Gaza: Who Won?

After seven weeks of horrendous violence,  the third Gaza war is over, leaving an eye-wateringly lop-sided audit of destruction.  On the Palestinian side, more than 2,143 people have been killed, included more than 400 children, and thousands injured.  17, 200 homes have been destroyed, and 100, 000 Palestinians made homeless.

Israel has levelled high rise apartment blocks and whole neighborhoods.  It has attacked schools, agriculture, camel herds, hospitals, sewage and electricity plants, in a callous and ruthless campaign of destruction that would have earned universal condemnation had it been carried out by any other state.

Against this,  Hamas and the other Palestinian organizations have killed 70 Israelis, 64 of them soldiers, and damaged the Israeli economy and tourist industry.  Despite the immense firepower unleashed on Gaza, Israel’s strategic position is little different now than it was when the war began. The rockets have stopped firing, but then they wouldn’t have been fired in the first place had Netanyahu not done everything in his power to provoke them.

Despite Israel’s attempts to ‘degrade’ Hamas and its ‘terror infrastructure’, Hamas and the Islamist fighting organizations were not crushed, but emerged from the war with their prestige enhanced amongst Palestinians,  and also in the wider world,  through a tenacious, courageous and skilful resistance that was not present in the two previous confrontations.

Hamas could not have resisted for so long without the support of the Gazan population, which continued to support the armed fighters day after day through one of the most ferocious and unrelenting assaults in modern times – an assault that was deliberately designed to turn ordinary Gazans against them.   In doing so, Gaza won a moral and political victory that will resonate for years to come, and will make it much harder for Israel and its international allies to re-impose the corrupt and compliant Palestinian Authority on its population.

This outcome does not amount to a Hamas ‘victory’ however, and such claims are overstated.  The ceasefire agreement has not ended the siege of Gaza.  Despite the apparent commitments that it entails, such as the extension of fishing limits, further discussions on the opening of a seaport and airport etc, there is no clear framework for implementation, and no guarantee that Israel will not renege on them in the months to come, or make them conditional on the demilitarisation of Hamas – something that would be political suicide for the latter to accept.

The destruction and suffering endured by the Gazans during the last seven weeks has been too widespread, intense and traumatic to call this outcome a victory, even by the criteria of ‘asymmetrical’ conflict.  It is true that ‘battlefield’ victories are not the most significant factor in such confrontations,  but moral and political victories in conflicts against a militarily more powerful opponent are only significant when such an opponent no longer has the political will to continue fighting, either because its population won’t support the war or because its allies desert it.

Neither of these conditions applies to Israel, despite its inability to crush Hamas in three major wars, and despite the enormous groundswell of popular sympathy from the Palestinians worldwide.  On the contrary, the Gaza war received massive support from the Israeli population that was more overtly racist than in any of its predecessors.  It is now clear that many – perhaps most – Israelis are prepared to accept with equanimity some of the more extreme and genocidal proposals that were once limited to the hard Zionist fringe, from the complete destruction of the Gaza Strip to a new population ‘transfer’.

It is also clear that many of Israel’s allies would also accept it.  Despite some mild criticism and a great deal of handwringing, neither the US, the EU or Britain, did anything significant to stop the destruction.  As in Lebanon in 2006, the ‘international community’ effectively colluded with the devastation, while pretending to be horrified by it, in the hope that Israel would achieve its war aims and destroy Hamas.

Israel’s supporters, from Hollywood actors to liberal columnists in the Guardian, were equally willing to support  even the most ‘disproportionate’ violence – while bearing their aching hearts on their sleeves as always – by spuriously invoking Israel’s ‘right to self-defense’ and denying such a right to the occupied population, or endlessly blaming Hamas and reproducing Hasbara fictions about ‘human shields.’ This will continue, one suspects, even if Israel were to completely destroy the Gaza strip.

Officially, the Arab world has been even more pathetic than usual.  Throughout the conflict, no Arab government lifted a finger to help the Palestinians, and Egypt and its Saudi backers were clearly more concerned with defeating Hamas. This means that, unlike the Algerians against the French, or the Vietnamese, say, the Gazans are extremely isolated, perhaps more so than ever before – at the level of the state. at least

Hamas knows all this, otherwise it would not have agreed to a ceasefire that gave it so little, and which can so easily be undermined.

That said,  the political balance of the war is definitely tilted towards the Palestinians.  They are the ones cheering in the streets of Gaza City, while the Israeli public is turning on Netanyahu – a politician who combines recklessness, incompetence and cynicism in equal measure.   They are the ones who stood up to a military superpower and gave a demonstration of resistance that recalls the defense of Grozny and –uncomfortably for Israel – the Warsaw Ghetto.

The condemnations of Israel’s actions from Latin American governments, politicians like Sayeeda Warsi, and Holocaust survivors, and worldwide demonstrations in support of the Palestinians – all these developments are only part of a wider shift in international public opinion that may well define Operation Protective Edge as a watershed moment in the history of the occupation, and one day lead to real political pressure of the type that once helped bring about the collapse of apartheid.

Hopefully, Netanyahu’s savage war may also galvanize and reinvigorate Palestinian resistance both in the Occupied Territories and inside Israel itself – in ways that can mobilize the whole population not just armed fighters.  .Again and again the Palestinians have demonstrated a stubborn unwillingness to do what Israel, the ‘international community’ and the Arab world demands of them.  They know that justice – and their survival as a people – depends on their own efforts.

Gaza has pushed such resilience to the outer limits.  But no people can continue to resist indefinitely against military assaults of such intensity.  The Gazans have no safe havens or bases of support and resupply.   Another war like this could break Gaza to pieces.  So we really can’t say that ‘Hamas won’ – or that Israel lost.

The outcome of this war will be decided not only by what the Palestinians have done, or will do, but by the international solidarity that can be mobilized to break down the walls that have kept Gazans imprisoned for the last ten years,  that can help them survive the coming weeks and months and rebuild  their shattered society once again, that can ultimately isolate Israel bring down the edifice of support that has enabled its leaders to get away with so much for so long, and ensure that the most terrible of the three Gaza wars is the last.

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