Who Won the Israel-Gaza Missile War? No One

In the days after Israel and Hamas’s week-long missile war in mid-November, the first and almost last question asked was, “Who won?” Officials from both sides, commentators, diplomats, and politicians all tried to spin the situation from the facts “on the ground” they could find, as advocates for each side did their best to knock down the others’ arguments.

Now that nearly a month has passed, the picture is becoming both clearer and muddier, as befits the wet Middle East winter, and the complex, shifting sands of the region.

The early consensus was that of all the parties involved, Egypt’s President Morsi was the biggest winner. His role as a mediator between Israel and Hamas – as neither would talk to the other directly – aided and abetted by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who stood beside Morsi to announce the ceasefire, seemed a clear success for the Egyptian’s credibility with Gaza’s Palestinians, the US, and the West. There was talk of Morsi’s statesmanlike actions, even as he was pressed by Salafists and his own Muslim Brotherhood for a harsher stance against Israel and more open support for Hamas’ resistance to the Israeli “occupation” of Gaza.

Yet Morsi ran aground on domestic issues within days of his Gaza triumph, as he attempted to ram through anti-democratic edicts and a constitutional referendum tilted away from the reforms which many of the groups in Egypt that had helped sweep him into office last year claimed was rigged. Violent protests, heavy-handed police activity, and political stubbornness on Morsi’s part have cost him the political capital he gained. Plus, Morsi is now the address for complaints if Hamas acts in a violent manner contrary to its agreement for quiet, and Egypt is coming under pressure to reduce, if not stem altogether, weapons smuggling through Sinai into Gaza.

Hamas quickly claimed a military victory over Israel for withstanding the barrage of pinpoint Israeli attacks, and for sending its own homemade missiles toward Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, along with the hundreds it fired at southern Israel. Hamas ridiculed Israel for bringing its troops at the border but refusing to take the bait and begin a ground incursion. Post-conflict rallies in Gaza drew large crowds, and Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal made a historic trip to Gaza after decades in exile.

On the other hand, despite Hamas’s bluster, and even while some said Hamas already was beginning to rearm, it lost hundreds if not thousands of its missiles and scores of its top military leaders to Israeli attacks. Both the hot Israeli-Gaza border, one of the proximate causes of the Israeli military actions, and the rockets have quieted down to a murmur. Mashaal’s inflammatory rhetoric drew sharp condemnations and rebuttals, lowering some of Hamas’s hard-won legitimacy as a relatively responsible governing entity.

In addition, days after the ceasefire, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, which itself had seemed diminished and nearly irrelevant during the shooting, scored a decisive public relations coup by winning a historically symbolic vote in the UN General Assembly. It won quasi-state status from that body on the 65th anniversary of the UN’s vote to partition post-war Palestine into Jewish and Arab nations – a vote the Arab world rejected in 1947 but Israeli leaders of the day reluctantly accepted and which is celebrated in Israel to this day: Jerusalem has a November 29th Street, and tales of how Israelis listened to live radio broadcasts of the UN vote are still told in schools and museums.

But that victory, which led to fireworks and celebrations across the West Bank, and even some in Gaza, also was short-lived, as PA President Mahmoud Abbas was smacked one day later with a blow by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which dribbled out news that it planned to accelerate construction of Jewish homes on a crescent of hilltops east of Jerusalem. The move would accelerate the longstanding, yet rarely acknowledged, efforts to encircle Arab East Jerusalem within a ring of Jewish communities outside the city proper but within what most Israelis see as land likely to remain in Jewish hands even after a theoretical settlement with the Palestinians.

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Fatah seems to be under attack in its home territory of the West Bank, as well, as Hamas rallies drew thousands. Some see a daring and aggressive approach being taken by Hamas in cities such as Hebron, where Palestinians have increased their clashes with Israeli soldiers, even as the Israeli Army revisits how it works to contain West Bank unrest The US-trained PA security forces, which have played an important role in keeping the region quiet, themselves have come under attack and may be rethinking their role. There is talk of a third “intifada” (militant uprising against Israel), but there also are dissenting voices, including the Palestinian governor of Hebron.

For Israelis, the quiet border and shutdown of rocket attacks was met by most with less than enthusiasm

It wasn’t enough for many in the south of the country and those on the political right, who argued for crushing Hamas “once and for all.” On the other side of the Israeli political spectrum, those on the political left seemed deflated by the militaristic surge in the country and criticized the centrist political movements whose leaders rallied ’round the flag and suspended their normally fierce Knesset campaigns. They also grumbled that the US and Europe seemed to give Israel a military carte blanche and couldn’t rally much mainstream global condemnation of the Israeli military campaign or force Israel into seeking negotiated settlements.

Yet Netanyahu also quickly lost the upper hand and squandered his hard-won global support when he received a diplomatic slap from the US and Europe after announcing the plans to expand settlements. The anti-Netanyahu political rhetoric that had quieted during the war resumed with fervor. Even within his own party, Netanyahu didn’t seem able to control the ranks, as an extremist wing led by Moshe Feiglin won high placements on the party list after a primary vote marred by embarrassing technical problems, and longtime party members were unceremoniously dumped. Adding insult to injury, close Netanyahu supporter Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned after an indictment for corruption, although he may return.

In short, few are pleased with the outcome of the November missile war. It bought quiet in Israel’s south, yet may spawn a new West Bank intifada, during which many lives on both sides of the Green Line may be lost. Hope of negotiations toward resolution of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to diminish daily, especially as the world already is turning its focus to the threat of chemical weapons being launched by a desperate Syrian President Assad, and Iran faces a potentially disruptive presidential election.

An optimistic view could posit that the short-lived Gaza Missile War’s inability to substantially change the status quo could prompt one side or the other to take a bold step toward peace. But the cold and rainy Middle East winter – however short-lived winters are in the region – for now seems to have dampened such expectations.

Alan D. Abbey is Director of Media and Internet Services at Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem, Israel, and Adjunct Professor of Journalism in the College of Letters and Sciences at National University of San Diego, CA. He is a veteran journalist with more than thirty years of experience at media in the US and in Israel. He is the author of “Journey of Hope: The Story of Ilan Ramon, Israel’s First Astronaut.” Follow him on Twitter @alanabbey and on Facebook.