Who Won the Gaza War?

Turns out the biggest winner wasn’t even fighting.

Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

When elephants fight, the old African proverb intones, it is the grass that suffers.

I think we can pretty well determine now who the big loser was in the third Gaza war: the 1.8 million Palestinians of Gaza (53 percent of whom are under the age of 18). It will take years to rebuild the ruined landscape of the Gaza Strip. Factor in the 1,800 innocents and combatants killed, the thousands wounded, the tens of thousands displaced, and the damage to homes and infrastructure, and I think it’s a safe bet to conclude that Gazans lost.

But who won? The answer to that will only become clear in the weeks ahead. Will there be a durable peace agreement that brings greater economic prosperity to Gaza; creates greater security for Israel, even some form of limited demilitarization; and restores some measure of authority in Gaza to Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA) — real or imagined? 

It’s still too early to say, but for now, here’s how I’d score the performance of the five major parties to this crisis: Israel, Hamas, the PA, Egypt, and the United States.

Israel: B+

On a tactical level, the Israelis mowed the grass (again). And this time they cut it pretty sharply. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) estimates that in addition to the 900 Hamas fighters killed in action, it destroyed 3,000 rockets. Hamas launched 3,300 without great effect; and 3,000 remain. Thirty-two known tunnels were destroyed, although the IDF admits that nine of the 12 exit shafts leading into Israel were not picked up by intelligence at the time the conflict started. Iron Dome worked to an extraordinary degree; there were only three Israeli civilian casualties, minimal economic damage, and a home front that remained resilient and energized. Moreover, Egypt remained a constant companion, while the rest of the Arab world basically held Israel’s coat while it rolled up its sleeves and pummeled Hamas. Finally, there is a growing support for the idea of "demilitarizing" the Gaza Strip, an action that two months ago would have never been taken seriously.

On the negative side of the ledger, Israel’s international image was blackened and there was tension in relations with the United States — but hardly anything that could have been described as real pressure. The key dynamic that will sustain Israel’s win is whether a cease-fire leads to durable arrangements that fundamentally weaken Hamas. If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can say that he broke Hamas’s back as Ariel Sharon broke the back of suicide terrorism in the Second Intifada, he’ll have accomplished something — at least among a domestic audience. With an emboldened right-wing, Netanyahu’s popularity and political future may depend on it, but it is going to be difficult to achieve.

Hamas: C-

That Hamas accepted a cease-fire that essentially offered the same terms it had rejected three weeks earlier strongly suggests an organization that has suffered a bad defeat. But remember: This is an asymmetric conflict in Palestine, where politics, bluster, fantasy, and reality mix seamlessly. Hamas won something merely by not being destroyed outright. Its military leadership remains intact; it was able to launch rockets into Israel right up until the cease-fire; it temporarily forced Ben Gurion Airport to close; it managed to kill six times the number of IDF soldiers as in the two previous rounds combined; and it rattled Israel’s nerves and security by launching several tunnel-infiltration operations during the confrontations. Palestinians won the hearts and minds game. Hamas was viewed as the go-to party, leading the resistance against Israel while the PA sat on the sidelines. Indeed, it’s quite remarkable that for the first time, Hamas now has a seat at the negotiating table in Cairo as part of the so-called unity government.

Hamas’s problem isn’t the last four weeks — it’s what lies ahead. It is badly isolated in the Arab world; in particular, both dependent on and squeezed by Egypt. More than that, it must find a way to justify, explain, and compensate Gazans for the painful reality that its rockets courted such death and devastation. It has raised high expectations — ending the blockade and siege — that it alone cannot meet. Hamas cannot govern Gaza without help; it needs both the Palestinian Authority and Egypt; and this means it will enter negotiations in a weakened position. The question is: How much influence is it prepared to concede to the PA and what kind of restrictions on its activities are acceptable? For an organization run by a diehard military wing, that won’t be easy.

The Palestinian Authority: C+

Once again, it was Hamas that controlled the action, not Abbas. In fact, Hamas succeeded — at least temporarily — in unifying Palestinian ranks. If Abbas believes that Hamas will just roll over, having done the fighting in Gaza, and allow Fatah to take over the Strip, he’s not thinking clearly. Still, Abbas is likely to benefit from the state of affairs. There’s a growing constellation of forces gathering against Hamas — the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Jordan — who will push to empower Abbas at Hamas’s expense. Israel will be crucial in this regard. Assuming Netanyahu is now prepared to do something he’s been reluctant to do — bet on Abbas — Fatah’s gains could be quite substantial. And now that the game has shifted from confrontation to diplomacy, Abbas should fare better. But in the end, Abbas’s success depends on the future of the now defunct Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Betting on that now, however, is facing very long odds.

Egypt: A-

Egypt’s new government under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi actually comes out of this round faring better than anyone else — in part, because it was only semi-invested. The Egyptians had no illusions about this conflict. They wanted to cut Hamas down to size, keep the Qataris and the Turks out of the equation, and marginalize U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, too, for that matter. Indeed, it was Egypt that produced what appears to be the successful cease-fire. And Cairo is now the venue for the follow-on negotiations at a longer-term agreement. Egypt once again demonstrated its centrality in Arab-Israeli politics by maintaining good ties with Netanyahu and the PA. Even Hamas understands that it needs Cairo’s assistance to maintain control of Gaza. That said, if talks in Cairo falter and Gaza spirals back into conflict, Egypt could lose some prestige. But Sisi still will have bolstered key regional ties with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and with the Israelis. And a successful outcome might improve delicate relations with Washington, too.

The United States: C

Right now, Washington comes out of the Gaza conflict looking pretty weak and feckless. Kerry understandably — but wrongly — believed the time was right for two earlier attempts to make a cease-fire deal. It wasn’t. But in attempting to stem the conflict early, he managed to get himself into a situation where bringing the Qataris and Turks into the game alienated the Israelis — who in turn blasted him, though perhaps unfairly. President Barack Obama’s concern over civilian casualties won’t do much to deepen the shattered confidence and trust between him and Netanyahu. And a working relationship that’s functional will be needed if Kerry’s hope to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is to stand a chance in the less than 1,000 days that remain in his tenure. This, of course, could change if Washington manages to play an effective role in facilitating or brokering a durable set of post cease-fire arrangements or somehow manages to push the Palestinian Authority back to the peace table. But the fact remains that the last four weeks haven’t been one of America’s finest moments in Middle East diplomacy.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author, most recently, of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2