Israel's punishing war on the Palestinians has left the Gaza Strip in ruins. But the Israeli military failed in its main objective, to break the spirit of resistance and cow the population.
The carnage and scorched earth policy unleashed by the Israeli war machine on the Gaza Strip over the summer marked a grim end to the era of hope that began with the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions in 2011. Yet despite its brutal military superiority, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government failed to defeat the Palestinian resistance.
The war ended in a ceasefire that falls far short of Israel’s original war aims, while the Gaza Strip, despite suffering unprecedented misery under the bombs, has managed to survive. This was a big gamble for Israel, and one that ended up leaving it more isolated in the face of a dogged resistance, as well as a growing international movement of solidarity with the Palestinians.
It was not supposed to be this way. Victory over the Hamas and other resistance movements should have been straightforward. While the Arab world was reeling under the weight of counter-revolution, sectarian civil wars and a return of Western intervention, Hamas had become isolated for its support for the popular revolutions, and crucially the uprising in Syria.
After Hamas refused to endorse the Syrian crackdown on its rebellious population in the summer of 2012, the organisation found itself at odds with the regimes in the so-called “axis of resistance”, and when its leader Ismail Haniyah told worshipers at a mosque in Cairo, “I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform,” Iran cut its funding and Hamas lost its sanctuary in Syria.
But with the backing of the then Muslim Brotherhood in government in Egypt, as well as a rich source of funding from Qatar and diplomatic support by Turkey, it felt confident it could survive free of its historic dependence on former backers.
Yet these regimes could not provide a real alternative. Qatar could offer plenty of cash, but it is a key US ally and had some diplomatic links to Israel. Meanwhile Qatar’s ruler Sheikh Hamad al-Thani, the architect of the Gulf kingdom’s support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, was toppled by a palace coup backed by Saudi Arabia and the West earlier this year.
Meanwhile in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood government made it clear at the beginning of its short period in office that it would abide by all international agreements, among them the Oslo Accords signed by mainstream Palestinian factions that recognised the state of Israel. Hamas rejected the deal.
As the Arab revolutions faltered, pro Iranian and Syrian regime newspapers poured scorn on Hamas, accusing it of selling out to the West and its allies. Hostility from Hizbollah, the Shia Muslim dominated resistance organisation that backs the Syrian regime, left it in a precarious position in Lebanon, where it has some presence in the Palestinian camps (although it has now emerged that the two organisations maintained some informal military cooperation).
On the eve of war Hamas attempted to break out of its isolation by negotiating with its rivals to form a unity government. Although seen as a retreat, it eased the growing pressure on the organisation.
Israel’s aim since Hamas won the free Palestinian elections in 2006 was to demolish the organisation and replace it with the ineffectual and tame Palestinian Authority (PA). Western powers, in accord with Egypt and Israel, backed a coup in the Gaza Strip in 2007. Hamas supporters, along with other resistance organisations, foiled the plot. In response Israel and its allies imposed a siege as part of a strategy to isolate the resistance.
The Egyptian regime under Hosni Mubarak would be the jailer, stopping or delaying the movement of goods and people through the Egypt-Gaza crossing, while Israel enforced a punishing air and sea blockade.
The Arab Spring changed this dynamic. In the aftermath of the 25 January Revolution the Israeli embassy in Cairo had to close, while solidarity convoys organised by Egyptian organisations could travel to the border with relative ease. The weakening of the Egyptian regime also meant that the resistance could smuggle in weapons (many of them liberated from Muammar Gaddafi’s warehouses) as well as vital spare parts and material to build defence tunnels.
The pressure on Egypt’s post-revolution regimes to block these routes had varying degrees of success. The Arab Spring was a massive blow to imperialism in the region and opened up the possibility of the blockade falling apart. The return of the dictatorships gave Israel the space to finish the job. What General Sisi was doing in Egypt, Netanyahu could now do in Gaza.
The cost in lives, homes and livelihoods of the 50-day war is staggering, and it will take years for Gaza to recover. According to preliminary reports some 2,104 Palestinians are confirmed as killed, the majority civilians, among them 495 children and 253 women; some 108,000 people had their homes destroyed or severely damaged; on average there is now less than five hours of power a day following air strikes on crucial infrastructure.
The Palestinian health ministry estimates that over 10,000 people, including 3,106 children, 1,970 women and 368 elderly people, have been injured. Up to 1,000 of the children will have a permanent disability.
Some 360 factories were destroyed or damaged, among them the modern Al-Awda plant, Gaza’s largest, which made biscuits, juice and ice cream. Unemployment, already at 40 percent, is set to rise. One economist estimated that the economic damage was three times that of Israel’s 2009 war.
Guardian journalist Harriet Sherwood reported, “At a cluster of farms in Juha Deek, nearly a mile from the border, almost every house, store and animal pen was wrecked, fruit and olive trees snapped or uprooted and cattle, sheep and goats killed by shrapnel, bullets or starvation as families fled for safety.”
This scorched earth policy is a deliberate tactic by the Israeli military. It is designed to cripple the economy and drive ever larger numbers of people into misery. The hope is that an exhausted population would abandon the resistance and accept direct rule by the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas.
But the PA’s strategy of cooperation and compromise has been a disaster for the West Bank. Abbas has been unable to halt the profusion of new Jewish settlements, curb terror attacks on Palestinian civilians by settlers, or regain one inch of Palestinian land. The ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem has continued without interruption, while people suffocate under the occupation.
For the Palestinians there is not a choice of a “two-state solution” or resistance, as there is no two-state solution. The choice is of a second Naqba (catastrophe) on the scale of 1948, or steadfastness and stubborn resistance.
It is the scale of Palestinian bravery that blunted Israel’s military objectives. As the war dragged on Israeli security officials had been desperately talking up their battlefield successes — not difficult considering its devastating firepower and free hand to attack undefended targets.
Yet the puff of the generals could not mask what is considered to be another miscalculation. Military planners can tick off the number of “terror tunnels” demolished, or middle ranking Hamas commanders (and their families) wiped out in “targeted killings”, yet the ends and objectives of the war remained elusive.
A day after the Israeli leader made another of his bellicose speeches, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz had some blunt comments: “Israel may be the stronger power in this equation, but a war of attrition won’t necessarily serve it well. As time passes, its achievements are forgotten, be they the destruction of tunnels or the assassinations of senior enemy officials. Hamas, meanwhile, gains strength by perpetuating the myth of its resistance to the powerful IDF [Israeli defence Forces].”
And as the terms of the Cairo agreement became known, Haaretz was even blunter: “All [Netanyahu] wanted was to achieve a cease-fire at just about any price. When the opportunity came, he simply grabbed it and ran. The Egyptian cease-fire proposal that Israel accepted on Tuesday did not deliver a single achievement… There was nothing about the demilitarisation of the strip, the rearming or the issue of the tunnels.”
The trouble for Israel with Hamas, as with Hizbollah in the 2006 war on Lebanon, is the capacity of the resistance to withstand waves of punishing attacks. Israel can, and does, regularly wield its devastating firepower. But what happens when the other side refuses to give in? The battle goes on, yet the political terrain shifts. Israel had to show clear and discernable victory within a set time period. Its enemies simply had to survive.
The lesson of the 2006 war (which virtually wiped out the Shia Muslim neighbourhoods of south Beirut) was that when Hizbollah refused to stop firing rockets, Israel was left looking impotent. There were echoes of Lebanon in the Gaza war, although under much less favourable conditions. Hamas managed to embarrass Israel by closing Tel Aviv airport, entangle troops in deadly close quarter fighting, and fire rockets and mortars (however crude) at will.
Meanwhile the deadlines for the Israelis loomed and Netanyahu’s war grew steadily unpopular at home. The fighting had to be over by 1 September, when Israeli children were to begin the new school year. But in the days before the Cairo agreement hundreds of Israeli families fled their homes in the south as Palestinian mortar rounds continued to crash into their neighbourhoods.
Netanyahu was faced with two options: a full-scale invasion and reoccupation of the Gaza Strip, or agree to the six-point Egyptian ceasefire plan that trades a long-term truce for an easing of the blockade, as well as the promise of talks about the release of prisoners and the opening of a port. In the end Israel had to back down, and Hamas and the Palestinian resistance survived.
There was a second cause for panic in Israel — the growing international solidarity movement. The waves of demonstrations across the world, including unprecedented protests in the US, marked a deepening of a popular solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
For many years supporters of the Palestinians were an isolated minority. University campuses were once dominated by Zionists and their supporters. Where it was once normal for students to travel to Israel for a “working holiday” on a Kibbutz, now they wear keffiyehs and launch boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaigns.
This shift began after the horrific massacres in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in 1982. By the time of the First Intifada in 1987 a more confident and vocal movement of solidarity began to emerge. Now it numbers millions.
The huge angry demonstrations can no longer be ignored (despite efforts by the mainstream media). This international movement is leaving Israel morally isolated as it did South Africa under apartheid. Every Israeli action is greeted with growing nervousness in Western capitals, and that questions should be asked about British arms supplies to Israel is unprecedented.
Israel is becoming toxic, widely seen as overtly racist, arrogant and brutal. It is the Zionists who are now considered on the fringe, defending the indefensible, shrill and hypocritical.
Reaction and counter-revolution
While Gaza was reeling under Israeli bombs, Egyptian and UAE warplanes launched air strikes on the Islamist and Misrata militias in the Libyan capital Tripoli; in Syria the regime continues its devastating bombardment of rebel cities in a now intractable and bitter civil war; while Hizbollah, once a revered resistance organisation, has degenerated into a sectarian militia at war with the Syrian people.
In Egypt, a key player in the strategy to keep Gaza under blockade, the resurgent state has wiped out the hope of change born out of the 25 January Revolution. Meanwhile Iraq has spiralled into a many-fronted ethnic and sectarian civil war, with the US having to make a common front with its erstwhile enemies to crush the newly founded Islamic Caliphate, itself a vicious sectarian outfit that has hijacked a promising Iraqi Spring movement.
The victory in Gaza has not broken this trend, and the Palestinians stand alone in the Arab world for not being involved in sectarian wars or defending corrupt regimes. By standing up to Israel’s might, and defying Egypt’s collaboration, they have once again raised the flag of resistance.