Assuming that sooner or later the fragile situation in Gaza will stabilize (with or without another exchange of blows between Israel and Hamas), the question then should not be who won and who lost, but rather, Where do we — Israelis and Palestinians — go from here?
While war is the ultimate head-on collision of wills and interests, quite paradoxically, in the current conflict, Israel and Hamas were not so diametrically opposed. Of course, the Hamas charter calls for the destruction of Israel, and Israel views Hamas as a threatening terrorist organization. However, if we look closely at the war aims of the two parties in the last round, we encounter some interesting insights.
On the eve of Operation Protective Edge, Hamas was at its lowest ebb. After having defied the hegemony of Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority for so long, Hamas agreed to relinquish its own government in Gaza and accept the supremacy of Mahmoud Abbas’ regime. Why, then, did the organization decide at the same time to shoot itself in the foot, by invoking the wrath of Israel and bringing such destruction on its own people?
In my opinion, this was not some irrational decision, but rather a calculated one: Weak as it may have been, Hamas still wanted to maintain its status and image as the guardian of the people of Gaza. It had already managed to snatch Palestinian prisoners out of Israeli hands by abducting an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, and demanding an exchange. Now Hamas tried to reward the Gazans with yet another prize: relief from the siege, opening the crossings into Egypt and creating an economic horizon.
With a standstill in the region for so long, the only way to accomplish that was through a clash with Israel, which was supposed to engineer a world outcry over the Israeli reaction and the mobilization of outside powers who would broker a deal enhancing the aforementioned goals of Hamas. The leaders of Hamas couldn’t care less about the immediate price their uninvolved civilians were about to pay for this. After all, didn’t Egyptian President Anwar Sadat declare before the Yom Kippur War that he was willing to sacrifice 1 million soldiers to get Sinai back?
Israel, on the other hand, hardly had any specific war aim initially. The Israeli leadership accepted several ceasefires, declaring that “calm will be answered with calm.” Gradually, however, with the exposure of the threat of the attack tunnels, Israel revised its position, now conditioning the end of the fighting to a guarantee that Hamas will be stripped of its capability to harass Israel in the future.
Historians warn against playing the “if” game in history, but nevertheless, speaking hypothetically, if the two parties had what they wanted — prosperity for the Gazans and security for the Israelis — perhaps this war could have been avoided.
Alas, the war did happen, but — excuse the phrase — there is light at the end of the tunnel. The war shook everybody in the region, brought everyone to their senses, if you wish, and created the conditions for both Israel and Hamas to get what they had respectively wanted before the war, at least partially.
By weakening Hamas and coercing it to accept a certain degree of demilitarization, Israel is gaining some years of calm. However, in order to accomplish that, Israel will be required to agree to loosen the siege over Gaza, which, in turn, will give Hamas what it aspired for: a sense of relief and economic opportunities for the Gazans.
This is like an exercise in negotiation, where two people are fighting over the same orange. One claims that the orange will save the life of a child who is dying of thirst. The other responds, with the same conviction, that scientists need the orange to produce a cure for cancer. The animated argument goes on, until they suddenly find out that the scientists only need the skin of the orange for their research, so the child can have the juice.
Realizing this is one thing; acting on it is yet another. I’m not counting on the good will of Hamas here, but on the new alignment of power that has emerged from the war.
A weakened Hamas will not be able to maintain its aggression against Israel as before. At the same time, Hamas should be able to face the Gazans and tell them that their suffering wasn’t in vain, and that there is hope beyond their immediate plight. If Israel were smart, it would take a leading role in reconstructing Gaza. Let us give them the skin of the orange and keep the juice, or vice versa.
Let’s move from a zero-sum game to a win-win one.