After hundreds killed in Gaza conflict, Israelis ask: who won?

Although Hamas was hit hard, many doubt whether war was to Israel’s long-term gain

Israeli ground forces at the Gaza border last weekend. Photograph: Dan Balilty/The New York Times

Israeli ground forces at the Gaza border last weekend. Photograph: Dan Balilty/The New York Times

 

At two of the main command centres of the Israeli military on Thursday night, officers leading the Gaza offensive tallied what they considered the achievements of their latest conflict with Hamas: scores of militants killed, 340 rocket launchers destroyed, 100km of underground tunnels collapsed.

But with the declaration of a ceasefire – after more than 10 days of fighting that killed at least 230 Palestinians and 12 Israelis, and devastated hospitals and other infrastructure in Gaza – the mood at the two bases, one in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, the other in Tel Aviv, was mixed.

In Tel Aviv, the generals at military high command were triumphant. But in Beersheba, where commanders oversaw significant parts of the campaign in Gaza, there was greater caution.

On three occasions since Hamas took full control of Gaza in 2007, Israel has launched major offensives aimed at degrading the group’s military capabilities, only to see Hamas rebuild and to achieve little success in actually changing the situation. This time, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu vowed, would be different.

People walk by the rubble of a building destroyed by an Israeli air strike in Gaza City, on Friday. Photograph: Samar Abu Elouf/The New York Times
People walk by the rubble of a building destroyed by an Israeli air strike in Gaza City, on Friday. Photograph: Samar Abu Elouf/The New York Times

Armed with extensive war plans, Israel’s military leaders methodically went down a list of targets, trying to inflict maximum damage on Hamas’s military abilities and its commanders. Yet even now, the top echelons of the Israeli military acknowledge that their efforts may not prevent another round of fighting, perhaps even in the near future.

Nevertheless, many expressed satisfaction with what was accomplished in degrading Hamas. As they emerge after the ceasefire, Hamas’s leaders will be sorry that they started this round, said one high-ranking Israeli officer in Tel Aviv, who was involved in the planning and execution of the operation. Hamas, he added, did not know how much Israeli intelligence knew about them and how effectively Israel would thwart all their attack plans.

Uncertainty

But others were more tentative. Even if Israel had met its military objectives, a senior officer in Beersheba said, it remained uncertain whether the war would prevent future battles. Hamas and its affiliates still have about 8,000 rockets, according to another senior Israeli officer, and several hundred rocket launchers, according to the senior officer in Beersheba – enough for two future wars.

“I just don’t know,” the officer in Beersheba said, speaking anonymously to give a candid assessment of the outcome. “We need more time to analyse whether it was a success.”

Questions have been raised in Israel, the United States and elsewhere about whether the Israeli military’s response to Hamas’s rocket attacks was proportionate and in adherence to international law. Even once the war ends, the issues that fuelled it will remain. And the war has also created a diplomatic cost for Israel, since it has heightened criticism of Israeli policies from an increasing number of Democrats in the United States.

Israeli artillery fires into the Gaza Strip from the border on May 13th. Photograph: Dan Balilty/The New York Times
Israeli artillery fires into the Gaza Strip from the border on May 13th. Photograph: Dan Balilty/The New York Times

The very calculus that Israel uses to judge its military success is illegitimate, said Yousef Munayyer, a Washington-based analyst and rights campaigner.

“Israelis often refer to this callously as ‘mowing the lawn,’ periodic maintenance it has to do by bombing one of the world’s most densely populated spots, which it also holds under a blockade,” Munayyer said. “There is no morality in a war whose repetition is pre-planned.”

Since Hamas won elections in Gaza in 2006 and took full control in 2007, forcing out a more moderate Palestinian leadership, Israel has been locked in a seemingly never-ending cycle of war and skirmishes with the group that both sides have incentives to perpetuate.

Like the United States, Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group. Along with Egypt, Israel has enforced a crippling blockade on Gaza to prevent Hamas militants from obtaining the materials they need to make weapons. Hamas’s presence in the enclave also allows Netanyahu to argue that Israel has no partner for peace, easing pressure to restart peace negotiations.

For its part, Hamas refuses to recognise Israel’s existence. And by firing sporadic rocket salvos at civilian areas in Israel, it can maintain its image as a protector of Palestinians, particularly in comparison with its rival political faction, Fatah.

‘Quiet’

To deter Hamas, Israel has tried in its earlier conflicts to destroy enough of the group’s weaponry to secure an extra few years of what some Israelis describe as “quiet”. For Palestinians, though, the concept of quiet has long been meaningless.

Even without a war, many say life is never calm or easy for Palestinians living under occupation or blockade. Now even senior Israeli soldiers disagree about whether the latest war will prevent further escalations in the immediate or medium term.

A building in Gaza City destroyed in an Israeli air strike. Photograph: Samar Abu Elouf/The New York Times
A building in Gaza City destroyed in an Israeli air strike. Photograph: Samar Abu Elouf/The New York Times

In addition to killing more than 230 Palestinians in Gaza, including 65 children, the Israeli air strikes have devastated civilian infrastructure, wrecked sewage systems and water pipes, damaged at least 17 hospitals and clinics, severely damaged or destroyed about 1,000 buildings and suspended operations at Gaza’s only coronavirus testing laboratory.

Viewed simply through a military lens, two senior officers in Tel Aviv contended that the operation had gone according to plan and had achieved more even than they had expected. A team of hundreds of Israeli intelligence officers had prepared a long list of potential targets and how to destroy them, plans that were quickly enacted after the outbreak of the war.

Unlike Hamas, which fires unguided rockets indiscriminately at residential areas, Israel argues that officers and military lawyers weigh these questions carefully before beginning an assault and have cancelled attacks where they perceive there is a risk of killing civilians – though they have carried out many attacks that killed and wounded civilians.

Chief among the Israeli military’s targets was a 400km tunnel network that allowed militants to hide from air strikes, move around without detection by Israeli drones and launch rockets from underground facilities. By Thursday night, the Israeli military said it had destroyed nearly one-third of that network, degrading one of Hamas’s most treasured assets.

But even if Israel’s military leadership deems the military campaign a short-term win, the question of what constitutes a victory in the longer term – and whether Israel adhered to international law in the process – is much more contested.

Core issues

For Ami Ayalon, a retired admiral and former head of the Israeli navy, Israel’s air strikes have brought only an “artificial quiet”. The core issues driving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the lack of a sovereign Palestinian state, millions of West Bank Palestinians under military occupation, the blockade of Gaza – remain unaddressed.

“The idea of having a victory photo is nonsense,” said Ayalon. “In every case of war, the goal should be to create a better political reality.”

But the conflict in Gaza, he added, “will not bring us to any kind of better political reality.”

The high numbers of civilian deaths in Gaza have also heightened Palestinian anger at Israel and spurred international outrage. That has strengthened Hamas’s legitimacy among some Palestinians and made the prospect of a resumption of peace negotiations, let alone a final status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, ever more remote.

For some Israeli military analysts, however, Israel achieved the best available outcome. Hamas does not recognise Israeli sovereignty, so it is not considered a potential partner for peace.

But to remove the group from power would require an extended and costly ground campaign, said Gabi Siboni, a reserve colonel in the army and military expert at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, a research group. That in turn would enmesh Israel in the unwanted drudgery of day-to-day governance, an outcome Israel wanted to avoid, he said.

Defanging Hamas’s military arsenal for a few years and making the group wary of restarting hostilities was therefore the best outcome, Siboni added. “It’s about building a memory so that it will take them time to say, ‘Let’s do it again,’” he said.

Victory or not, the war has also sharpened scrutiny of Israeli military conduct. While international legislation accepts that civilians and civilian infrastructure will inevitably be harmed during strikes on nearby military targets, the law says that harm to civilians must be proportionate to the likely military advantage derived from the attack.

Family killed

But critics point to strikes like the one that killed 12 members of the Abul Ouf family last Sunday morning – during an attack on what the Israeli army said was an underground military base next to their house – as evidence that the number of civilians killed by Israel was highly disproportionate to the military advantage it gained from such strikes.

“This is a crime,” said Mostafa al-Yazji (40) a businessman who lost several relatives in the strike. “These were innocent people who had nothing to do with anything.”

Israel has also been accused of hitting targets that cannot legitimately be described as military sites. When an Israeli missile smashed through a residential building in Gaza early on Friday, killing several young children from the Hadidi family, Israel justified the attack by saying that it had been aimed at a senior militant who lived in the same block.

Hamas systematically hides its commanders and rocket sites within residential areas, one senior Israeli officer in Beersheba said. “There is no target that is separated from the people,” he said. “Every target is among the people.”

But for some former Israeli soldiers, that explanation far exceeds “a common-sense definition of what a military target is”, in the words of Yehuda Shaul, a one-time Israeli staff sergeant who is a co-founder of Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers who campaign against what they say are Israeli military abuses.

“Are they saying that every private house of every Israeli company commander and above is a legitimate target?” Shaul added. “That’s insane.” – New York Times

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