Lessons From the Futile Gaza War

Over the past 50 days, Gaza has told Netanyahu that Israel can no longer live by the sword.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Israel Defense Forces soldiers train near the border with the Gaza Strip, Aug. 19, 2014.
Israel Defense Forces soldiers train near the border with the Gaza Strip, Aug. 19, 2014.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

This was the most brutal war Israel has ever waged, and it ended on Tuesday exactly where it started. En route, it inflicted countless wounds. Those of the Palestinians bleed more, but those of the Israelis are deeper. The 50-day war ended with no victors, but only Gaza celebrated last night, and with some degree of justice.

There was no justice in this war; both sides committed war crimes. Nevertheless, its first lesson must not be forgotten: the limits of (military) power. Our smart bombs and our hundreds of planes didn’t help us. They didn’t win the war, and couldn’t have won it. The brilliant Palestinian analyst Mouin Rabbani wrote on his Facebook page on Tuesday, “When an army reaches the point of destroying apartment buildings as if it were a municipal engineer, it can no longer be considered a serious army.”

Hamas grew stronger, despite Israeli propagandists’ pathetic attempts to deny this. And (decimated) Gaza also grew stronger: Its fate, at least for a time, will now preoccupy Israel and the world; had it not been for its rockets, nobody would have bothered with it.

Gaza paid with much blood. Israel also bled, though less. But Israel’s debit sheet also includes a further decline in its international standing, and even worse, open wounds to its weakening democratic regime, which won’t heal quickly. Hamas has become a representative organization, even to Israel, and an exemplar of steadfast resistance, at least to its own people.

But the test of this war is still before us. This useless war might yet produce benefits, if wars ever can produce benefits, if Israel learns its lessons. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who lost popular support in this war, will deserve history’s admiration: Unlike his colleagues, he at least knew when to end this horror, and he did so last night, displaying impressive leadership. Perhaps he’ll learn that he not only has the power to end wars, but to turn over a new leaf.

Israel can win this war only by complying with its enemy’s just demands: truly opening Gaza to the world and beginning negotiations over the future of the occupied territories. No more “understandings” that will quickly bring the next “operation,” but a new approach to Gaza, Hamas and the entire Palestinian people. No more photo ops with Mahmoud Abbas, but serious negotiations aimed at making peace with the Palestinian unity government.

It’s doubtful Netanyahu either can or wants to do this. But over the past 50 days, the Western and Arab worlds have both told him this is the only way; there is no other. Over the past 50 days, Gaza has told him Israel can no longer live eternally by the sword.

Over the last 50 days, cemeteries filled with bodies and hospitals overflowed with wounded. Rubble piled up and hatred and fear overflowed their banks on both sides. But this cloud could yet have a silver lining: Perhaps Israel, for the first time in its history, will fundamentally change its approach.

It sounds ridiculous now. But how is it possible to end this cursed war without at least envisioning hope?

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