Who did win the Gaza war, Israel or Hamas? The answer to that question is political rather than military and hotly debated. With Israel on the eve of elections and Gaza having been devastated, neither side can afford to be perceived as anything less than victorious. Yet, the more important question is to what degree Israel and Hamas are better off than before the fighting and whether their gains outweigh their costs.
Israel has achieved at best tactical advantages at the price of seriously damaging its image, risking facing war crime charges and putting in jeopardy an Arab peace plan it endorsed as a basis for talks. Anthony Cordesman, a prominent military analyst of the Middle East argued in January 9 report to Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that tactical advantages Israel achieved were largely gained early in the war in strikes on Hamas facilities. Cordesman cautioned that the strategic cost of a pro-longed war as opposed to a halt after the initial Israeli air strikes outweighed any tactical advantage Israel would gain. "Will Israel end in empowering an enemy in political terms that it defeated in tactical terms? Will Israel's actions seriously damage the US position in the region, any hope of peace, as well as moderate Arab regimes and voices in the process? To be blunt, the answer seems to be yes… Any leader can take a tough stand and claim that tactical gains are a meaningful victory. If this is all that (Israeli Prime Minister Ehud) Olmert, (Foreign Minister Tzipi) Livni and (Defense Minister Ehud) Barak have for an answer, then they have disgraced themselves, and damaged their country and their friends," Cordesman wrote.
Israel said stopping the firing of rockets into southern Israel was its main goal in the war. The rockets posed however more of a psychological and political than a military threat. There is no doubt that innocent Israelis were killed by the rockets, albeit in far less numbers than Palestinians killed in Israeli retaliation operations. Most important to Israel's leaders however, was the need to break Hamas' political will so that it would accept a two-state solution with a Palestinian state that effectively would be totally dependent on the Jewish state. With Hamas defiant, claiming victory and no longer willing to accept a truce with Israel longer than a year, Israel's goal of ensuring that Hamas would sing a tone lower appears to have failed, That may prove to be far more important than whether Hamas dares fire rockets into southern Israel following the pummeling of Gaza. It also enhances the relative value of Hamas significantly increased popular support in the West Bank and across the Arab world as well as its claim to victory by virtue of survival.
On the principle of war is an extension of diplomacy, breaking Hamas political will was all the more important to Israel given that in the last year truly meaningful Israeli Palestinian negotiations were taking place with Hamas, not with the Palestine Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. The indirect Israel Hamas talks focused on the same key issues as with Abbas: Israeli withdrawal, the terms of a cessation of hostilities, the flow of goods, border patrols and supply of arms. Contrary to the negotiations with Abbas, these talks excluded the notion of mutual recognition and sought to achieve agreement only for a limited period of time. Negotiations are now integrated with violence rather than posited as an alternative; and the two parties proudly proclaim their rejection of the other's legitimacy," says George Washington University political science professor Nathan Brown.
Some Israeli intelligence and military analysts acknowledge that Hamas has in fact accepted the principle of a two-state solution with a Palestinian state alongside Israel. While the Islamist group insists its acceptance is temporary without defining how long 'temporary' may be, former Mossad chief and national security adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Ephraim Halevy, writing in Yediot Ahronot, says that Hamas "know(s) that the moment a Palestinian state is established with their co-operation, they will be obliged to change the rules of the game: they will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original ideological goals."
The Gaza war may be to Hamas what the 1973 war was to Egypt. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat needed his claim to victory to pursue peace. Israel may have inadvertently handed to Hamas the equivalent albeit for something less than peace. "There may be no Nobel Prize to be had here, but making sure these real negotiations succeed – and then immediately worrying about the next step—is a far more promising approach than pretending that the parties can be cajoled, muscled and jawboned into a final and comprehensive settlement under current conditions," Brown says.
In the effort to rebuild Gaza, those opposed to rewarding Hamas –Israel, the pro-US Arab governments, the European Union and the United States – will find themselves working through Hamas whether they like it or not if they want their funding to have any effect. Statements that funding has to be channeled through the Ramallah-based Palestine Authority lack clarity and seem meaningless. "If they mean funds can never leave the control of the Ramallah-based government, how can that be accomplished when that entity has no effective presence on the ground in Gaza?... If the assistance is to go through regular PA channels, those answer to Hamas. Even if rebuilding and assistance is the task not of the PA but of international actors, those can only operate with the permission and cooperation of the Gazan PA," Brown says.
Nathan cautions against believing that the aftermath of the Gaza war may constitute an opportunity to drive a wedge within Hamas between soft and hardliners. Differences in Hamas tend to be regarding perspective and priority with things looking different from Gaza, the West Bank or Damascus. Discussion is also fueled by the fact that the group's various arms – military, social, religious and government – at times have different short-term needs. However, debate seldom focuses on long-term, strategic or ideological issues. Rather differences emerge on more immediate tactical questions. The Gaza war serves as an example. Once all had been done and dusted, Hamas in a unified decision opted to match Israel' unilateral ceasefire with one of its own. In this, resembles its ancestry, the Muslim Brothers who often squabble but rarely splinter.