International efforts to put a stop to the 19-day-old conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza faltered Friday night when Israel’s security cabinet unanimously rejected a draft ceasefire agreement put forward by Egypt and supported by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Israel and Hamas did agree to a 12-hour humanitarian truce to begin at 7 a.m. Saturday. Mr. Kerry said he would continue efforts to close the gap between the parties over the weekend.
Terms of the broader proposed ceasefire agreement, which included a seven-day humanitarian truce, were not released, but Israeli sources said the agreement would give a victory to Hamas.
That may be, but in so many other ways, Hamas already is winning.
War, as the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz said, is the continuation of politics by other means. And victory is not only measured by body counts. The fact that more than 800 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed in this conflict, compared with 38 Israelis, three of them civilians, tells us that Israel is winning on the battlefield. Hamas, however, is playing for higher, longer-term stakes.
“Hamas’s strategic objective,” said Ariel Ilan Roth, director of the Washington-based Israel Institute, “is to shatter Israel’s sense of normalcy.” In pursuit of this goal Hamas certainly has succeeded. By their rockets with longer range and bigger payloads, the militants have brought the war to the doorstep of many more Israelis than ever before. They have put “panic in the eyes of Israelis,” in the words of the Hamas MP and prominent imam Naif Rajoub. And with its labyrinth of tunnels beneath Israel’s frontier, Hamas has undermined Israelis’ sense of invulnerability.
Neither Hamas nor the Palestinians of Gaza have yet been knocked off balance. Remarkably, support for Hamas may never have been greater. This was not what Israel expected when it launched this war earlier this month, blaming Hamas for starting the conflict and emphasizing how the militants use civilians as human shields.
And it’s certainly not what Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wanted. The fact that Gazans are largely united in opposition to Israel and that support for Hamas extends also to the West Bank, where Mr. Abbas presides, has left the Fatah Party leader scrambling for relevance.
Indeed, pro-Hamas anti-Israel protests have broken out in the West Bank in areas near Jerusalem, Ramallah, Hebron and Nablus on a scale not seen since the 2000-2005 second intifada. The protests Friday in Ramallah had the blessing of Mr. Abbas and his party. Seven Palestinians have been killed since late Thursday in clashes with the Israeli army.
To preserve his hold on power, Mr. Abbas was forced to go from being a supporter of Egypt’s first ceasefire proposal – one that Israel supported and that simply called for the parties to halt fire with no concessions to Hamas – to being an antagonist of Israel. It was Mr. Abbas’s initiative that dragged Israel before the UN Human Rights Council this week, leading to a UN inquiry into alleged Israeli war crimes in waging its war in Gaza.
Rather than continuing to support Israel’s position on a ceasefire, Mr. Abbas was moved to support Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal’s position instead. That position calls for a number of moves that, in effect, would end the state of siege Israel maintains on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Chalk up another win.
Israel certainly has recorded considerable victories of its own in this conflict. The Iron Dome anti-missile system has proved to be a wonder, shooting down most rockets headed for populated areas, and helping keep Israel’s casualties to a minimum. Israeli operations to unearth and destroy Hamas tunnels and to root out Hamas’s command centre in the Gaza town of Shejaia, while costing Israel a substantial number of casualties, have been battlefield triumphs.
Israel’s exemplary practice of issuing warnings before strikes on certain neighbourhoods or buildings has given Israel a degree of respect and understanding in the international community, as has Israel’s exposing of Hamas’s technique of using civilians as human shields, a likely war crime.
But the goodwill Israel enjoyed at the start of this conflict has been squandered as the number of civilian deaths has risen. As British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond cautioned Thursday, “As this campaign goes on and the civilian casualties in Gaza mount, Western public opinion is becoming more and more concerned and less and less sympathetic to Israel.”
What good are Israel’s so-called “pinpoint attacks” when other possible consequences are ignored?
On Monday night in Gaza City, Israel carried out a targeted attack on someone in the 10-storey Al Salam Towers apartment building. It appeared that a carefully aimed missile entered the building at about the fifth floor; it still is unclear who the target was. But the effect of the missile was to take out the supports on which the five upper storeys rested. They collapsed together, as in the manner of the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, coming to rest like a stack of six pancakes atop the fourth storey.