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ANALYSIS: The third war on Gaza--maintaining the status quo?

 

As the first week of the third Israeli war on Gaza draws to a close, expectations seem to mimic the scenarios that unfolded in the previous two wars in 2008 and 2012. Both began with exchanges of rockets from Gaza with air raids and artillery from Israel, and the overhanging threat of an Israeli ground invasion. Yet to incur dead among its citizens, Israel is not in any hurry to reach a ceasefire, and the outside world is not feeling any urgency to end the confrontation. 

Similarly, Hamas also is not in a hurry. The reach of its makeshift rockets deep into Israel is improving its image and strengthening it politically in Palestine and the Arab world. Israel’s raids are not harming its operatives but rather civilians, which in turn cynically increases international sympathy with Gaza and which will later translate into some pressure on Israel to stop.   

This war, also like the previous ones, is not going to end with a decisive military victory for either side. Israel does not expect--and probably does not want--this offensive to destroy Hamas in Gaza. Israel is interested in maintaining an administration in Gaza divided from that in the West Bank to propagate separation and reduce the chances for an independent state in the entire occupied Palestinian territory. Hamas, for its part, understands it cannot produce a military victory against Israel’s high-powered weaponry. Each side, on the other hand, is looking to reap the maximum political gain from the war. We can expect, therefore, that this war will end with a ceasefire similar to the previous ones, where Israel will be able to say that it destroyed much of the build-up of Hamas’s rocket arsenal, achieved a period of calm, and deterred Hamas from firing rockets. Hamas, on the other hand, will survive and stop firing projectiles when it sees fit, which means maintaining its military capability for the future.

Meanwhile, this war has had significant political outcomes for all three main parties to the conflict, and their relationships with each other. It is difficult to understand the cause and effect of this war without linking it to the last round of talks and its ramifications.
This war was preceded by nine months of US-sponsored peace talks that ended in international blame directed towards Israel, and exceptional strength on the part of the Palestinian Authority and its president Mahmoud Abbas. It exposed Israel to criticism from its closest allies, in a way that interrupted the pursuit of its main agenda of settlement expansion--at least making it more politically costly. Israel was not happy at all with a series of announcements by major European states directing their citizens and companies to avoid economic activities involving Israeli settlements due to their illegality. The right wing Israeli government realized that the peace process arena is not the best one for its games.

Hamas at that point was completely exhausted and marginalized to the extent that it surrendered its governance to Abbas’ prerogative. Internal evaluations by Hamas led its leaders to conclude that the transformation of the movement’s role and image from one of resistance against Israel’s occupation to that of governance had been responsible for the deterioration of the movement’s public position, both in Palestine and in the region. As a result, it agreed to form a joint government with Abbas’ Fateh.

Abbas was calling the shots as the nine-month deadline for the negotiations expired (forming a national unity government, submitting Palestine’s membership to 15 United Nations agencies, and increasing international condemnation of Israeli settlement expansion). Both Israel and Hamas were uncomfortable with the emerging political realities, which sidelined them.
And so, when three Israeli settlers were killed and the Israeli war on Gaza commenced, Israel was set free from a politically embarrassing situation and Hamas was restored as the Palestinian resistance movement (and moved a step ahead in its competition with Fateh in leading the Palestinian people, making war not peace, and being more relevant versus the fading Palestine Liberation Organization). The political position of Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority he heads, on the other hand, was damaged.

Strategically, the net outcome means that those who oppose the two-state solution, i.e. the Netanyahu government and Hamas, will prevail. Israel will be able to maintain the status quo necessary for its agenda of consolidating the occupation and rendering it irreversible at minimum political cost.