt but also by the United States and other Western states.
The blockade was never total; “humanitarian” supplies (food and medicine) were allowed to pass, and in 2010, following the Mavi Marmara clash between the Israeli navy and a Turkish ship challenging the blockade, the blockade was further relaxed for non-military goods. But Hamas and others challenged the legality of the blockade on grounds that it constituted collective punishment of an entire population, contrary to a key principle of international law.
Israel defended it actions on grounds that the Hamas regime in Gaza was illegitimate and hostile, that blockade was a lawful measure in international conflicts, and that if it were interpreted as (illegal) “collective punishment” then no blockade would ever be legal. In any event, Israel argued thatlike any state it had control of its own land borders, and that the naval blockade had been ruled legal by the UN commission that had investigated the Mavi Marmara affair (and had generally been highly critical of Israel).
Hamas challenged the blockade not only on the legal front, but also on the ground. Activists staged periodic attacks on border posts, and in 2008 forced a major breach in the wall on the Egyptian border through which a significant proportion of Gaza’s population temporarily streamed to secure wanted goods. Over the years hundreds of tunnels – an estimated 1200 in all – were dug under the Egyptian frontier, providing not only consumer goods but also construction materials and military supplies (Israel could of course take thisflow of goods into account when calculating how much to allow through the regular border crossings). But the mostdirect form of pressure on Israel, as Hamas leaders saw it, was the threat of rocket attack directly on cities and towns in Israel.
There had been sporadic use of primitive home-made rockets from Gaza since Israel had withdrawn its soldiers and settlers from there in 2005. After the blockade was instituted, Iranian expertise was tapped to improve domestic production, and more sophisticated Iranian and Syrian missiles were smuggled in through the tunnels on the Egyptian border. Israel responded to the rockets with air attacks on launching sites and rocket facilities, but such attacks were of limited effectiveness in the dense urban areas of Gaza, and inevitably inflicted civilian casualties that brought international censure.
Cease-fires were negotiated but eventually fell apart; when one cease-fire expired in December, 2008, it was followed by the three-week war of 2008-09, described on pp. 204-206 of Israel/Palestine. Though Hamas announced that it would not accept another cease-fire without an end to the blockade, in the end it allowed a unilateral Israeli cease-fire to take hold with the blockade still in place. Rocket launchings from Gaza fell to a sporadic level in the following period, but Hamas claimed victory by virtue of the simple fact that, despite heavier losses (1400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis killed), it had survived moreor less intact despite Israeli military superiority.
Four years later, in November 2012, Hamas once again launched rocket attacks and announced that it would not accept another cease-fire without an end to the blockade. This second Gaza War involved eight days of rocket attacks and Israeli bombings, with 158 Palestinians and 6 Israelis killed. It ended with an Egyptian cease-fire proposal that included a promised re-opening of border crossings into Gaza, but left Israel (and Egypt) still in control of the actual flow of goods and people – that is, with the blockade still in place. During this episode an Israeli anti-missile system designed to intercept short-range missiles – the “Iron Dome” — first came into widespread deployment. Proponents of the Iron Dome cited a success rate of 85-90 percent in intercepting rockets launched from Gaza, though some experts disputed this claim.
Once again, in the immediate aftermath of the war the incidence of rocket launchings from Gaza dropped precipitously (from 2248 in 2012 to 41 in 2013). But this time the lull between wars did not last as long. By early 2014 the pressures on Hamas were building. The 2013 coup in Egypt had replaced a government led by the Muslim Brotherhood – of which Hamas was formally a branch – with a government led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that suppressed the Brotherhood.
The al-Sisi government moved, more effectively than any of its predecessors, to destroy the tunnels connecting Gaza to Egypt, thus cutting off the most important supply route into Gaza. The Syrian civil war forced Hamas to choose sides; when it sided naturally with the Sunni rebels, it lost its base in Damascus and also most if not all of its support from Iran. As Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states all feared Islamic radicalism, Hamas was increasingly isolated both regionally and globally, with only Turkey and Qatar as supporters.
At this critical moment, Hamas operatives kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teen-age religious students in the West Bank. It is not clear thatthis action was planned or authorized by Hamas leaders, but in combing the West Bank for the students, Israeli forces detained over 500 Hamas activists, dealing the organization another heavy blow. In response Hamas resorted to the one weapon that it had available, launching rockets at Israeli cities and towns and triggering the third Gaza War .
Once again, Hamas announced that it would not accept a cease-fire without an end to the blockade, thus clearly defining the core issue. Once again, Israel faced the dilemma posed by the new form of warfare in the fourth stage of the Arab-Israel conflict (see pp. 192-194 in Israel/Palestine). These wars are “irregular” or “asymmetric” or “counterinsurgent” or “wars amongst the people.” There is no battlefield, nor any attempt to conquer or hold territory; fighting drags out over time, the outcomes are fuzzy; and the targets on the insurgent side are very elusive.
Neither military doctrines and strategies of states facing such a challenge, nor provisions of classical international law, have kept up with this changing face of modern war. International law has relied on “distinction”(between military and civilian targets) and “proportionality” (to the military advantage of an action); both of these standards are highly problematic, if not impossible, when one side is deeply embedded among a civilian population.
As the militarily weaker party, it is only natural that Hamas has relied on advantages that “war amongst the people” offers. A captured Hamas military manual advises that staying close to civilians limits Israeli attacks and that destruction of civilian homes “increases the hatred of the citizens toward the attackers and increases their support for city defenders [Hamas]”. Buildings used for military purposes are legitimate targets according to classical international law, but in settings such as Gaza this clashes with the precept of avoiding civilian casualties. The attacking party can warn civilians to leave a certain location, as Israel did in some cases during this campaign, but in doing so it is also warning the fighters who are launching the rockets and are legitimate targets.
Mistakes and miscalculations are an unavoidable part of any war; the legal and moral issue is whether adequate care was taken to avoid unnecessary loss of civilian life. Such a judgment can only be made on a case-by-case basis. In the case of Israel’s attacks, such judgments will be made in Israel’s own internal investigation and in a UN investigation by an international committee. There will be less controversy about the rockets launched by Hamas, since they were explicitly targeted on civilian cities and towns.
This conflict lasted longer than the first two Gaza wars, largely because Hamas felt it could not let the fighting end without being able to claim a gain worth the cost, while the Israeli government felt it could not let the fighting end with Hamas being able to claim a gain. Once again, Hamas announced that it would not accept a cease-fire without an end to the blockade, and in the first days of the fighting it rejected an Egyptian cease-fire proposal like that of 2012, which did not include an explicit commitment to open border crossings fully. Yet after 50 days of fighting, with 2100 Palestinians and 70 Israelis killed, Hamas did in fact finally accept essentially the same proposal.
Nevertheless, as often in these fuzzy wars, Hamas could and did claim victory on the basis of its survival as an intact organization. The cease-fire includes a general commitment to the reopening of border crossings – though once again it leaves Israel and Egypt in control of the actual flow through those crossings. Also, Hamas was not forced to accept any of the conditions – demilitarization, international control of reconstruction, a larger role for the Palestinian Authority in Gaza – that were discussed as possible conditions in return for an opening of the borders.
Furthermore, the widespread dissemination of graphic images of destruction in Gaza did do considerable damage to Israel internationally. And the initial polls of Palestinians taken in the immediate aftermath of the war recorded a sharp rise in support for Hamas, despite the heavy losses – a natural response in wartime.
The Israeli government has of course scrambled to claim victory as well. Apart from the heavier losses inflicted (perhaps as many as 900 Hamas fighters),Israel was able to destroy dozens of attack tunnels into Israeli territory, before they could be used. The blockade remains intact, so long as Israel (and Egypt) choose to exercise their control at the border crossings. Israel still holds the Hamas activists it has detained, despite demands for their release.
The stockpile of rockets in Gaza has been reduced, perhaps by as much as three-quarters, and will be harder to replace with tougher Egyptian control of tunnels on its border (the same could be said of construction materials to rebuild tunnels). The success of the Iron Dome system in intercepting rockets – again said to be close to 90 percent– will presumably reduce the incentive for Hamas to renew this particular mode of warfare.
So who won? When all is said and done, honestly, neither side won. None of the basic issues were settled, none of the basic demands were met. We are more or less back where westarted. All will be relatively quiet, for a while.