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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The Americans and Europeans simply do not have any way of stopping an elaborate smuggling network that runs via the sea from Iran to Sudan and from there overland to Egypt and finally under the ground into the Gaza Strip. The smuggling routes are under the control of Sinai Bedouin, while the Gaza tunnels are privately owned by various Palestinian clans and entrepreneurs and licensed by Hamas, which taxes their activities. This is a big business, since smuggled goods include not only weapons but everything from food to drugs. The smugglers offer big payoffs to Egyptian soldiers to look the other way.

Mubarak has had little incentive to stop this lucrative operation. What does he care if Hamas kills Israelis? Better that, from his perspective, than that they should unite with their Muslim Brotherhood compatriots to fight his own regime. In any case, the Sinai is not fully under the control of Egypt's sclerotic government. The Bedouin are an independent force who can express their displeasure with Cairo by staging bombings, as they have done repeatedly, at Sinai beach resorts, thus hurting Egypt's lucrative tourist trade. It is hard to see why the current war between Israel and Hamas should lead Mubarak to change his hardheaded geopolitical calculus by tangling with either Hamas or its Bedouin business partners.

Hamas will rearm and prepare to fight another day. Although it lost at least 600 fighters, it still has more than 10,000 left. It has accrued prestige that will allow it to mount an even stronger challenge to the decrepit Fatah bosses of the West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas's term as president of the Palestinian Authority expired earlier this year but he dares not call another election for fear that Hamas would win. "If the IDF leaves the West Bank, Hamas will take over in five minutes," says Khaled Abu Toameh, the Jerusalem Post's fearless Palestinian correspondent. "Hamas continues to be as strong as ever."

Part of Hamas's strength derives, paradoxically, from its claims to victimhood. Somewhat at odds with its boasts of "victory" was its rush to showcase all the suffering caused by the Israeli offensive. Hamas, like Hezbollah, is skillfully directing the attention of the news media at the damage caused by Israel, while diverting attention from the reason for that damage--Hamas's habit of hiding among civilians. Israel made every possible effort to avoid collateral damage. It made hundreds of thousands of phone calls and dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets warning residents of Gaza to leave areas that were about to be targeted. When the Israeli Air Force detected Palestinian civilians atop buildings, it dropped tiny bombs designed to cause little damage. Only when the civilians had cleared off did the air force drop larger munitions that flattened the structure. It is hard to see how Israel could have been more sparing in its application of firepower unless it were willing to limit its response to a symbolic, ineffectual strike that would effectively give Hamas a free pass to rocket its territory with impunity.

This is a hard case to make, however, because there are no scenes of destruction in Israel to compare with those in the Gaza Strip. I got to see part of the explanation for this disparity on a trip to Sderot, the Israeli town of 23,000 inhabitants that adjoins the Gaza Strip and has been the main target for Hamas rockets. Hundreds of rockets have fallen on the city in the past eight years. During that period, Sderot has never enjoyed more than four days in a row without being under fire. But most of the rockets are homemade Qassams that have a short range and a small warhead. (Hamas is stockpiling longer-range, more destructive Grad rockets that can reach major cities like Ashkelon and Ashdod, but thankfully it does not have many of those yet.)

Numerous impact points could be seen around Sderot, including slight damage all around an elementary school. To guard against this danger Israel has developed an elaborate civil defense system centered around ubiquitous concrete shelters. Complex radar systems, some attached to giant balloons floating above Gaza City, instantly detect missile launchings and calculate trajectories. "Code red" warnings are then relayed to the target area via loudspeakers, radio, and television. That gives civilians 15 to 20 seconds to take cover. Through constant practice, most do so. Thus they survive, physically at least, though the mental toll of living under nonstop bombardment, especially for children, must be severe.

When critics of Israel complain about the supposed "disproportionality" of its response, they are, in effect, penalizing Israel for the success of its civil defense efforts, while letting Hamas off the hook for not making any similar effort to protect the population of Gaza. Instead of sheltering civilians, Hamas uses them as human shields. Its bunkers are reserved for its own high command.

But that is how the game is played in the Middle East, and once again Hamas will reap a public-relations windfall while Israel will be castigated as a human-rights abuser. The Israeli public seems to have accepted such slander as the price of battling those who would destroy it. Their support for the war effort remained overwhelming throughout.

If there is any complaint in Israel it is not that the offensive was too barbaric but that it was too restrained. Israeli soldiers, in particular, grumbled when they were pulled out of Gaza without having killed as many Hamas fighters as they would have liked. (Apparently Hamas adopted a strategy of not letting most of its militants engage in frontal attacks on Israeli forces that likely would have led to their demise.) But the outgoing government, led by lame duck Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, thought it had done as much damage as it could without inflicting unacceptable civilian casualties. And it was determined to end the offensive in advance of Israel's February 10 elections and, just as important, the inauguration of Barack Obama on January 20. (Israeli leaders did not want to begin their relationship with the new American president while they were in the midst of a war that he might feel compelled to criticize.)

It may not have been as satisfying as winning the enemy's unconditional surrender, but the Gaza war nevertheless can be counted as a victory for Israel. A highly limited and attenuated victory, to be sure, but one that nevertheless restored Israelis' self-confidence and Arabs' fear of provoking Israel, both of which had been badly damaged by the inconclusive 2006 conflict with Hezbollah. Many Israeli officials expressed to us the expectation that after this war Israel's enemies will view it as a "crazy animal" that they cannot afford to bait. "Hamas will think again, not 17 times but 17 million times, before they shoot the next bullet at us," an Israeli government official told us, although a retired general suggested that more incursions will be necessary to keep Hamas from mounting fresh attacks.

Most Israelis are under no illusion that they have won a lasting peace or anything more than the chance to get on with their lives for a few more years before they have to fight another war. They know that on the horizon looms the ultimate threat--a nuclear Iran. But for now what the Israel Defense Forces have accomplished is good enough for a disillusioned public that has come to believe that neither confrontation nor appeasement can produce a lasting victory against Palestinian terrorists.

In Washington, there is talk of "solving" the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem there is resignation that the problem has no solution, at least not in the foreseeable future. "Israelis," says Labor party candidate Einat Wilf, "have found comfort in disillusionment--comfort in not expecting too much."

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Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, and author, most recently, of War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today (Gotham, 2006).