Hamas will dig out from under the rubble and the world will remember the image of four boys killed on a beach.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
There is no doubt that Israeli leaders feel justified in their actions in Gaza. Polls show that over nine out of 10 Israelis supported the recent war. Hamas is a very bad actor. Israel has every right to defend itself.
Yet, whenever this most recent conflict is seen to be over, it will not be remembered for the security logic behind it or the speeches justifying it. Nor will it be remembered for the tactical gains that Israel may have achieved. No, the lasting image this war will leave the world is of four boys on a beach, playing soccer and then running for their lives, hurtled from a carefree moment of childhood to oblivion in the blink of an eye.
There is no Iron Dome that can protect Israel from images like that. There is no Iron Dome that can undo the images of suffering and destruction burned into our memories or justify away the damage to Israel’s legitimacy that comes from such wanton slaughter. Most importantly, the Iron Dome protects Israel only from the damage others try to inflict upon it; it cannot save the country from the damage it does to itself.
Let’s accept for a moment every single argument made by the Israeli leadership for their actions in Gaza: Missile attacks are intolerable. Kidnapping and killing Israeli boys is a horror. Hamas is a terrorist group. It uses human shields to protect its munitions and its fighters. It actively invites Israeli attacks that inevitably wreak havoc upon innocent Palestinians. Every country has a right to defend itself. Other countries have done worse to protect the security of their citizens. It is easy to accept all these things. They are all true.
Also, let’s set aside the counterarguments. Set aside the reality that this war was started as much as response to Israeli government anger over the Palestinian unity government as it was to address the security concerns above. Set aside that it was in part an emotional response to the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens as it was to missile attacks. Set aside that these missile attacks launched from Hamas-controlled Gaza have inflicted relatively limited damage since they started over a decade ago and that Israel’s response to these attacks has been — by any measure — disproportionate. These things may also be true, but there are counterarguments to the counterarguments.
If you were an Israeli and you had lost one relative, or watched your child huddle in a shelter through even just one missile attack, your concern would be the safety of your family. Further, it would be impossible to look at the threat posed by any individual attack or any series of attacks as being isolated or limited; greater risks still loomed. As Jeffrey Goldberg points out in his well-argued and thoughtful piece, "What Would Hamas Do If It Could Do Whatever It Wanted?" it is a fact that Hamas lists among its stated goals the destruction not only of Israel but of all Jews.
And of course these counterarguments to the counterarguments are no less compelling than those of Gazans who feel that blockading 1.8 million people in a bleak urban environment is oppressive, and who have every right to demand the freedom, dignity, and personal security they are not receiving — people who rightly feel that no matter what Hamas’s tactics, there is nothing that justifies the killing of their children, not to mention their innocent sisters, brothers, mothers, and fathers.
That is the horrible reality of this situation. With an open mind, it is easy to see the perspectives of both sides. With an open heart, it is easy to understand the fear and the heartbreak and the impulse for survival that have pushed both groups to the desperate acts they have committed.
But if, in committing this show of egregious force, Israel’s primary goal was to enhance its security, it likely achieved only near-term gains on that front. Hamas remains. The populace from which it recruits is inflamed. Its global funders in faraway places like Qatar remain safe and intact and no less inclined to write checks. Indeed, they have gained standing through this conflict and been invited to join the table in diplomatic exchanges where, had they not been funders of terrorism, they would have had no place.
If Israel’s goal was to delegitimize Hamas, whatever it achieved during these last three weeks came at the expense of its own reputation. No matter how many articulate, pommy-accented spokespeople Israel rolls out to discuss human shields, they are trumped by the images of dead and wounded women and children, the stories of displaced families, the ground truth of an advanced, technologically sophisticated, militarily powerful nation laying waste to a land it occupies in order to root out a small cadre of fighters who pose little strategic threat to it. In short, Israel was waging a military action against an adversary that was waging a political campaign and thus adopted the wrong tactics and measured their progress by the wrong metrics. In fact, there is no denying that the Israeli tactics (it seems very unlikely there was any real strategizing going on) in this war do not pass the most basic tests available by which to assess them, those of morality, proportionality, and effectiveness.
Strategically, this is about neither missiles nor tunnels. It is, at its heart, like most aspects of Israel’s long struggle with the Palestinians, about the terms by which the people of Palestine will get the state that is theirs by every right and precept of international law and decency. Therefore, Israel’s action has to be assessed in terms of whether or not it will help or hurt its own standing in that negotiation, in which both sides participate by virtue of their daily actions whether there’s a formal negotiating table in place or not. And for all the reasons cited above, it can only hurt. Further, it must be asked whether the bloodshed in Gaza will make it more or less likely that the world will embrace Palestinian efforts to claim independence with or without Israeli cooperation. What is more, even if Hamas is weakened by the actions of the past few weeks, and the world (including perhaps Hamas) realizes the benefits of allowing the Palestinian Authority’s current leaders to take the lead on behalf of the Palestinian people, that transfer to a more legitimate leadership takes away one of Israel’s favorite excuses for not making progress toward an agreement. Absent Hamas and absent the divisions it brought, you have a more unified and internationally acceptable Palestinian regime.
The situation on the ground in Gaza in the wake of the violence of this past month does not help much to identify a winner or a loser from this knot of absolutes and moral ambiguities, rights and violations, human needs and political agendas. Israel can rightly claim to have inflicted great damage on Hamas, destroying rockets and tunnel complexes and exposing their cowardly and reckless tactics for what they are. Hamas can claim to have won simply because they survived and will live to fight another day, in that instance with a new army of recruits inflamed into action by this last war.
Such claims aside, the reality is that it is almost certainly more true that both sides lost than it is that either won. Israel’s standing internationally is further damaged, as is whatever slight credibility Hamas may have had as an advocate for the Palestinian people. It will cost billions to rebuild Gaza. The economic crater created by the conflict will harm both sides.
In the end, Israel lost in large part because despite its massive military and resource and advantages and Palestinian poverty and the comparative weakness of Hamas’s fighters, the Palestinians have one secret weapon that, like the images and narrative of the past conflict, trumps the Iron Dome. They have the clock on their side. With each day their population grows as does the injustice under which they suffer. With each day Israel’s arguments for delaying the establishment of that state grow weaker.
But for all the care we may and should give to looking at such a crisis in a balanced way, at the end of the day, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that one side actually did come out of this the loser. That is because when the final results and long-term implications of those results are tallied up, they are likely to suggest Israel both won less and lost more than did the Palestinian people.