Israel vs Hamas, a war of surprises

The shock to Israel's system from the intense conflict in Gaza is profound.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
24 July 2014

By any conventional measure, Hamas should now be more than ready to agree a ceasefire in its bitter war with Israel. Since the bombardments started on 8 July 2014 , Israel has expanded its air-strikes on targets concentrated in heavily populated areas, leading inevitably to a gradual increase in casualties, the vast majority of them civilians. After seventeen days more than 700 people had been recorded dead and around 5,000 injured in Gaza, including over 180 children and over 100 women and older men. The damage to infrastructure in an already weak economy adds to the misery (see Jodi Rudoren & Michael R Gordon, “Israel faces increasing pressure to halt Gaza war”, New York Times, 23 July 2014)

Hamas has continued its rocket attacks on Israel, with more than 2,000 since the latest conflict began. Israel is intent on destroying Hamas's launchers and munitions-stores as well as its "infiltration tunnels". It has the means to do this, given time; its military capacity is huge, it is the most powerful state in the Middle East, and it enjoys both close cooperation and technical reliance on the United States's advanced weapons and radar systems (see "America, Israel, Gaza: missiles and politics", 17 July 2014).

Hamas has little external support, at least at state level. It is adamantly opposed by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government in Egypt; Syria and Iran have also withdrawn much support because of Hamas's backing of Islamist movements. Qatar may remain an ally, but a more cautious one.

All this makes for a reasonable assumption that Hamas must be getting desperate and will shortly sue for peace, perhaps on terms falling far short of its aims. There may well be a ceasefire in the coming days, but the assumption nonetheless has two deep flaws. These must be grasped if any search for a tolerably stable peace is to  be grounded in reality. 

Israel's troubles

The first is that Hamas, though facing great problems in Gaza, does not appear to be losing support among the population as a whole. There, Israel and of course the United States are being blamed for the destruction. There is also an upsurge in public support for Hamas across the region, enhanced by coverage of the war on Al-Jazeera and other TV channels and the many social-media outlets. These show the human suffering and destruction in Gaza at a much starker level that the largely self-censoring western media.

The second is that aspects of the conflict are very troubling to Binyamin Netanyahu's government in ways that are just becoming apparent. Israel's great projection of power, for example, is not stopping rockets from being fired; one even evaded the missile-screen to land in the Yehud suburb of Tel Aviv close to Ben Gurion airport. The airport was then closed on safety grounds to some of the major carriers (including Delta, US Airways, Lufthansa, Alitalia and Air France). The government immediately opened Uvda airport, north of the Red Sea resort of Eilat, to more international traffic.

Ben Gurion airport may reopen to many foreign carriers, but the psychological impact of even a short closure is substantial, especially because many Israelis look much more to their contact with the world beyond the Middle East rather than the region in which they actually live.

The airport closure, as well as affecting national morale, will also damage Israel's tourist industry. This is one of the country's main foreign-exchange earners, and losses are already estimated at $200 million. Here is a powerful symbolism: an impoverished, densely populated and hugely constrained community with hardly any external support able to put together crude weapons that can affect the economics and psychology of a hugely more powerful country convinced that it can ensure its own security.

The only winners

Another particular worry for Israel in this war is Hamas's use of the infiltration tunnels it has built. The early phase of Israel's direct military intervention has been a real shock to the army, for it has revealed a network of tunnels of astonishing complexity - far more wide-ranging than expected. In addition, the fact that Hamas paramilitaries could use a tunnel to penetrate Israeli territory at the height of the war is profoundly disturbing for Israel's military and government.

Their concern is deepened by the level of casualties being inflicted as the army tries to find and destroy the tunnels. By 24 July, these had reached thirty-two killed and over 100 injured. Much of the impact has been on the elite Golani brigade, one of Israel’s five regular army brigades, whose role dates from February 1948 and the war of independence. On a single day, 20 July, thirteen members of the Golani were killed, including a battalion deputy commander; the brigade’s commanding officer, Colonel Ghassan Alian, was wounded.

By late on 23 July, Israeli forces had identified twenty-eight tunnels with sixty-eight entry points, six of which had been demolished. But there are reported to be far more, and it will not be hard for Hamas paramilitaries to utilise many of them in the event of an Israeli withdrawal. If demolition is the only option to prevent further attacks, it also means the risk of continued occupation and more casualties.

Israel is now facing considerable international pressure even as it intensifies the war. In a hard military sense this is not surprising: a force with overwhelming firepower facing entrenched urban paramilitaries will use that firepower rather than expose its soldiers.  The result is almost certain to mean more civilian deaths and injuries, and greater international opprobrium.

Israel is also turning its attention to Hamas supporters elsewhere. That includes destroying their houses on the West Bank, enhancing its existing programme of demolitions (see Sudarsan Raghavan “In West Bank Israel revives punitive home demolitions in effort to deter Hamas”, Washington Post, 23 July  2014). The result is more likely to increase than reduce backing for Hamas and hatred of Israel, even among Palestinians who would not normally be sympathetic to the movement.

Binyamin Netanyahu is now facing an unforeseen dilemma. He has both raised expectations of an end to the rockets and insisted that the tunnels must be destroyed; yet it's almost certain that his armed forces cannot achieve this without recourse to a long-term occupation of Gaza. Such a move, however, would increase casualties on both sides and invite further international condemnation.

In this situation, Israel may well accept something short of its own aims. John Kerry may therefore be in a stronger position than supposed. That makes a ceasefire possible within the next week. But even if it is, the greatest beneficiaries of the conflict will be the extreme Islamist movements in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. A continuation of the war would serve these movements' interests even more. Israel's actions, as so often, are aiding its worst enemies.  

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