The very last salvo of mid-range rockets fired by Hamas from Gaza - minutes before the 8 A.M. ceasefire - hit south of Jerusalem, around Bethlehem and Gush Etzion. Shrapnel fell a short distance away from the bus stop where the three Israeli teens - Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah - took the fateful hitchhike to their deaths 54 days ago. A poignant end to this round of violence.
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Writing about ceasefires has become risky business in the last few weeks. Hours of work and thousands of words have gone up the spout as after a few hours of calm rockets were launched again, and fighters emerged from yet another undiscovered tunnel. This time, however, as of Tuesday afternoon, the ceasefire agreed upon by the Palestinian factions meeting in Cairo and the Israeli cabinet in a rushed phone-vote last night seems to be holding. Both sides seem to have exhausted their options in this bout of warfare, and Egypt has finally exerted its influence to bring them to two separate tables.
Even if the operation is indeed over, for now, where and when did this start?
That Thursday night, when three teenagers were abducted and murdered, seems like an obvious starting-point. For some, it symbolizes the moment Hamas' designs to wreak mayhem and bloodshed on Israel through terror attacks in the West Bank followed by simultaneous rocket and tunnel attacks from Gaza, were revealed.
There is no proof though that the abductors, alleged Hamas members who have yet to be apprehended, were acting upon instructions from above. And while the rocket infrastructure and tunnel network was certainly built for this kind of offensive, the sequence of events that quickly escalated into Operation Protective Edge does not necessarily indicate that Hamas planned to go all the way, at least not now.
Israel's critics claim that the kidnapping of the teenagers was cynically used by the government and the Israel Defense Forces to land a devastating blow on Hamas, first in the West Bank and then in Gaza. The first part of this theory is partially true. The initially phase of the searches for the teenagers - who were already then believed to have been murdered shortly after the abduction - was also the trigger for a large-scale operation to dismantle Hamas' organizational capacities in the West Bank. There was little appetite, however, for yet another large scale Gaza operation, both within the army and at the Prime Minister's Office. Benjamin Netanyahu accepted every ceasefire proposal and withstood pressure from his ministers to expand and prolong the campaign at each stage along the way. Netanyahu didn't want this war; he feared an operation spiraling out of his control and its ultimate costs. He hesitated at every stage, until events and public pressure dragged him in.
If it was up to the government and the army, the starting point would be July 6, when the first Hamas tunnel was destroyed, killing inside six of the movement's militants. The next day, as Hamas retaliated with heavy barrages of rocket at Israel, Operation Protective Edge was officially launched. This time frame places the warfare in the convenient narrative of a defensive campaign and also sets up the only tangible objective the IDF can claim to have achieved – destroying the attack tunnels. This was the objective set for the ground operation that Netanyahu didn't want. With all the tunnels the intelligence was aware of and those subsequently discovered destroyed, the objective has been achieved.
Is this success? Only if you look at what has happened over the last four weeks from a very limited perspective; but probably not, if you take into consideration more than 1,700 killed Palestinians - at least half of them civilians – and over 8,000 wounded, as well as 67 deaths on the Israeli side, the massive damage wreaked in the Gaza Strip and the cost to Israel's economy, its diplomatic standing and image in the world.
And certainly not when you take into account that the current confrontation between Israel and Gaza didn't in fact begin on July 7, or with the kidnapping of the three tens on June 12.
Israel has faced Gaza, its refugees, its desperation and hatred, ever since the end of the Independence War in 1949; but this phase in the six and a half decade-long enmity began this week nine years ago, when Israel pulled its forces and settlements out of Gaza without fully empowering the Palestinian Authority to take over. The Hamas takeover two years later was almost inevitable, as they were already controlling large parts of the Strip, and the PA was utterly discredited. Whatever military successes Israel had in Gaza since, it seems hardly have been worth embarking on four separate campaigns - Summer Rains, Cast Lead, Pillar of Defense, and now Protective Edge, which were basically just a surge in a constant state of warfare.
None of this excuses Fatah corruption, Hamas extremism, the exploitation of 1.8 million Palestinian citizens and their sacrifice for the rivalries of corrupt faction leaders and their need to perpetuate the "armed struggle" on their backs. Egypt used its power and crossing to Gaza just as cynically as the Hamas chieftains expropriating funds and scarce building materials to build command bunkers, tunnels and underground rocket launchers. None of this changes the fact that nine years of Israeli policy on Gaza have been an abject failure.
The Israeli blockade over Gaza was put in place immediately following the violent Hamas takeover, in July 2007. The siege succeeded in further impoverishing the already poor Gazan population, it did not motivate them to rise up against Hamas - which succeeded in building an increasingly resourceful military force, which was still capable of firing rockets at central Israel this morning, despite 4,598 Israeli airstrikes in the past four weeks and countless artillery shelling and bombardments. The failure to change course on Gaza and come up with a way of opening the Strip to trade and passage without bolstering Hamas in the process, is even greater when compared to the Israeli ingenuity in developing systems such as Iron Dome to shield its own citizens.
Whatever Ariel Sharon's true motives for disengagement were for evacuating 8,000 settlers from their tiny enclaves in Gaza - it was the only moral and sensible move. Every other Israeli policy regarding Gaza, basically, has hopelessly backfired. It's not that there was no one trying to challenge institutional thinking. Alternative policies to the blockade were suggested by a few IDF officers, National Security Council experts and diplomats, but none of the three prime ministers - Sharon, Olmert and Netanyahu - were interested in listening. All three of them share the responsibility. Simply blaming the vile and fascistic leaders of Hamas and the venal and inefficient ones of Fatah can't mitigate that failure.
There is a lot of loose and empty talk of Israel or Hamas winning this battle. It's ridiculous because the victory of a nation-state, with one of the most powerful armies in the world and a stable economy, over a terror organization based on a beleaguered sliver of land is a foregone conclusion. Over the last nine years, Israel's economy has ridden out the global financial crisis and emerged in even better shape; its legal system has convicted a sex-offender president and a bribe-taking prime minister; and through a combination of covert operations and sanctions kept Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Gaza has languished in poverty, while Hamas, for all its tunnels and rockets, is further than ever from its goal of destroying the Jewish State.
Israel's victory over Hamas was never in doubt. It could have used some of its resourcefulness to allow hope for the people of Gaza as well, and find a better way of challenging Hamas rather than wasting thousands of lives.