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Israel's Assault on Gaza Only Gave It a Black Eye and Strengthened Hamas

Israel accomplished its military goals, but lost badly in the political arena.

Now that the most recent assault on Gaza has come to an end, there should be no doubt that Israel has achieved the narrow military objectives it set out for its army when it commenced “Operation Pillar of Cloud” last week. The operation began with with the assassination of Hamas commander Ahmed al-Jabari last week, and ended with a ceasefire agreement on November 21. 

When the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced the start of its assault on the Palestinian Gaza Strip, it laid out an objective of protecting Israeli civilians by crippling the “terrorist infrastructure,” meaning the infrastructure of armed Palestinian groups like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. More specifically, the Israeli air force combed the densely populated Gaza Strip to look for rocket launch sites and top-level militants firing projectiles into Israel. A week into the operation, the IDF claimed to have hit 1,500 targets in the Gaza Strip.

It’s clear that one of the most powerful militaries in the world, armed with high-tech American weaponry ranging from F16 military jets to Apache helicopters, struck most of its targets. And when the ceasefire agreement was reached, Israeli leaders sounded triumphant. “We hit their senior commanders, we destroyed thousands of rockets which were aimed towards the South and most of those aimed towards central Israel, and we crushed Hamas’ control facilities,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement announcing Israel’s agreement to the ceasefire.

But the triumph will fit the definition of a pyrrhic victory, a nominal win that comes at great cost. And Israel will come out of waging this assault as the loser, no matter how many of its targets it hit. It’s a reminder that the Israel-Palestine conflict will not be won militarily; the only lasting solution will be political.

Israel’s image will be blackened by the high civilian death toll; the country’s regional position has been exposed to be weakened; and Hamas will survive another day, boosted by resisting the might of the Israeli military, no matter how much dissent against its authoritarian rule exists in Gaza. The fact that Israel will win the war but lose the battle, so to speak, is a replay of what happened during Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza in 2008-'09, which was dubbed “Operation Cast Lead.”

“Netanyahu gained, not Israel. Netanyahu perhaps gained domestically by demonstrating that he’s willing to go to war very aggressively,” Noura Erakat, a human rights attorney and activist, told AlterNet in a phone interview. Indeed, polls show that the assault on Gaza boosted Netanyahu ahead of Israeli elections in February.

But “Israel, on the whole, has lost a lot,” Erakat added. “And I can only say this by looking at how the media has responded...During Operation Cast Lead there was some sort of sympathy that Israel had to do something about the rocket fire. It falls on deaf ears when Israel does it again four years later. And when it becomes evident to many that Israel’s strategy is to pummel Palestinian society every four years and not achieve long-term solutions, then...I think Israel has lost on this level.”

Even at the most basic military level, Israel's pummeling of Hamas—an easy feat considering the vast disparity in power between the two sides--will not radically change the status quo that has existed since the Islamist movement took over running Gaza in 2007. After the 22-day operation in 2008-09, Israel credibly claimed victory. Again, the military power dynamics favored Israel. But a year later, Israel was telling American officials it was worried that Hamas was rearming. Israeli officials meeting with U.S. military officials in November 2009 noted that “one of the goals of Cast Lead was to damage Hamas' ability to produce its own weapons. In this regard, the IDF was successful, but Hamas is reconstituting its capabilities,” according to a WikiLeaks cable.

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