As the death toll soars, both sides claim success, while mediators flounder
TWO weeks into the Israeli campaign against Hamas in Gaza, more than 1,000 Palestinians have been killed, at least 5,000 injured and 150,000 displaced.
The Israelis have lost at least 42 soldiers and three civilians. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, who has been trying in vain to mediate, said that this round of war has been worse than the Israelis’ previous biggest effort to knock out Hamas, in 2008-09, because Palestinian civilians this time have “no way out”.
Gazan schools run by the UN’s refugee agency, where at least 140,000 Palestinians have sought shelter, have been hit.
The Israelis say it is inevitable that civilians will be hurt, because Hamas uses them as human shields, by putting rocket-launchers and other military facilities in areas and buildings crammed with civilians.
The United States and the European Union have defended Israel’s “right to self-defence” in the face of Hamas’s rockets. But a growing chorus of international human-rights organisations are accusing Israel of committing war crimes.
Since Israel intensified its assault by sending in troops on the ground on July 17th, its forces have pushed deep into the densely populated strip, where 1.8m people are stuck within a coastal enclave 41km (25 miles) long and 6-10km wide.
The Israelis say their troops, having cleared a buffer zone on the strip’s eastern side, now control nearly half the territory. Many residential areas have been struck, particularly the Shujaiya suburb of Gaza City. In one Israeli attack, a family of 25 was wiped out. Bodies lay strewn across streets reduced to rubble. Several hospitals have been hit.
Israelis, in rather different ways, also feel isolated. Hamas’s rockets, whose range and sophistication have increased in recent years, have sent Israelis rushing to shelters. One missile on July 22nd landed within two kilometres of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, the gateway for 90% of Israelis who travel abroad.
An array of international airlines then suspended flights to Israel; some incoming aircraft turned around. Business and tourism have plummeted. Funerals of dead Israelis in the largest toll in war since Israel’s campaign in Lebanon in 2006 have cast the country into mourning. The mood is of anger and trepidation rather than triumph.
Israeli generals say they can yet beat Hamas into submission. Indeed, the rate of rocket fire has begun to fall, as Gaza’s fighters husband their remaining stockpile.
The Israelis say they have uncovered at least 23 tunnels into Israel, through which Hamas intended to send guerrillas on missions to capture Israelis and hold them as hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners; in this way 1,000-plus of them were swapped for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier nabbed in 2006 and held by Hamas for five years.
The tunnels are being blown up, the stockpiles methodically destroyed. Israeli generals say they need time to finish the job.
Some Israelis, however, are sceptical. “To neutralise Hamas militarily, Israel would have to go into and under every house in Gaza,” says Martin van Creveld, a leading Israeli military historian. “And even then, it wouldn’t work.” Since previous wars in Gaza, Hamas fighters have improved in both offensive and defensive terms.
On occasions they have seized the initiative, for instance by launching amphibious landings on the Israeli coast. They have popped up to attack from their warren of tunnels. This week they managed to capture another Israeli soldier, though it is unclear whether he has survived. “Better that he’s dead,” muttered a retired officer, fearful that Israel will eventually have to negotiate another one-sided prisoner exchange.
Some analysts say Hamas’s capability has begun to approach that of Hizbullah, the Shia militia in Lebanon, which killed more than 130 Israeli soldiers and 30 civilians in a month-long war there in 2006. “Chutzpah used to be Israel’s military trademark,” says a Palestinian musician, admiring his compatriots’ latest military performance. “Now it’s Hamas’s.”
Even if Hamas could be smashed, says Mr Van Creveld, the Islamist movement might splinter into a web of factions, some claiming allegiance to the region’s jihadist groups, each competing to be more extreme than the other. In the Palestinian diaspora, including refugee camps in the region, jihadist sentiment is growing, making Hamas look mild in comparison. Israel could end up being no safer than before.
Some prominent Israelis from the military and intelligence world think Israel should offer an olive branch as well as its iron fist. Yuval Diskin, a former head of the Shabak, Israel’s internal security service, has written that a military takeover of Gaza would “not generate real winners”; a diplomatic push should accompany the military one.
The warring parties should agree to a long-term ceasefire in exchange for “fully lifting the economic, land and naval blockade” of Gaza, including the opening of its borders, airport and seaport, to be overseen by international monitors.
The Economic Co-operation Foundation, an Israeli think-tank, has penned a similar plan. It calls for Gaza to be rebuilt under a government headed by Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinians’ moderate mainstream authority, who is based in the West Bank, the larger bit of a would-be Palestinian state. This should be followed by a resumption of serious Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
There are signs that some senior Israeli ministers, mindful of such advice, may be changing their minds. Moshe Yaalon, the defence minister, has spoken in favour of Mr Abbas returning to stabilise Gaza at the head of the reconciliation government, similar to the one denounced by the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, when it was formed with Hamas’s endorsement after the failure of Israeli-Palestinian talks in April.
Some Israeli officials now say they never really opposed the Palestinian unity government. That is a sign, says a former senior Israeli official, that Israeli ministers may be considering a volte face, dropping their previous policy of sowing division between the Palestinian leaderships of Gaza and the West Bank.
Some Hamas cadres are also, unusually, speaking in favour of Mr Abbas resuming authority in Gaza. Many were buoyed by his decision, after he vacillated during the first days of the latest war, to endorse Hamas’s insistence that the blockade of Gaza should be lifted and that prisoners should be released as part of a ceasefire accord.
He also seemed to abandon shuttle diplomacy in the region, whose Arab leaders have mostly been notably loth to speak up for Hamas. “Finally he realised that angry Saudis are less important than angry Palestinians,” says a Hamas official in Gaza, surmising that Mr Abbas now has a better chance of rallying a solid majority of Palestinians in both territories behind him.
But even if Israel’s leaders begin to see the merit of negotiating with the Palestinians, it is hard to see how they could persuade Israeli voters that the latest war was worth the lifting of the siege of Gaza and the freeing of Hamas prisoners.
Besides, Egypt’s new regime and Hamas are virulently at odds. Qatar and Turkey, whose governments are close to Hamas, are distrusted by Israel. The European Union (EU) still refuses to talk to Hamas. It is an uphill struggle to find effective mediators.
Egypt has to be involved if Gaza’s border at Rafah is to be opened. An international monitoring mechanism would have to be set up, perhaps overseen by an American-led “contact group” including Egypt and the EU.
Whatever the outcome of the present war, it seems certain that America, despite its recent failure to make peace, will be dragged back into the diplomatic fray. Its secretary of state, John Kerry, is shuttling around the region–but so far in vain.
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