The Winners and Losers of the Gaza War
By Zbyněk Wojkowski
December 05, 2012

A few weeks have passed since the violence between Israel and Palestinian groups in Gaza escalated into a war. Finally, a ceasefire has been reached and we may start asking what the goals of the parties involved were and who the losers and winners of the war are.

Despite common sense and media telling us otherwise, the Israeli government did not seem to be too bothered by rockets falling (or better to say targeting, since none of the rockets fired reached its destination so far) on its two main cities;, rather it may even be thankful for that. The fact is, the Israeli government is well aware of the military capacities of its enemies, but uses the so-called growing threat to its civilian population to gain support both at home and abroad.

The picture of the war so far painted in the Western media is proof that this tactic has worked well. We were presented with a simple story: Masked militia men adorned with Quran verses on their foreheads launch missiles from Gaza, while Israeli civilians run into shelters with the sound of sirens echoing in the background. We saw Israeli victims being taken to hospitals in ambulances and shaken homeowners take us into their damaged living rooms or show us their cars riddled with shrapnel from Gazan rockets. The Israeli army retaliates and we see distant explosions over the horizon of Gaza. What we do not see are the pictures of charred and limbless Palestinian corpses so as not to counter the image of “surgical precision” of Israeli weapons in destroying rocket launchers and terrorist cells and of the moral superiority of its operators. If Hamas had not been naturally keen on shooting at Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, the Israeli government would have had to provoke it into launching its long range (by local standards) missiles by assassinating one of its chief commanders in order to achieve this favorable image.

If we accept that the war did not take place against the wishes of the Israeli government, we may also try to argue that the war was in the best interests of the current government. First, elections are coming and it is a public secret in Israel that war is a legitimate way of campaigning. If not legitimate, then at least it is common as the following incomplete list may show – the bombing of Iraqi nuclear reactors preceded elections in 1981, the Grapes of Wrath operation in Lebanon elections in 1996 and the last war in Gaza elections in 2009. After years of warmongering against Iran and little action on the ground the current Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu is rather seen as a politician good at talking rather than as a leader taking decisive actions. Two months before the generally highly contested elections for the traditionally fragmented Knesset (13 parties in the current assembly!) where every seat counts in gaining political power, this is not a reputation Netanyahu wants to stick. The gradual escalation of the conflict over several days with a prolonged avoidance of a ground offensive indicates a military operation guided by political rather than security goals. As the number of Israeli cities hit by rocket fire increased so did the support for further bombing of Gaza and for a potential extension on the ground. Netanyahu, sure of popular support may then play a role of a strong leader who is determined to wipe out the threat of terror posed by Hamas to the Israeli home front. The delay of a ground invasion and relatively limited extent of aerial bombing also shows that Netanyahu has learned a lesson from the previous Gaza war in 2008/2009 when a rushed ground invasion accompanied by a high number of casualties among Israeli soldiers cost Tsipi Livni, the head of the ruling Kadima party, public support of the Israeli public (that had not been sufficiently pounded by rockets to approve a ground invasion), and eventually her premiership. The high number of Palestinians killed in reckless bombing of governmental, public and private buildings across the Gaza Strip also badly damaged the Israeli image on the international level. These may also be the reasons why an invasion of the Gaza Strip (or at least a large scale military ground operation) was unlikely to occur and a ceasefire eventually reached without any significant change of the threat posed to Israel by Palestinian missiles.

Second, the peace process has been long stalled and part of the blame has also been put on Netanyahu, who refuses to deal with the Palestinians while continuing to expand settlements in the West Bank. There is no better argument against holding peace talks than an ongoing war.

Third, the Gaza war is of immense significance to Israeli-American relations. Netanyahu has managed to abort any peacemaking attempts (likely unfavorable to Israel) of the second Obama’s administration even before the president reelect had the chance to be inaugurated into his second term. It was widely expected that Barack Obama, just like Bill Clinton and to some extent also G. W. Bush (remember inconclusive Annapolis conference in 2008), would partially devote his second term to peacemaking efforts in the Middle East, which could make him pressure Israel into painful compromises like sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinians. With a war looming between Israel and Hamas Obama also had no other choice but to pledge his unceasing support to Israeli security and right to self-defense in order not to be at odds with democratic Representatives and Senators in the Congress who unlike him need the help of the Jewish lobby to get reelected. Now, it may be impossible for Obama to push for any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that could compromise Israeli security and defense capacity (understand: ceding territories to a Palestinian state) without losing his remaining credibility in international politics.

To be sure, the war was also convenient for the Hamas government in Gaza, which ordered the continued rocket fire despite the damage caused by Israeli retaliatory air raids and the threat of an invasion. The war has helped to boost the image of the Islamic movement both at home (Gaza Strip and West Bank) and abroad (predominantly Islamic world) as Hamas was resisting the “Zionist assault” and preventing an extensive ground operation due to the fear Israel had from the large stockpile of missiles in the possession of Hamas. The number of prominent politicians from the Islamic world like the prime ministers of Egypt and Turkey, and the foreign minister of Tunisia, who either visited Gaza and posed in front of the media with the victims of Israeli air raids at the Shifa’ hospital in Gaza or expressed their support verbally from Cairo, supports this claim. While the Gazans were given explicit support in their suffering, their rulers from Hamas were given implicit support in their armed resistance against Israel.

Yet, it is apparent that missiles fired by Hamas and other Palestinian militias failed to inflict any significant damage, partly due to the deployment of the antimissile system (Iron Dome) by the Israeli army and partly due to the rudimental character of the Palestinian weapons. Thus, it was not in the interest of Hamas to launch many more missiles from its enormous stockpile and hence further escalate the conflict, since it might have no other cards to play in case Israel opts for an invasion. For the time being, it will be sufficient for Hamas and its leaders if they are able to keep the favorable image they gained throughout the conflict in the eyes of the Palestinian population.

A party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which had almost nothing to gain from the Gaza war, was the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. As the recent financial crisis continues to show, the PA is existentially dependant on money supplied by foreign donors, and on the custom and tax revenues collected by Israel on goods intended for the Palestinian territories. It was only after Israel transferred withheld customs revenues and donors promised additional financial support that an imminent collapse of the PA was averted as public workers were paid salaries and price hikes reduced. Thus, the PA had no leverage against Israel or the international community in order to pressure them for a quick ending of the confrontations in Gaza unless it risked being cut off from its financial resources. As the PA could not help to protect its citizens from violence, its legitimacy to rule and represent the Palestinian people has suffered significantly. The fact that the parliamentary and presidential elections are years overdue does not help the reputation of the PA either. During the eight days of the conflict the PA sustained a significant loss in the eyes of its own people and it still may have to cope with the consequences in the future. Fortunately, President Abbas’ most recent speech and victory at the UN, affording Palestine a non-member observer status, has helped to redeem him somewhat in the eyes of his people, Hamas included. The Islamic party now seems to be much more receptive – as is the PA – to reconciliation between the two sides.

Another party which was waiting impatiently for the results of the war was the Islamist government in Tehran, as much of the weaponry used by Hamas had been supplied by Iran. As the course of the war suggests the conclusion for Iran may not be convenient at all. The Fajjar missiles manufactured by Iran largely failed to reach their targets, despite the close proximity of major Israeli cities to Gaza. It is unlikely that rockets fired from Iranian soil more than 1,000 km away could be more lethal. Similarly, the international community largely stood by Israel’s right to self-defense, failing to criticize the war in Gaza. If Israel used the Gaza operation as a testing field for an attack on Iran, then another war in the Middle East may soon be coming, but not before the Israeli parliamentary elections are over and Binyamin Netanyahu has been safely reappointed as the Israeli Prime Minister.