OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: As indirect negotiations proceed in Egypt between Israel and Hamas following the war in Gaza, here is an assessment of the outcome so far of the monthlong conflict, assuming the cease-fire holds:
Israel didn’t give in under Hamas rocket fire and certainly won the war on the ground, although that’s hardly an accomplishment for one of the world’s strongest militaries fighting militants with no tanks or airplanes. Its “Iron Dome” defense system appears to have been a success, destroying most incoming missiles and reducing the rocket threat to an annoyance. It says it destroyed all of Hamas’ 31 attack tunnels burrowed into Israel. Several dozen Israeli soldiers and three of its civilians were killed. If the Palestinian Authority returns to Gaza, Israeli leaders will be pleased. Still, it has not stamped out the rocket threat – Hamas has hundreds left. Even worse, its international image has taken a beating because of the civilian devastation it caused in Gaza, and a war crimes investigation is not out of the question.
The militants were massively outmatched and fired substantial rockets at Israel’s main cities for a month – something not seen since Iraq’s Saddam Hussein unleashed Scuds during the first Gulf War. Hamas is part of the discourse again, after a period of feeling isolated and abandoned; now it is invited to Egypt for talks and it is possible it can take credit if the crippling blockade of Gaza is eased. But the group lost hundreds of fighters and failed in most of its efforts to infiltrate Israel. Its tunnels, built surreptitiously over years with amazing ingenuity and effort, were destroyed by Israel. Its rocket supply has been badly depleted. And if the Palestinian Authority reasserts itself in Gaza, Hamas will lose a share of power.
PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY President Mahmoud Abbas appears to be on the verge of regaining some measure of control in Gaza, rolling back his undignified exit of 2007 when Hamas seized control of Gaza. The talk now is of the Palestinian Authority in general resuming some activity in Gaza, especially in running a reopened border with Egypt and administering a massive foreign aid and reconstruction project that might be conjured up by world donors. Compared to Hamas, Abbas looks like a dependable and level-headed player on the regional and world stage. So great will be the global relief at any rolling back of Hamas rule in Gaza that no one will pester Abbas about the fact that his actual term as elected president ran out years ago.
EGYPT From early in the conflict, it was clear Egypt would be a major player because of its control of the Rafah border as well as being a negotiator that both sides seemed to distrust the least. Egypt’s first cease-fire deal – under which Hamas ended rocket fire and Israel halted airstrikes before talks could begin – was rejected by Hamas. After more than two weeks of mayhem and ineffectual mediation by others, that same formula essentially took hold. That bolstered President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s reputation as a man who does not flinch. The emergence of Cairo as an indispensable capital is good news for Egyptians and could hasten the subterranean maneuvering for a regional aid package for them as well.
THE UNITED STATES Washington is pleased the fighting has stopped, although Secretary of State John Kerry shuttled around the region for days and got nowhere. He was widely vilified in Israel for straying from the original Egyptian proposal to try to entice Hamas to stop firing rockets. The U.S. has sent an official to the Cairo talks but seems to not be an active participant, almost unwanted. The Obama administration is now distrusted by Hamas, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egypt’s Sisi – bringing that trio into rare agreement.
QATAR AND TURKEY Both countries backed Hamas, tried to negotiate, but got nowhere. That’s a failure for two countries that in different ways are seeking to carve out a leading role in the region, and both are at loggerheads with the new government in Egypt. Any failure for Hamas is also a blow to Qatar, which at this point is the main backer of the militant group and hosts its leader, Khaled Mashaal.
THE PEOPLE OF GAZA The devastation in Gaza is staggering. Nearly 1,900 Palestinians – mostly civilians, including 400 children, Palestinian officials say – died since the conflict began July 8, according to Palestinian officials. Many more were wounded. About 250,000 have been internally displaced. About 10,000 buildings were destroyed. Early estimates of basic reconstruction are about $6 billion. Many in Gaza may be unhappy with Hamas’ heavy-handed rule but still supported the rocket fire on Israel despite the destruction it brought on, hoping it resulted in an end to the blockade. They may get some improvements in their quality of life if the blockade is eased – but truly open borders, which would transform the place, are unlikely soon. And some would note that the blockade only came about because Hamas took over Gaza in the first place.