The week of conflict between Israel and Gazan militant groups, on November 14th-21st, was another in a long series of sharp but seemingly indecisive clashes. It was triggered by the Israeli assassination of Ahmed Jabari, the military leader of Hamas, the faction that controls Gaza. This assassination came after a period of relatively, although not unusually, intensive tit-for-tat exchanges, giving both sides grounds for blaming the other for escalating the situation. The conflict was notable for being the most significant clash in four years, since the even more destructive Operation Cast Lead in December 2008-January 2009, which involved an Israeli ground invasion and killed over 1,400 Palestinians. This time the conflict remained at arms-length, but still claimed 167 Palestinian and six Israeli lives, mostly civilians on both sides.
The damage in Gaza was extensive, with Israeli air strikes, naval barrages and artillery shells hitting over 1,500 targets, many of them rocket-firing sites, but also many public buildings linked to Hamas and dozens of private homes, some of which belong to people unconnected to militant groups. In the other direction, Hamas and other militant groups, such as Islamic Jihad, fired 1,456 mortar rounds and rockets. The majority of these landed in open areas in Israel, and 421 were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system. Only 58 (4% of the total) hit Israeli urban areas, although some of these did cause substantial harm, including the deaths of three people in an apartment building. Although there were indications that Israel was seriously considering a ground assault—at one stage the interior minister, Eli Yishai, warned that “the goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages”—in the end this did not happen. The conflict finally ended, as has been the case repeatedly before, through a ceasefire mediated by Egypt with encouragement from the UN, the US and other parties.
Different this time?
Although in many ways the conflict depressingly mirrored past episodes, there were a number of significant new features in both the context in which it took place and the ceasefire that ended it. The major shift in the context was the presence, as Egyptian president, of Mohammed Morsi, representing the Muslim Brotherhood movement from which Hamas evolved 25 years ago. Moreover, parties sympathetic to Hamas have gained prominence elsewhere in the region, such as Tunisia, since the Arab Spring. Egypt’s response to the conflict was different even to the last significant Gaza clashes, in March 2012, when a military council was running the country. Significantly, Mr Morsi dispatched his prime minister, Hisham Qandil, on a solidarity mission to Gaza in the midst of the conflict, and provided substantial medical aid. By contrast, during the Cast Lead invasion, the then president, Hosni Mubarak, sealed the Gaza border. After Mr Qandil, an even larger solidarity delegation visited, involving the foreign ministers of ten Arab countries and Turkey.
Another shift was in the military hardware deployed. Iron Dome, which was introduced in 2011, received its most extensive test and proved extremely effective in neutralising potentially dangerous rockets (to conserve missiles, it only targets those rockets that are projected to land in populated areas). Conversely, Hamas deployed a number of longer-range rockets, such as Iranian-designed Fajr 5s, which penetrated further than ever into Israel, including hits on Tel Aviv and a West Bank settlement near Jerusalem. This net impact of this shift in the balance of power seems to be in Hamas’s favour—a great percentage of the Israeli population faces the threat of attack, even if the probability of a damaging hit has fallen substantially owing to Iron Dome. Palestinian militants have never expected the rocket attacks to do a large amount of damage, but rather to serve as a symbolic act of resistance to Israel, as well as to strike fear among the population at large.
Winners and losers
Both sides have claimed victory, and to an extent Israel has substantial grounds in this regard. Israel inflicted some damage on the capacity of militant groups in Gaza, not least through the killing of Mr Jabari (although experience from previous assaults suggests that their arsenal and military capacity will be quickly rebuilt). Israel also won solid support from allies in Europe and North America, who framed the conflict almost exclusively in terms of Israel’s right of self-defence and, although it faced strong criticism from Egypt, Mr Morsi did not take any action against Israel and indeed maintained lines of communication. From Israel’s perspective, this reinforced its deterrence and showed that, in military terms at least, Hamas was still on its own.
However, Hamas’s gains are arguably more extensive. First, its regional profile and domestic legitimacy were boosted substantially through the diplomatic visits and the ceasefire negotiations. By contrast, its secular Palestinian rival in the West Bank, Fatah, has never received such visits (partly because Israel still controls its borders), and looked marginalised throughout the conflict and ceasefire negotiations. Second, the text of the ceasefire announced by Egypt (the first time such a Gaza ceasefire has been put explicitly in writing) included a number of long-standing Hamas demands alongside the general call for a cessation of hostilities. This included an end to targeted assassinations by Israel, the opening of border crossings and more freedom of movement near Gaza’s borders—Israel has long enforced a de facto buffer by targeting Palestinians coming close to the land border or sailing further than three miles from the coast. It is not yet clear how much Israel will relax the buffers, although fishermen seem to have been permitted out to six miles and farmers have been able to access some of the 35% of farmland that falls in the land buffer. Even more significantly, it remains to be seen whether Egypt will open its border, currently only used for people, to trade in goods. That could transform Gaza’s economic situation—as a precedent, the Gazan economy expanded by almost 20% in 2010 after a similar border easing by Israel—but it might also give Israel an excuse to seal its borders with Gaza (and transit between Gaza and the West Bank) further, something Egypt has long sought to avoid.
It might just hold
Ironically, Hamas’s gains may actually help to sustain the ceasefire, because an emboldened Hamas may be more willing to spend political capital by preventing other militant groups from firing into Israel. Hamas enforced the ceasefire after Cast Lead quite extensively, but more recently has felt threatened by the challenge from more extreme groups such as Salafis, and has given militants a freer rein so as not to be seen to block resistance efforts. However, with an increased sense of regional support, and some hope that the ceasefire conditions may lead to real economic benefits, Hamas may seek to protect the new status quo. Of course, things could easily and quickly fall apart, but the conditions do seem more supportive of a lull in violence than for many years. That would be a relief for Gaza’s citizens who are now recovering from a week of intense bombardment in their tiny crowded strip of land.
Economist Intelligence Unit
Source: Economist Intelligence Unit