Israel’s ‘tactical victory’ in Gaza will be short-lived
For years, Palestinians and Israelis have labored to redraw the battle lines of their conflict. The three-day Israeli war on Gaza, starting on Aug. 5, was a clear manifestation of this reality.
Throughout its military operation, Israel repeatedly underscored the point that it was only targeting the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement, not Hamas or anyone else.
A similar scenario had transpired in May 2019 and again in November of the same year. The May clashes began when two Israeli soldiers were wounded by a Palestinian sniper at the fence separating besieged Gaza from Israel. Mass weekly protests had taken place near the fence for years, demanding an end to the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip. More than 200 unarmed Palestinians were killed by Israeli snipers, who were dispatched to the fence area as early as March 2018. The unexpected Palestinian shooting of two Israeli snipers was a temporary reversal of the bloody scene in that area.
Israel blamed Palestinian Islamic Jihad for the attack. It responded by bombing Hamas positions so that the latter would put pressure on the former to cease its operations near the fence. The unstated goal, however, was to sow the seeds of disunity among Palestinian groups in Gaza, which have, for years, operated under the umbrella of the joint armed operation room.
Like the latest war, the May 2019 conflict was also brief but deadly. Another short war followed in November, this time involving Palestinian Islamic Jihad alone. Although Israel failed to break the Palestinian unity, a debate took place in Palestine, especially following the November clashes, as to why Hamas did not take a more active part in the fighting.
The conventional wisdom at the time was that Israel must not be allowed to impose the time, place and nature of the fight on the Palestinians, as was often the case, and that it is far more strategic for the Palestinian resistance to make these determinations.
That position might be defensible when understood in a historical context. For Israel, maintaining the status quo in Gaza is politically and strategically advantageous. Additionally, the status quo is financially profitable, as new weapons are tested and then sold at exorbitant prices, making Israel the world’s 10th-largest weapons exporter over the five years to 2021.
Israeli wars on Gaza are also political insurance, as they reaffirm Washington’s support for Tel Aviv via word and deed. “My support for Israel’s security is long-standing and unwavering,” US President Joe Biden said this month as Israeli bombs rained down on Gaza, killing 49 Palestinians, 17 of whom were children. This is the exact same position of every US administration in every Israeli war.
The typical Israeli media reporting on the war discreetly shifted, as if Hamas and other Palestinian groups were never enemies.
The Israeli military establishment also embraced this seemingly unchanging reality. Its occasional deadly wars on Gaza are referred to as “mowing the grass.” Writing in the Jerusalem Post in May last year, David M. Weinberg of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security explained the Israeli strategy in the most dehumanizing terms: “Just like mowing your front lawn, this is constant, hard work. If you fail to do so, weeds grow wild, and snakes begin to slither around in the brush.”
The political establishment in Tel Aviv has learned to adapt and benefit from the routine violence. In 2015, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summed up his country’s position in a short but loaded sentence: “I am asked if we will live forever by the sword — yes.”
Ironically, in May 2021, the Palestinians were the ones unleashing the “sword.” Instead of keeping the tit-for-tat battle in Gaza confined to that small geopolitical space, the resistance took the unusual step of striking at Israel in response to events transpiring in a small Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Within hours, Tel Aviv lost the political plot and its control over the war narrative. It seemed as if every inch of Palestine and Israel suddenly became part of a larger battle, whose outcome was no longer determined by Israel alone.
The Palestinians call those events “the sword of Jerusalem.” The name was coined in Gaza.
Ever since, Israel has been fishing for a new battle that will help it regain the initiative. For example, former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attempted to provoke such a fight in May, but failed. He thought that by going ahead with the provocative flag march in East Jerusalem, he would be able to drag Gaza into another war. However, instead of war, Palestinians responded with mass protests and popular mobilization.
The latest August war was another such attempt, this time by new Prime Minister Yair Lapid. However, all that the militarily inexperienced Israeli leader could obtain was what Israeli military analysts referred to as a “tactical victory.”
It was hardly a victory. To claim any kind of victory, Israel simply redefined its objectives. Instead of “destroying the terror infrastructure of Hamas,” as is often the declared goal, it instigated a fight with Palestinian Islamic Jihad, killing two of its military commanders.
The typical Israeli media reporting on the war discreetly shifted, as if Hamas and other Palestinian groups were never enemies of Israel. It was all about Palestinian Islamic Jihad. “Fighting with the terror group would eventually have to resume,” The Times of Israel wrote last week, citing Israeli military sources. No reference was made to other “terror groups.”
Unlike in previous wars, Israel desperately needed the fighting to end very quickly, as Lapid was keen on clinching a supposed tactical victory that will surely be heavily promoted prior to the general election in November.
Both the Israeli military and political establishments, however, know all too well that they would not be able to sustain another all-out conflict like that of May 2021. The war had to end simply because a bigger war was unwinnable.
Hours after a mediated truce was declared, the Israeli military killed three fighters belonging to the ruling Fatah movement in Nablus in the West Bank. Lapid aimed to send another message of strength, though in actuality he confirmed that the battle lines have been permanently redrawn.
The resistance in Gaza commented on the killing of the Nablus fighters by declaring that the conflict with Israel had entered a new phase. Indeed, it has.
• Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for more than 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com.