A female Palestinian demonstrator during a protest against US embassy move to Jerusalem, at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Gaza City May 14, 2018.
(photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS)
The dust has yet to settle, and the two sides in the short round in Gaza are already claiming “victory” and presenting visuals to prove their claim. The IDF is showing photographs of its strikes against targets in Gaza, and Hamas is marketing video footage of mortar and rocket launches against Israel. Netanyahu says, “We delivered a punishing blow,” and Hamas declares, “We’re ready for the next round.” The battle for international public opinion is raging.
The confrontation in Gaza was foreseeable. Last month was billed as “May the terrible.” It began with skirmishes along the border fence, and ended with barrages fired into Israel from the Palestinian side and dozens of Israeli aerial assaults against Gaza. The Israeli response was measured and judicious. The main surprise was what did not happen. There were no substantial casualties on either side. Hamas did try, but failed, utterly. Israel’s warning and interception systems worked well, and blocked the shells and rockets.
The IDF understood that it all depends on the number of casualties. More casualties, in addition to the 100 killed and thousands injured at the fence, would have handed Hamas a victory in the battle for international public opinion. Thus, the international response was positive, relatively. This was true in the US, as expected, but also in Europe, which is usually more problematic. These facts demonstrate that the formula is correct. When there are no casualties on the other side, the claim of self-defense works and the messages of public diplomacy are effective.
The principles of the “new war” were vividly illustrated here. The Palestinians succeeded in drawing international attention to their difficult situation. After so many low-intensity battles, they realized they would not achieve any military gain. However, to reach the front pages and primetime newscasts, they do not need spectacular events. They are just looking for the spark, the tail of the kite, to ignite the fire. The Israeli side has also internalized the lessons of past operations. The IDF conducted pinpoint attacks, primarily aimed at destroying terrorist infrastructure and involving minimal injury to people, and reinforced its deterrence.
However, we should not fall into the illusion that everything will happen the same way in the future. First of all, there were miracles. One rocket hitting a preschool full of children (instead striking just before they arrived for the day) could have completely changed the course of events and propelled the IDF into the Gaza Strip on a pointless military operation, without an endgame. Gaza continues to simmer. The Palestinian distress is beyond imagination; water, electricity, employment and services are all in dreadful condition. The population in Gaza sees no hope. They may build a tunnel occasionally, but the light at the end of the tunnel means nothing from their perspective. The tunnels are discovered and blocked, and soon, when the underground barrier is completed, tunnels will also become futile.
On June 6, we will mark Unity Day, commemorating Eyal, Gil-Ad and Naftali – the three teenagers kidnapped and murdered near Hebron by Hamas four years ago. Their murder was the prelude to Protective Edge, a military operation that lasted for 51 days. Unfortunately, Israel failed to leverage the operation’s military achievements. Four years passed in rare, complete quiet, and thousands of new residents flocked to the Gaza border communities, generating economic and social prosperity. But this period was not exploited to advance a long-term accord. Without such an accord, the quiet is temporary and deceptive.
GAZA NEEDS a Marshall Plan to rehabilitate and rejuvenate it, and to allow its residents some chance of a reasonable life. Nothing more. Without this, bitterness and frustration will continue to fester and find an outlet in acts of terrorism, in one form or another. People who have something to lose are in no rush to endanger their lives in violent confrontations with an army or to become terrorists. They want to live. If they have nothing to lose, history teaches us, they turn to the path of violence.
We need to offer a deal to Gaza: rehabilitation in exchange for demilitarization. Hamas will disarm, retreat from the border and, of course, will refrain from attacking Israel. In return, Israel will not interfere in Gaza and will work in coordination with the international community, which will initiate and lead the rehabilitation project. Ideas in this spirit, in one version or another, have been raised in the past and were not implemented. Israel has no desire to lead such actions, and perhaps lacks the courage to do so. That is a mistake. Without creating a strong Gazan interest in an accord, the powder keg will explode. This week we saw only the initial sparks. We were able to prevent the great explosion, but it is coming.
And what will happen with Hamas? It will either learn to live in new circumstances or exit the stage. Who will replace Hamas? It is not clear. If Islamic Jihad wins, we will receive a new and even worse version of Hamas. But this is not the only scenario. Another possibility is that a new, sane leadership will emerge in Gaza, with an interest in preserving the quiet over the long term.
There was nothing new in the events of this week. Israeli demonstrated its strength and capabilities, and the Palestinians showed us that they have also used the time to build their strength. Meanwhile, this week has not produced any signs of readiness for a long-term accord. If that is the case, I conclude, sadly, that we must prepare for the next round. There is no doubt that it is coming.
The picture of victory I seek is significant, but not very dramatic: Farmers working their fields on both sides of the border, and children flying kites in the sky – without any kite tails on fire. Just imagine. It could happen.
The writer is a Zionist Union MK who serves on the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. His book on Israel’s public diplomacy, Hearts and Minds: Israel and the Battle for Public Opinion, has just been published in the US.