When Israel attacked Lebanon in 2006, it achieved some military success. It degraded the armed capability of Iran-backed Hezbollah and caused the international community to engage more constructively in Lebanon. But such success was limited and not the main measure of the outcome – points worth remembering now as Israel engages in intense attacks in Gaza.
Two years ago, world opinion turned against Israel while Hezbollah claimed a moral victory as images of widespread destruction from Israeli bombing shocked even Israel's friends. Now, the militant Hezbollah is in a stronger position politically with veto power in Lebanon's cabinet.
The Israeli attacks that began Dec. 27 in Gaza appear to be better targeted than the Lebanon campaign, hitting key security installations of the ruling Hamas, which the US also terms a terrorist group. This time, most of those killed – more than 250 and counting – were uniformed members of Hamas's security forces. Still, civilians have lost their lives and hundreds are wounded.
The reason for the attack seems more compelling than what sparked the war in Lebanon – Hezbollah's killing of three Israeli soldiers and kidnapping of two others. Hamas has been acquiring longer-range rockets that can reach farther into Israel and has continued to smuggle in arms despite a six-month cease-fire that expired Dec. 19. In the intervening days, its missile attacks on Israel have escalated.
But as in the Lebanon war, it's difficult to predict where this strong Israeli action will lead. This is not the situation of the previous decades, when Palestinians were led by Yasser Arafat – a terrorist, true, but one who eventually led a secular movement toward statehood.
Now, Palestinians live in parallel universes.
In the West Bank, they're under the weak leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas, trying to support the peace process. Palestinians in Gaza, meanwhile, no longer live under Israeli occupation, but they're governed by Islamist Hamas. That group won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, but took control of Gaza through a military putsch in 2007. Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel and won't renounce terrorism.
Israel and the West have tried to force Hamas's hand through economic isolation. That strategy seems to have had some effect, producing an imperfect peace during the truce. Rocket fire from Gaza greatly decreased the hope that trade would resume and Gaza could begin to recover. But the rockets did not entirely cease, arms smuggling continued, and the truce lapsed.
By moving so forcefully in Gaza, Israel appears to be putting immediate concerns ahead of long-term peace prospects. Elections are coming in February, and political leaders undoubtedly feel compelled to prove their security credentials.
But with politics among Palestinians also uncertain (Mr. Abbas's term may expire next month), Hamas, too, has something to prove. It may be looking to Hezbollah and calculating it can win followers' hearts and minds even if it suffers a military setback.
It will take continued engagement by the Arab countries, the US, and others to steer these parties toward long-term peace.