The Israel-Hamas war is a painful example of how failures of policy
on all sides can allow a simmering conflict to ignite into all-out war.
After two weeks of heavy fighting, world leaders have been roused to
greater diplomatic activity, but the two sides show no sign of heeding
outside calls for a truce. The war is in an uncertain phase which could
lead in a number of directions.
Hundreds of Palestinians are being killed and thousands wounded in
the Israeli offensive. The Gazan people have insufficient food and
water, while the lack of power and supplies means hospitals cannot
properly treat patients. Humanitarian agencies and the UN therefore
seek an immediate ceasefire with the basic aim of saving lives.
Unfortunately the position of the key actors is so entrenched that this
humanitarian imperative is currently being ignored.
Both the Israelis and Hamas have an appetite for further fighting,
partly because of deep hostility to the other and partly because to
stop would mean defeat and a ceasefire on unfavourable terms. Israel
feels its assault has been largely successful and remains committed to
inflicting maximum damage on Hamas while it has the opportunity.
The US is the only external party holding real leverage on Israel but
it blames Hamas for the crisis and remains content for the Israeli
operation to continue. The inactivity of the Bush administration in its
final days merely confirms its ineffectiveness in addressing the
Arab-Israeli conflict. The new US administration is likely to re-engage
with greater energy but it hard to see President Obama taking risks
with the special Israeli relationship in a meaningful push for a
Should a ceasefire be agreed shortly by diplomatic means, it is
probable that the fundamental issues at the root of the conflict will
be unresolved – Hamas will maintain the intention and capacity to fire
rockets while Israel will maintain its longstanding blockade of the
Gaza Strip. As with the fragile peace between Israel and Hizbullah in
Lebanon, the possibility of future conflict will remain.
Alternatively, Hamas may be so battered that it surrenders and
Israel wins this war. This Israeli attack is the heaviest it has
inflicted on Palestinians since 1967 and there is huge disparity
between the combatant sides. Hamas also lacks outside friends, has been
largely isolated for years and is strongly opposed by many Palestinians.
However, for Hamas to give in would be counter to the nature of a
movement which is built on resistance and steadfastness. Hamas does not
necessarily mind facing overwhelmingly bad odds and sees value in
simply surviving the attack by a massive military power. Some in the
movement will also welcome the chance to engage the Israelis in urban
guerrilla-style fighting in Gaza.
Israel has expressed its objectives in minimalist terms, having
learned hard lessons from its war with Hizbullah in 2006 in which it
could not achieve its over-ambitious goals. The Israeli aims are to
reduce the level of rocket fire and to weaken Hamas to a position where
it is forced to accept a ceasefire on tougher terms. Israel hopes that
these terms – chiefly no Gazan military attacks and an end to arms
smuggling across the Egyptian border – will ensure much greater
security for its population living near Gaza.
For all the Israeli destruction and killing, a reduction in
Palestinian rocket fire is still not certain. Israel hopes that by the
sheer strength of its deployment and its announcement that the
operation is open-ended, Hamas will see the futility of its struggle
and will break first.
However, if Hamas proves to be as stubborn and resilient as in the
past, it may not accept a ceasefire for some time, leaving Israel with
a tough choice between carrying on, inflicting more civilian casualties
and humanitarian suffering, or pulling out in what would be regarded as
a disappointing, even humiliating step backwards. The former strategy
would attract much firmer international criticism, while the latter
would be deeply unpopular within Israel as the campaign would
effectively have failed.
Hamas' goal is to maintain its resistance until Israel is so
exhausted or pressured that it agrees a truce on equal terms. Hamas
cannot defeat Israel in this war but it could claim victory in such a
scenario given the imbalance between the two sides.
A bleak but possible prospect is that by refusing to flinch first,
Israel and Hamas become trapped in a bloody mess from with neither can
easily escape and in which civilians continue to suffer. The failed
records of both parties and of international actors is not encouraging.
Robert Lowe is Programme Manager and Research Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, a UK thinktank. This article was first published in The Big Issue.