The Magazine

The Gaza Aftermath

Most Israelis think they won this round.

Feb 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By MAX BOOT
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Naturally Hamas claimed total vindication. "God has granted us a great victory, not for one faction, or party, or area, but for our entire people," said Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya. "We have stopped the aggression and the enemy has failed to achieve any of its goals." But one doubts that even Haniya believes his own bombast.

Israeli operations, after all, killed some 1,300 Palestinians of whom at least 600 are definitely Hamas operatives--individuals Israel has identified by name. It is likely that the figure is considerably higher (perhaps as high as 1,000), but midway through the war Hamas stopped holding public funerals for its dead, thus making it harder to keep track of its losses. In addition, Israel eliminated hundreds of tunnels that are used to smuggle military materiel into the Gaza Strip, while destroying an estimated 1,200 rockets.

It is true that Hamas managed to keep firing short-range rockets into Israel, but they caused scant casualties. More important, Hamas did not manage to produce dramatic images of burned-out Israeli tanks or captured Israeli soldiers. There was no major setback this time to compare with Hezbollah's ability to cripple an Israeli warship in 2006 with a sophisticated cruise missile. Israeli units skillfully bypassed or blew up the various improvised explosive devices that Hamas had installed to block an invasion. In most cases, rather than risk soldiers in booby-trapped houses, the Israelis leveled the empty structures with tank blasts or with armored D-9 bulldozers. Electronic jamming was so effective that many residents of southern Israel complained that their garage door openers weren't working. Such tactics proved highly effective. Only 10 Israeli soldiers died in the war and half of them were victims of "friendly fire."

In contrast to the halting, ham-handed operations against Hezbollah, this time the Israel Defense Forces appeared well-prepared and purposeful. They had learned the lessons of 2006, especially about the need for closer cooperation between the ground and air forces.

What they did not manage to do, because it was never their purpose, was to finish off Hamas for good. Israeli officials did not publicly announce that they were willing to leave Hamas in power, because they wanted to keep their enemies off balance, but that was the reality under-lying Operation Cast Lead. As a result, there is little doubt that Hamas, like Hezbollah, will rise from the rubble to emerge as strong as ever--and probably stronger.

Some Israeli officials express hope that the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas can reenter Gaza on the back of the trucks that will be bringing in reconstruction supplies. Fat chance. Hamas used the war to reassert its control in Gaza by killing, wounding, or torturing at least 100 Fatah officials who were accused of "collaboration" with Israel. All indications are that the Palestinian Authority's close association with Israel has only further damaged its already eroded standing among residents of both Gaza and the West Bank, while Hamas has claimed even more firmly for itself the mantle of "resistance movement" against the hated "Zionist entity."

Hamas's friends in Iran, moreover, already have considerable experience in helping its clients rebuild after an Israeli war. They helped Hezbollah do such a good job of reconstruction in 2006 that Hassan Nasrallah's hold on southern Lebanon was actually strengthened. The same thing is likely to happen in Gaza no matter how hard outside donors try to route assistance outside of Hamas channels. Given the degree of Hamas control in Gaza, it is in a perfect position to claim credit for any reconstruction that occurs and to blame whatever does not happen on Israel. "I'm not very optimistic in our ability to cope with reconstruction as well as the Iranians do," a retired Israeli general admitted to a group of visiting military analysts organized by the American Jewish Committee.

The only faint hope of hindering Hamas in the future rests in Egypt's presumed ability to close off tunnels running from its territory into Gaza. Israel only agreed to suspend Cast Lead after Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak gave vague assurances that he would move against the smugglers and after outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pledged that the United States would offer equally unspecified assistance in this endeavor. All these pledges are likely to prove as hollow as the promises by the United Nations and European Union in 2006 to prevent the rearming of Hezbollah.