Israel and Hamas have agreed to an indefinite cease-fire after 50 bloody days of fighting in the Gaza Strip. Both sides are claiming victory, to their publics and the international community. Both audiences matter because this war is not over and when the fighting resumes, Israel and Hamas will need the support of domestic constituencies and international opinion to ultimately prevail.
Nearly two months of armed struggle has resulted in the deaths of 2,143 Palestinians — the United Nations says that there were 495 children and 253 women among them — and 64 Israeli soldiers, as well as six Israeli civilians killed in Israel by Hamas’ rocket and mortar attacks.
The Gaza Strip, which was a virtual ruin before the conflict began, is now devastated, meaning that there will be little or no relief for the more than 11,000 Palestinians wounded and the 100,000 left homeless.
It is estimated that 10,000 buildings were destroyed by the Israeli assault, and entire neighborhoods razed. The Gaza Strip’s economy will struggle to regain its footing with its economic infrastructure and its businesses, shops and factories destroyed. And for what?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the fight “a great military achievement and a great diplomatic achievement.” Hamas “has been hit hard, and it did not get a single one of the demands it set for a cease-fire.”
Hamas repudiated that triumphalism, claiming that “Gaza and its resistance have triumphed,” and that Israel had been denied “any strategic achievement.” The fear among Israelis of impending rocket attacks is considered by Hamas to be a great psychological victory as well.
In truth, there has been virtually no change on the ground after 50 days of fighting — apart from death and destruction. Israel has agreed to permit humanitarian aid and shipments of food, medical supplies and building materials for reconstruction into Gaza through the border crossings it controls. (The shipments will be checked to ensure that no weapons or materials that can be used to make weapons are included.)
Gaza’s fishing boats will be allowed to venture twice as far from shore — 12 nautical miles — a move that should ease overfishing.
But Hamas’ key demands — that Israel and Egypt lift their blockade of the Gaza Strip, that the Gaza seaport and airport be opened and that dozens of Palestinian activists arrested in the wake of the killings of three Israeli teenagers, a move that started the war, be released — were all put off to future negotiations. Israel had sought Hamas’ disarmament, an objective that was absolutely rejected by the Islamic group. Indeed, Hamas insists it will never give up its weapons.
While the tunnel network that allowed the group to rearm has been destroyed, the supply of building materials and a belief that Israel only listens to force will ensure that Hamas’ arsenal is restocked.
This rationale behind this senseless destruction is difficult to comprehend. Hamas last month finally admitted that its operatives were behind the abduction and murder of the three Israeli teenagers that launched this conflict. Reportedly, the aim was to exchange them for Palestinian prisoners, but if war resulted, then that was “Allah’s will.”
A similar fatalism seems to drive Israeli thinking. The metaphor Israeli security officials use is “mowing the lawn.”
According to this logic, every few years Israel must have a conflict with the Palestinians to reduce their capacity to fight, just as every few weeks the grass must be cut to prevent a yard from becoming overgrown.
It is a chilling analogy, given the human costs of the yard work — not only to the Palestinians, but also to Israelis who must be psychologically hardened to accept such reasoning.
Therein lies the chief obstacle to any enduring deal: the dehumanization on both sides of their adversaries.
There is no mistaking the animosity of the two peoples, but they are neighbors, with a shared history and claims to the same land. Ultimately a solution to the problems that divide Israelis and Palestinians must be based on a recognition of each side’s concerns, rights and responsibilities.
Such an understanding is impossible if the other side is seen as less than human or evil. They must see the other as a partner in peace, even while there remain fundamental differences between the two sides.
Negotiations will only succeed when the two sides abandon the zero-sum logic that guides decision making. There is little indication of progress in that direction.
One Hamas official greeted the cease-fire with the pledge that “We will build and upgrade our arsenal to be ready for the coming battle, the battle of full liberation.”
Israeli officials merely hoped for a cease-fire that will stick. Yet, on Sunday the Israeli government announced that it had taken over one of the largest blocks of land ever appropriated for settlements in the West Bank, a move most see as linked to the kidnapping and murder of the teenagers and a provocation that will now give Palestinians a reason to feel aggrieved.
Exhaustion has yielded a cease-fire, but that is no foundation for peace.