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‘The Fog of Cease-fire’

Who won the Gaza war?

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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The second reason to give this round to Israel is the damage that appears to have been done to Hamas as an organization. Militarily, it used up or saw Israel destroy the bulk of its rockets and missiles. Importing replacements from Iran will be much harder now that Egypt has closed the smuggling tunnels from Sinai, as will importing some of the materials needed to build more at home in Gaza. Hamas rocket fire was largely blunted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system. Hamas’s great secret weapon, the attack tunnels into Israel, is gone. The known tunnels have been destroyed, and Israeli technology will soon be in place to discover any new tunnels being built. Perhaps a thousand Hamas soldiers were killed, perhaps more, among them several key leaders. And a good deal of Hamas’s physical infrastructure (warehouses, workshops, headquarters) was destroyed as well. Its top military leader, Mohammed Deif, may have been killed or badly wounded by an Israeli attack on August 19 and has not been heard from since that day.

Politically, it’s clear that the PA will have some role in Gaza henceforth. It will at least be the Palestinian face in all the border passages, something Hamas has prevented since it seized control of Gaza in 2007. While it is unlikely that the PA can take great advantage of this and fully rebuild its own position in Gaza, its presence is a blow to Hamas that the organization is willing to accept (like going into a national unity government with the Fatah party in June) only when there is no alternative.

The harder question to answer is the political impact of the war on Hamas’s popularity in Gaza. The claims of triumph from Hamas leaders and activists tell us nothing about what everyone else in Gaza thinks. Why did Hamas lead them into war? Was it worth the sacrifice? By what right did they make this decision? And who is “they” anyway: Khaled Meshal, who lives in Qatar? Hamas military leaders? The consensus opinion was that Hamas’s popularity was on the decline in Gaza before the war, partly because of its failure to ameliorate Gaza’s terrible economic problems and partly because of the heavy (and Islamist) hand with which it ruled. During the war it executed people it called collaborators, often in ghoulish public ceremonies, a move unlikely to win it more real support among the many Gazans who are not backers of Hamas or the other terrorist organizations.

One factor that led Hamas to start the war was precisely that it saw no other way to change its deteriorating situation. Today it is telling Gazans that the sacrifices were worthwhile because their situation will soon change and aid will flow. Promises will lift the public mood for a while, but what if they do not come true? What if life in Gaza next June looks no different than it did this June, before the war—except for the deaths and damage the war caused? Hamas will of course blame Israel, and perhaps to some extent Egypt, but what will Gazans be saying then about their rulers? Whether the war was a political defeat for Hamas remains to be seen, but the taste of its “victory” may turn sour fast for most Gazans.

A third reason to believe that Israel won the war is the focus now on how Hamas turned Gaza into a war machine. Henceforth the border crossings may be open longer hours for genuine commerce and the passage of Gazans whose business is not terrorism, but that has never been a Hamas goal. The 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access was never implemented in good part because Hamas fired mortars at the crossings, leading Israel to close them down. Last September, Gazan students rioted at the Rafah crossing because Hamas was preventing their access to Egypt and through Egypt to schools abroad. During this war Hamas continually attacked the Erez crossing, delaying delivery of humanitarian supplies and movement of wounded Gazans to Israeli hospitals—and stopping Gazans planning to study abroad from traveling through Israel to Amman and on to their destinations. Hamas’s ability to control the legal and illegal passages into Gaza, from international crossings like Rafah and Erez to smuggling tunnels into Egypt, has been declining and will now decline more.

Hamas’s use of mosques, schools, hotels, and hospitals to shelter its leaders, shoot rockets, and store war matériel has been vastly downplayed in the international press—but has not been absent. It will be harder now for Hamas, not easier. The culpability of UNRWA, whose schools were repeatedly used by Hamas, is now apparent. Of course, nothing will change unless some countries—Canada and Australia, maybe, if the Obama administration backs away?—demand change, but Congress will likely take a hand here. The open secret of UNRWA’s collaboration with Hamas will now be much harder to avoid or deny, a good example being the fact that its employee union in Gaza is a Hamas front.

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