Gaza: the war after the war

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
22 January 2009

Israel's unilateral ceasefire on 17 January 2009 ended its three-week operation in Gaza in good time for the inauguration of Barack Obama in Washington. By the moment the new United States president entered the White House on 20 January, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the whole of Gaza had been completed. A day later, the Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak declared victory: "We won in a big way. Hamas was dealt a blow it never imagined and will be quiet for a long time now". This is a view already being contested in Israel as elsewhere, in ways that are likely to grow (see Gideon Levy, "Gaza war ended in utter failure for Israel", Ha'aretz, 22 January 2009).

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

Indeed, the defence minister's optimism was confounded by a report the same day that border tunnels being Egypt and Gaza were already being reopened;  TV footage showed workers clearing blocked tunnels, bulldozers engaged in repairs and a fuel-truck being filled with petrol imported from Egypt. An Israeli source even indicated that smuggling had continued throughout the war (see Anshel Pfeffer & Barak Ravid, "Sources: Hamas arms smuggling never stopped during IDF op in Gaza", Ha'aretz, 22 January 2009).

Ehud Barak is right in one respect: Israel did inflict great damage on Hamas's infrastructure. The Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram reported the admission of a senior Hamas official, Khaled Meshal, that the intensity and duration of the Israeli onslaught had been much greater than expected. Hamas had it seems been ready for a three-day attack, and did not anticipate what was to occur: an intensive seven-day air assault followed by a two-week ground invasion.

The impact of war

The results are still being digested by all sides - and by international media. Many local journalists and those from regional TV channels such as al-Jazeera operated in Gaza throughout the war and were able to send hour-by-hour reports to regional broadcasters; these had a wider impact as western TV channels - prevented by Israeli censorship from entering Gaza and reporting directly on the conflict - took feeds from their Arab counterparts.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed

When the west's journalists were able to enter the territory and catch up, the sheer scale of the destruction in Gaza began to be registered in their reports. An awareness of what had happened was heightened by the visit to Gaza of United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon - pointedly on the day of Obama's inauguration, a studied decision that reflected the deep anger in UN headquarters over Israeli targeting of UN schools and aid-depots.

The damage is indeed enormous. Around 20% of Gaza's entire housing-stock was hit - 4,000 homes destroyed and 20,000 severely damaged. The UN estimated on 19 January that 1,314 people were killed in the war, including 412 children (with more bodies awaiting recovery from the rubble); over 5,000 people were injured. The figures released by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) on 21 January are very similar: 1,284 Gazans killed and 4,336 wounded. The evidence that white phosphorus-shells and other anti-personnel weapons were used against civilians in urban areas continues to  grow (see Ethan Bronner, "Israeli use of phosphorus shells under investigation", International Herald Tribune, 21 January 2009).

The pattern of assaults echoed that in the West Bank attacks in 2002, with systematic targeting of government buildings - including the parliament building, ministries, police stations and Gaza's university (see Sabrina Tavernise, "Many Civilian Targets, but One Core Question Among Gazans: Why?", New York Times, 19 January 2009). But the level of destruction went wider, according to a Costa Rican former diplomat and more recently a Gaza-based Oxfam aid worker. Elena Qleibo says: "The destruction wrought on Beit Lahiya, in northern Gaza, and the Zeitoun suburb in eastern Gaza city is immense. The sewage is flowing in the streets. Electricity pylons, water and sewage works, municipal and medical buildings, and homes have been levelled" (see Mel Frykberg, "Gazans Do Not Blame Hamas", Terra Viva/IPS, 20 January 2009).

The aim and the result

The wrecking of much of the infrastructure supporting Hamas is not matched by a decisive reduction in the movement's paramilitary capabilities, however. In part this is because the Israeli ground forces did not attempt to fight their way through the packed urban areas, but even more because Hamas militias mostly avoided open conflict with Israeli ground troops.

This was a rational choice: Israel's huge military advantage - including tanks, artillery, helicopter-gunships and strike-aircraft - meant there was little advantage for Hamas in confronting Israeli forces directly, as long the latter kept mainly to more open areas.

Indeed, it is becoming clear that the entire Israeli operation was concerned far less to destroy Hamas and putting an end to rocket-attacks on Israel than to demonstrate its conventional superiority in an extreme manner. The early indications are that the results, as measured in Ehud Barak's confident prediction, are not promising for the Israelis. 

There is bitter and in all probability sustained resentment in Gaza and across the Arab world at the loss of life, especially of children (412 children killed out of Gaza's population of 1.5 million is equivalent to 16,000 children in a country the size of Britain). The extended family relationships characteristic of Palestinian society mean that almost everyone in Gaza will know of somebody who died. In such circumstances, the likely result of the Israeli operation is an even more deeply rooted antagonism to Israel.

The politics of recovery

In the long term, however, the greater problem for Israel may lie elsewhere. An extraordinary aspect of Israel's planning for the aftermath of war is that it expected to be able to ensure that the process of reconstruction in Gaza would be organised primarily by the Fatah movement of Mahmoud Abbas, the West Bank-based president of the Palestinian Authority centred on Ramallah (see "After Gaza: Israel's last chance", 17 January 2009). This is looking unlikely in the context of a sharpening regional competition by state actors over which local agents can do most to rebuild the territory; there is every prospect of Hamas being in charge.

Saudi Arabia has already pledged $1 billion in aid, and Qatar - with its massive natural-gas reserves and increasingly active diplomatic posture - could match this sum after its initial guarantee of $250 million. These subventions will continue a tradition of financial support for Gaza from the western Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia. Newer forms of media-led and citizen-centred aid in the region are also being mobilised. European Union member-states are likely to contribute a further $200 million. All this before Iran enters the frame.

The extent of Hamas's dependence on Iran can be exaggerated; the movement is not, as it is sometimes depicted, a front organisation for Tehran. Many of the actions attributed to it (such as the firing of rockets into Israel) have come from other militias that are at most only loosely allied to Hamas. Iran's backing of Hamas (including significant military support) and its role in Gaza's reconstruction will be only one of several currents in a fluid and competitive post-war environment.

The Israelis also tend to assume that Egypt will now be much more active in controlling the smuggling. That is far from certain. Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, is in a difficult domestic position after a war that saw his government's intense mediation efforts produce little result and Hamas (a close ally of Egypt's own opposition Islamist movement) win increasing sympathy among his people (see Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond", 12 January 2009). Egypt is in no hurry to be seen to be doing Israel's work.  

Indeed, even if Mubarak were to order more sustained efforts to control the Philadelphi corridor on the Egyptian side of the border, there is no guarantee that local functionaries would observe their assigned tasks in this respect. After all, the profitable smuggling economy sustains Egyptian livelihoods in Sinai; and in any case the task of distinguishing between a huge volume of everyday domestic and consumer goods and far smaller amounts of weapons or weapons-parts would require stringent control of a population that now is more sympathetic to Hamas.

Moreover, there are indications that Iran is already starting the process of resupplying Hamas; Israeli intelligence sources are warning of the possibility of longer-range rockets being smuggled across the border in the coming months. These may include the seventy-kilometre-range Fajr missile which could easily reach Tel Aviv. The Fajr range is larger than the thirty-five-kilometre-range Grad, but there are indications that it can be brought in as small components and then assembled in Gaza (see Yaakov Katz, "Iran renews efforts to supply Hamas", Jerusalem Post, 20 January 2009).

The next generation

All this does not mean that a renewed outbreak of war is likely - indeed Hamas may now concentrate for many months on rebuilding its administrative facilities and social services as well as its paramilitary forces, while also extending its support on the West Bank. The movement has emerged from the war by surviving and increasing the regional support available to it (see Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war", 15 January 2009); it is about to receive large amounts of financial support from a number of countries, and it can even expect torefine its ability to strike deeper into Israel.

Such an assessment is very different from the Israeli government's current depiction of a victory; but it is already being expressed in some quarters within the country (see David Grossman, "Gaza success proves Israel is strong, not right", Ha'aretz, 20 Jan 2009).

After the war in of July-August 2006 in Lebanon, Hizbollah moved rapidly to repair the damage, further develop its entrenched paramilitary capabilities and acquire longer-range weapons. No Israeli defence analyst of any credibility now doubts that Hizbollah could, in the event of another war, send missiles across most of the populated parts of north and central Israel. There is every chance that Hamas will acquire the weapons to hit just about everywhere else in the country.

The missiles available do not yet amount to systems that could seriously threaten Israel; these may still be some years away. But the psychological impact of such an outcome has certainly not been factored in to any Israeli assessment of the consequences of the bitter three-week war. Israel believes that its overwhelming conventional military power is a sufficient deterrent and guarantor of peace on its terms. Perhaps, however, Israelis should begin to ask: who will end up deterring whom?

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