The Gaza war of 2014 will end in a cease-fire, just as the previous rounds between Israel and Hamas and the 2006 battle with Hezbollah ended. But the war will be won or lost less in the streets and tunnels of Gaza this summer than when the fighting is over. Israel must not only damage Hamas on those battlegrounds, but seal its own gains in the terms of the cease-fire, and ensure that the aftermath of the war weakens Hamas’s hold on Gaza and its role in Palestinian politics.
This summer, Israel had no choice but to attack Hamas once the terrorist group decided to unleash rocket and missile fire at Israel’s cities, a point that not only the United States but even our fickle European allies understood. The discovery—new to us in the West even if partially understood by Israeli intelligence agencies—of a vast attack tunnel system designed to enable Hamas to kidnap Israelis and to wreak havoc in Israeli communities near the Gaza border also justified the Israeli assault and meant that a ground attack was necessary.
When the combat ends, it will not immediately be clear who gained what. In 2006 most Israelis saw the Lebanon war as a failure. Hezbollah lost men and assets but remained (and remains now) in charge in much of Lebanon and possessing both a powerful terrorist force and serious conventional capabilities. But now, after eight years of calm along that border and after Hezbollah’s Sheikh Nasrallah admitted that he would never have started the 2006 war had he known how fierce would be the Israeli response, what Israel achieved seems more like a victory.
One reason Israelis did not feel that they had won a victory in 2006 was the announcement of excessive war aims by Israel’s then prime minister, Ehud Olmert. Olmert said repeatedly that Israel would not stop fighting until the underlying situation in Lebanon changed: What he called a “very effective and robust military international force” had to be introduced and Lebanon’s army had to deploy throughout southern Lebanon. The United States also said there could be no return to the status quo ante, but we soon gave up on any goal larger than stopping the fighting. The gap between Israel’s stated objectives and its actual achievements was clear, doomed Olmert politically, and converted what might have been seen as a considerable achievement into what for a long time was viewed as a defeat.
Israel’s government has so far avoided those mistakes in this Gaza war. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that his goals are to gain “an extended period of calm and security” for the citizens of Israel and “to inflict serious damage” on Hamas. Severely damaging Hamas’s missile stocks, killing Hamas fighters, and destroying its system of attack tunnels will clearly achieve the latter goal, and the former—extended calm—cannot be judged except with the passage of time. Netanyahu and his top advisers, including defense minister (and former IDF chief of staff) Moshe Yaalon and current IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, have avoided saying they will destroy Hamas and eliminate the terrorist threat permanently. Those limited aims have been challenged by those who urge rooting out Hamas entirely through a longer ground war and then reoccupying and ruling Gaza, and Israel’s unexpected combat death toll will inevitably persuade some that the whole war isn’t worth the sacrifice unless a permanent change in the situation in Gaza is achieved. But Israel’s government has not adopted these broader goals.
Hamas has stated its own war aims (perhaps a strategic error, but unavoidable when starting a war), and they are far more extensive than Israel’s. Hamas rejected Egypt’s early proposal for a “mere” cease-fire because it did not include the gains Hamas seeks in exchange for all the suffering it has caused the people of Gaza. Hamas has a long list, including freeing all the Hamas terrorists released from prison in exchange for Gilad Shalit but arrested again recently; opening the border crossings to Egypt and Israel; allowing a seaport and airport; expanding the offshore fishing zone; and easing conditions for permits to pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.