These days, however, the fog of war shrouds not only conflicts while they are under way, but even conflicts that have ended. And so there is now a debate about the outcome of what might be called November’s Battle of Gaza.
On one hand, Israeli Defense Forces hit with extraordinary precision — and astonishingly limited civilian casualties considering Hamas’ use of civilians as human shields — more than 1,600 targets during their eight-day campaign, demolishing Hamas’ command-and-control apparatus, killing more than 100 Hamas commanders, crippling Hamas’ rocket-launching capability, destroying 26 weapons caches and more than 200 tunnels used for arms smuggling and terrorist attacks.
On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal editorialized that Hamas emerged politically intact and strategically stronger after eight days of inconclusive fighting. The terrorist group fired more than 1,500 rockets at Israel, forcing millions of Israelis into bunkers and bomb shelters but suffering no decisive military defeat. Hamas openly dared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to invade the Gaza Strip, and by not doing so Netanyahu left the terror leaders alive to strike again. Hamas also won a new international patron in Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who brokered the cease-fire.
Who is right? I think it will take time before it is clear whether one side substantially improved its position at the expense of the other. But Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the U.S., made a cogent point when he told reporters, “Israel was not confronting Gaza, but Iran.”
Here’s how I interpret that: Israel’s priority — in addition to simple self-defense and demonstrating that missiles cannot be fired at Israeli citizens with impunity indefinitely — was to render Hamas incapable of opening a second front over the coming months, a period during which Israel may decide whether to use draconian methods to deprive Iran’s Jihadist rulers of a military nuclear capability. Integral to that effort: elimination of most of the longer-range, Fajr-5 missiles that Iran has been supplying to Hamas, missiles that can threaten not just villages near Gaza, but Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
According to one poll, 70 percent of Israelis in the south, where missiles often hit, opposed the cease-fire that brought a halt to the conflict. Does that imply that Netanyahu was wrong to refrain from sending ground troops into Gaza? Not at all. Such an offensive would have been bloody, and would have brought condemnation — albeit unjustified — from the so-called international community. A drawn-out conflict in Gaza would have benefited Iran’s rulers, who are eager to distract attention from the atrocities they are supporting in Syria as well as their nuclear weapons program. Also, once Israeli forces were in Gaza, they might have found it difficult to get out. The time may come for Israelis to ask, “After Hamas, what?” But that time is probably not now.
There is no ambiguity about this: The Battle of Gaza was a defeat for Mahmoud Abbas, titular ruler of the West Bank. Abbas wields no power in Gaza. That is only one of the reasons it will be a farce when the U.N. General Assembly this week grants Abbas’ petition for Palestinian “non-member state” status.
Finally, there is Morsi, who ended the week looking like a winner — praised by Obama as a “straight shooter who delivered on what he promised and did not promise what he could not deliver.” Within hours, Morsi moved to grasp dictatorial powers at home. That set off waves of protests by brave Egyptians who now fear that their revolution will end up replacing an autocracy with a theocracy.
Best-case scenario: Morsi decides to rein in Hamas and accedes to the demands of the protesters, allowing Egypt’s democratic experiment to survive another day. That may require more pressure than Washington has applied so far.
Worst-case scenario: Morsi becomes an Islamist pharaoh and, sooner or later, lets Hamas, with Iran’s backing, drag Egypt into another war, one as damaging — if as inconclusive — as the wars Egypt fought against Israel in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.