Middle East

Gaza: An End to Bloodshed or a Popularity War?

Hamas Political Bureau Chief Khaled Meshaal. (Photo: Dreamstime.com)

"Whoever started the war must end it," said the exiled Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal in Cairo last Tuesday, as the Gaza death toll soared past 100 and a barrage of rockets slammed into Southern Israel. These words could have easily been uttered by Meshaal's Israeli counterparts, who, in the early days of the fragile Egyptian-brokered cease-fire, know from experience that the war is far from over.

With the announcement of the truce on Wednesday, which Gazans met with street celebrations and residents of Southern Israel with deep skepticism, each group immediately announced victory. Hamas declared Nov. 22 a national holiday and reveled in the promise of loosened restrictions on the Gaza-Egypt border, and in Israel's "failure" to launch a ground invasion. Israel said it had crippled Hamas' rocket-launching powers, and succeeded in intercepting a great percentage of missiles fired out of Gaza with its Iron Dome system.

Despite diplomatic headway, though, violence still loomed. Hours before the cease-fire was finalized on Wednesday, a bomb detonated in a bus in central Tel Aviv, leaving 28 wounded, and resurfacing memories of the bus suicide attacks of the Second Intifada of 2000 to 2005.

"We told you #IDF that our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are, 'You opened the Gates of Hell on Yourselves,'" the Hamas military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, said in a Twitter post following the attack.

In a cross-border flare-up on Friday in which both sides accused the other of violating the truce, the Israeli army killed one Palestinian man and injured 13. The eight days of fighting claimed 166 Palestinians and six Israeli lives, according to health officials.

While civilians were, and may continue to be, the victims of this war, approval ratings show that Hamas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came out on top. The eight-day operation, dubbed "Pillar of Cloud" by Israel, has shifted public focus from discontent over spiraling costs of living and internal strife to the common enemy.

Emboldened by a post-Arab Spring world, Hamas seeks to bank on newly founded alliances with non-Western nations, such as Egypt, Tunisia and Qatar, as well as its main sponsor Iran, which has for years facilitated the smuggling of weapons into the isolated seaside enclave.

Hamas' re-arming process, apparently, is already underway. The Sunday Times reported on Saturday that Israeli satellites have spotted Gaza-bound Iranian ships loaded with Fajr-5 rockets—the kind used in attacks on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv—and perhaps longer-range ballistic missiles.

"There is no way to relinquish weapons," said Hamas number two Mousa Abu Marzook in Cairo on Saturday. "These weapons protected us and there is no way to stop obtaining and manufacturing them."

Abu Marzook said that Hamas will not stop arming itself because weapons, not negotiations, can bring about Israeli concessions. Moreover, Hamas' hardline opposition to Israeli "occupation" and the Israeli-Egyptian blockade holds appeal for Palestinians increasingly disillusioned with the inefficacy and corruption rampant in the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. Next to Hamas' fiercely determined message, PA President Mahmoud Abbas' plan to apply for U.N. non-member status on Nov. 29 has had the unique effect of eliciting contempt from Israel, many Palestinians and the United States.

Hamas, an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, defeated Fatah in the 2006 parliamentary elections, and has since served as the de facto government in Gaza. The Islamist group aspires to reunite all of historic Palestine under strict sharia law. On Tuesday, on the seventh day of fighting, masked Hamas militants publically gunned down six "spies" suspected of collaborating with Israel, and dragged one of the bloody corpses through the streets of Gaza City, witnesses say.

"People see that Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] can't obtain peace or rights through negotiations," says Palestinian writer and political commentator Odeh Basharat. "This leaves us with a radical Israel against radical Palestinians, and will lead, I am sorry to say, only to the continuation of the conflict."

Ebba Rezeq, a young Gazan blogger, who until now had been highly critical of Hamas rule in Gaz,a professed her support for her government in this time of crisis in an Israeli Channel 2 television interview last week, saying, "Gaza is Hamas, and Hamas is Gaza."

Like Hamas, the war has bolstered Netanyahu's right-wing party, which faces elections in January. Even left-leaning parties have expressed their support for Netanyahu's first war, which they agree was aimed to bring peace to citizens of Southern Israel who have been suffering Hamas attacks for the greater part of a decade. Eighty-four percent of Israelis supported the war in Gaza, though 70 percent opposed ground invasion, according to a Haaretz-Dialog poll. The poll also found a 20 percent increase in the approval ratings of Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

However, Israeli support of the government may taper off with time. "Two months in Israel is like two years in other countries," says Itzhak Galnoor, a political scientist at the Van Leer Institute. In contrast to the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead, which left 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead, and which also occurred before Israeli elections, Galnoor says that the rise of the nationwide social protest movement in 2010 distinguishes this war, and its long-term implications, from its predecessor.

"Israeli voting considerations are always for foreign affairs and security, unlike other democratic countries, but I would still expect that the domestic situation will be relevant," he says.

Though supplied with Iranian weapons, Hamas cannot match Israel's capabilities. Their tactic, thus, has been attrition warfare, which Israel says, is launched from densely populated areas. In contrast to previous policies of deterrence, this time around, both Israel and Hamas claimed the war's goal was an end to the violence and a return to quiet for their citizens.

Avraham Diskin, a political analyst at Hebrew University, however, believes that lasting peace is unattainable in the present political landscape. "Real peace means you accept the right of the other side to at least exist, which doesn't exist in Hamas, and is rare throughout the Arab world," he says. "I don't think we will go as far as destroying the Hamas government in Gaza, so we are doomed to have this potential, total conflict again and again."

Shira Rubin is a Jerusalem-based journalist specializing in Middle Eastern affairs. She speaks Hebrew, Arabic, English and conversational French, and is currently pursuing her master's degree in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Hebrew University.