Gaza agonistes

Israel early this morning approved a truce in Gaza, with talks in Cairo to follow. Hamas has not responded yet. It is time to ask what Israel’s week-long air offensive and Hamas’ rocket barrage have achieved. What military or political objectives were advanced?

Israel’s stated military objective was to end the threat of rocket attacks from Gaza once and for all. It still seems far from that goal. No more than 20% of Hamas’ rockets are thought to have been used or destroyed. Weeks, perhaps months, more of air attacks would be required to get close to the literal goal of Operation Protective Edge. Some think a ground invasion would also be necessary. The last time Israel did that the war lasted three weeks in 2008-9.

A possible alternative to a ground invasion is what Israel was preparing to do over the last few days in northern Gaza:  urge the civilian population to leave limited areas and use special forces to attack only specific locations where rockets, launchers or their minders reside, without trying to hold territory. This approach might yield the results of a ground attack without its burdens, though the risks to the special forces are significant.

Hamas’ objective was to continue the rocket attacks as a signal of political resistance. Hamas has no clear military objective. The thousand or so rockets launched so far have caused no significant damage (and haven’t killed anyone). But the rocket fire unnerves the Israeli population and brings on air attacks that Hamas uses to rally both Palestinian and international sympathy and support. From Hamas’ perspective, prolonging the air attacks is a good thing, provided Israel is unable to stop or siginficantly slow the rocket fire. It is still possible Hamas will refuse the truce and talks Egypt has proposed.

This is a formula for a long war, even if the truce goes into effect. Israel will continue because it wants to destroy the rockets. Hamas will continue because it wants the support and sympathy the air attacks bring. Egypt and the United States, which combined forces to end the 2012 eight-day air/rocket war between Hamas and Israel, are less likely to be effective this time around:  President Sisi because Hamas is a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, the Americans because they seem to have lost their grip on Prime Minister Netanyahu. President Obama has offered American mediation, but no one has seemed interested.

What has all this got to do with last month’s murder of three Israeli teenagers and the apparent revenge murder of a Palestinian-American teenager? Nothing really. As in many other international incidents, the trigger that precipitated war is now mostly forgotten. The conflict has a dynamic of its own and is unlikely to stop until both sides start seeing diminishing returns.

Where does that leave those of us who think adding this war to the mess in the Middle East is not a good idea?  And what comfort is there for the civilian populations involved?

The region is ablaze. Civil wars rage in Syria and Iraq, Libya and Yemen are a short step from joining them, Lebanon and Jordan are at risk, Egypt is restoring military dictatorship and repressing domestic resistance. The Americans are preoccupied with trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran (next Sunday is the initial deadline, extendable in principle by six months, if need be). This is not a good time for yet another Middle East conflict.

It is particularly bad for civilians. The numbers of casualties so far in the Israel/Gaza war are relatively small–according to the Palestinians, the Israeli air attacks have killed fewer than 200 people, about half of them allegedly civilians. Considering the amount of ordnance dropped, this is a remarkably small number, but more or less ten times as many have been injured. A few more weeks of this and the numbers would no longer look small. And each one represents a family tragedy, with future consequences.

Social conditions in Gaza were already dramatic. Its demographic, economic, educational, nutritional, and housing conditions were all worsening, from an already distressed state. The war will accelerate the deterioration. Israelis may get some relief eventually from Hamas rocket attacks, but the Palestinians can expect nothing to improve. Nevertheless, Hamas is likely to survive and even thrive on the resentments war generates. Rallying around the flag of the current government is a common reaction of those subjected to air attacks.

Gaza is in agony. While desirable, a truce will do little to relieve the underlying desperate conditions.

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