Fifty days of war between Israel and Hamas ended with about 2,100 Palestinians dead in the Gaza Strip, more Israeli soldiers killed than in any conflict since 2006 and neither side able to claim a knockout.
While Israeli leaders said Hamas suffered a devastating blow, the truce doesn’t guarantee that Gaza’s ruling militant movement won’t regroup for another round of fighting. For Hamas, whose rocket attacks briefly drove U.S. and European carriers away from Israel’s international airport, the pact gives its rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, new powers in the territory from which his forces were expelled seven years ago.
After more than seven weeks of fighting, the destruction in Gaza and Israeli casualties left both sides looking for an exit strategy even after falling short of the objectives they had set out to achieve, said Mukhemer Abu Sada, an Al-Azhar University political scientist in Gaza City.
“Palestinians are in a humanitarian crisis and the government was completely paralyzed,” he said in a telephone interview. Israel “definitely didn’t want to be caught up in a war of attrition,” he said.
The sides on Aug. 26 announced a cease-fire plan brokered by Egypt to halt the conflict. The deal allows the opening of Gaza’s border crossings with Israel to let in reconstruction materials and humanitarian aid. Fishing zones off Gaza’s coast were also extended, according to a copy of the agreement provided by an official with Abbas’s Fatah party. Israel has not released details of the deal.
Disarming Gaza-based militants, a key Israeli demand, wasn’t included in the accord. Egypt said both sides will resume indirect talks about pending issues, including Hamas’ demands for a seaport and an airport, in a month. Israel, the U.S. and the European Union classify Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Israeli officials, including negotiator Amos Gilad, touted Hamas’s military losses: Top commanders and as many as 1,000 of its 10,000 fighters were killed, according to Israel’s tally. The tunnel network militants burrowed under the border to attack Israel was crippled and whole neighborhoods in Gaza were reduced to rubble.
“We can’t say definitively that the goal of bringing sustained quiet has been reached, but the goal of hitting Hamas hard has been achieved,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday in Jerusalem, after coming under criticism from allies and opponents for accepting the agreement. Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz said Israel “didn’t win in a knock-out.”
A Dialog poll published today in the Ha’aretz newspaper showed that a majority of Israelis -- 54 percent -- say the war had no clearcut winner. The poll of 464 people yesterday had a margin of error of 4.6 percentage points.
The death toll in Gaza included hundreds of civilians, many of them women and children, according to Palestinian officials. Israel accuses Hamas of using civilians as human shields.
Seventy people were killed on the Israeli side, including 64 soldiers -- the highest number killed since Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon. The fighting also deterred tourists and hurt an already-slowing economy, prompting the central bank to cut interest rates to a record 0.25 percent. Israel’s benchmark TA-25 Index fell 0.5 percent at 4:41 p.m. in Tel Aviv today.
“Not every ending is a happy ending,” columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in the daily Yediot Ahronot. “The fear is that instead of paving the way for the Gaza threat to be lifted, we are paving the way for the next round.”
An Aug. 19 poll for Tel Aviv University showed 92 percent backing for continuing the offensive among Jewish Israelis, who make up about four-fifths of the country’s population. The Peace Index poll, conducted in partnership with the Israel Democracy Institute, surveyed 600 people and carried a 4.1 percentage point margin of error.
Taking on Israel has raised Hamas’s stature among the Palestinians, at a time when the group had been hurt by the loss of its patron, ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi, and Egypt’s destruction of smuggling tunnels from Gaza that were the Hamas government’s financial lifeline.
Senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar emerged from seven weeks of hiding after the cease-fire was declared to tell thousands rallying in the streets of Gaza City that Palestinian militants “punctured the myth of Israel’s national security.”
A poll last week by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion showed 89 percent support for rocket strikes against Israel. The survey had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
Not everybody shared the sentiment.
“I wonder why the people are celebrating and I wonder what victory they are talking about, as neither Hamas nor Israel achieved any of their goals,” said Hanan Abu Jamous, a 28-year-old mother of three. “This war was totally absurd and kept us in fear, watching death coming to harvest our lives any moment.”
The accord gives Abbas the type of foothold he hasn’t enjoyed in Gaza since Hamas fighters routed his security forces in June 2007. His Palestinian Authority is to assume responsibility for administering Gaza’s borders from Hamas and will coordinate the territory’s reconstruction.
Estimates for repairing the damage wrought by the war have ranged as high as $8 billion, according to the Gaza Housing Ministry. The conflict has hurt the Israeli economy, too, with the drop in tourism and consumer spending prompting the central bank to unexpectedly cut its benchmark interest rate to a record low this week.
It may take years before the scorecard of this conflict becomes clear. Immediately after Israel’s inconclusive 2006 war against Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, many Israelis accused the government of having no strategy. Like Hamas, Israel and the U.S. also list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
Now, as then, “there’s a bitter taste in people’s mouths,” said Cameron Brown, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. In retrospect, the war “was quite effective,” he said.
“Hezbollah in eight years hasn’t dared to provoke Israel,” he said. “That’s a sort of success that at the time, no one thought the operation deserved.”
(An earlier version of this story corrected the date of the truce announcement.)