Analysis: Positions remain entrenched after Gaza conflict

Neither Israel nor Hamas has budged on long-held principles that make coexistence difficult and the prospects for lasting peace remote.

Amir Cohen/Reuters
Israeli surfers gathered offshore near the city of Ashkelon Nov. 24 to mark the end of a week of fierce fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas militants.

(Editor's Note: This story ran in the Monitor's print magazine as an analysis of the immediate aftermath of the latest Gaza conflict.)

The roar of Gazan rockets and the rumble of Israel's missile-defense system have been silenced by a cease-fire that has held up better than expected but which neither side considers a permanent solution.

Both Israel and Hamas showed more restraint than in their last conflict four years ago. Israel, which faced less domestic pressure for war thanks to the Iron Dome missile shield, stopped short of a ground incursion. Hamas, perhaps emboldened by the support of regional powers and its self-declared victory against Israel, has surprised Israelis by its efforts to keep Gazan militant groups in check – a key part of the Nov. 21 cease-fire agreement.

But neither side has budged on long-held principles that make coexistence difficult and the prospects for lasting peace remote.

Hamas's charter describes all of historical Palestine as a Muslim possession, thereby denying Israel's right to exist and forfeiting participation in any peace negotiations. And Israel – which characterizes Hamas as a terrorist organization whose attacks pose an "unacceptable" threat to its civilians – remains committed to a primarily military strategy in Gaza. Israel's basic modus operandi, referred to as "mowing the lawn," is to launch periodic military operations to keep Hamas's capabilities in check.

Critics say that strategy, coupled with policies that divide the Palestinians, is shortsighted. Even those who argue for the necessity of "mowing the lawn" every few years acknowledge that it won't uproot the seeds of hatred, cultivated in Gaza's schools, mosques, and society at large.

"We see indoctrination as the key issue," said retired Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, director general of Israel's Ministry of Strategic Affairs, at a briefing before the conflict. "It's got to be something really profound that stops it."

Cease-fire opposed in Israel

At least six Israelis and 176 Palestinians were killed in the latest conflict – far fewer Palestinian casualties than in the 2008-09 war, which left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead. Israel credited its use of precision weapons for limiting casualties while targeting militants and missiles.

Plenty of Israelis were disappointed that the government didn't cause greater damage. According to one poll released hours before the fighting ended, 70 percent of Israelis opposed a cease-fire.

In one of the more incendiary comments, Gilad Sharon called for Israel to "flatten Gaza" and invoked America's nuclear bombing of Japan, saying the United States didn't stop with Hiroshima but hit Nagasaki as well. It was Mr. Sharon's father, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who made the controversial decision to end the Israeli occupation in Gaza in 2005. Some Israelis say that move paved the way for greater militancy there.

"All the places where Israeli settlers used to live in Gaza are now areas from which rockets are launched [toward Israel]," says Mesodi Sugaker, a resident of Kiryat Malachi, where three people were killed by rocket fire last month. "They couldn't do that before.... All the people who died, died because Ariel Sharon made a big mistake."

Palestinians, too, criticize Ariel Sharon. Because Israel withdrew unilaterally, "Hamas was able to claim, 'Our resistance drove out the occupation in Gaza, so follow our line to drive out the occupation in the West Bank,' " says former Palestinian Authority (PA) spokesman Ghassan Khatib.

Ariel Sharon could have negotiated with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, bolstering the Palestinian leader's insistence that negotiations are an effective means of ending the occupation, Mr. Khatib adds.

Diplomacy doesn't pay?

Mr. Abbas, who has pinned his career on diplomacy, rather than armed resistance, lobbied to upgrade Palestine's UN status from "observer" to nonmember "state," which the United Nations did on Nov. 29.

He benefited from an 11th-hour show of support from key European countries, which may have stemmed in part from concern that Palestinians would walk away from the Gaza conflict with the impression that missiles, not diplomacy, are the way to Israeli concessions. In the Nov. 21 cease-fire agreement, Israel agreed in principle to open crossings into Gaza, potentially easing restrictions on goods and freedom of movement imposed in 2006.

"The cease-fire definitely strengthened Hamas. It looks as if Hamas managed to get concessions on the siege, and this was through missiles ... while [Abbas] is sitting aside quietly," says veteran Israeli diplomat Alon Liel, now retired.

"So it's definitely the wish of Europeans to show that through diplomacy you can also gain achievements, not only through missiles."

Some Israelis are skeptical that Abbas's Fatah party has sworn off armed resistance for good, saying it was only because of Israeli military pressure.

But Israel hopes Hamas will follow suit, even if it won't guarantee lasting peace.

"We first have to bring Hamas to the point where Fatah is," and airstrikes do that, Kuperwasser, of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs said in an interview after the cease-fire.

After the second intifada, "Fatah said to themselves, 'Terrorism is a lost cause.... We lose a lot, we gain nothing. We want Hamas to say the same."

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