For any dispassionate observer it is easy to see which side “won” the latest battle between Israel and the Palestinians in the occupied Gaza Strip. After eight days of bombardment on one of the most densely populated places on earth, 162 Palestinians were killed, including ninety civilians, among them twenty-six children. In what an Israeli commentator called a “drizzle” of retaliatory rocket fire, six Israelis were killed, four of them civilians.
Palestinians are hardly dispassionate observers. For them, the fact that Israel agreed to a cease-fire while the military wing of Hamas, along with other factions, was pitching rockets into its territory was a victory against “deterrence,” in the name of which the Gaza operation had been launched. So too were the Hamas rockets that managed to reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The sight of Israelis running to shelters in these and other cities gave visceral satisfaction to a people who have lived under aerial bombardment for years without bomb shelters.
“History will mention that Gaza once hit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with rockets,” boasted a Hamas fighter in Gaza. It was a widely shared sentiment in Gaza and the West Bank, where Hamas’s popularity has soared.
And that of Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority has tanked. While Palestinians were bearing the brunt of an Israeli military offensive largely bankrolled by US taxpayers and tacitly condoned by members of the European Union, President Abbas was urging both powers to support or at least not oppose a PA bid at the UN General Assembly to become a non-member observer state. Palestinian officials present the proposal as a last-ditch effort to rescue what remains of a two-state solution eroded by years of stalled peace talks and aggressive Israeli settlement building.
The European Union is likely to split three ways on the proposal, with some countries voting for it, some voting against and some abstaining. But the EU as a body wants certain “assurances” from the PA. One is that after any upgrade in status, the Palestinians return immediately to peace negotiations without conditions, dropping any demand for an Israeli settlement freeze. Another is that the Palestinians pledge not to use their new legal status as a state to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in the occupied territories. Both are assurances Abbas will find very difficult to give.
Washington has opposed any UN move that lacks Israeli approval, and is anyway wary of the world body becoming embroiled in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As for Israel, it initially warned that any form of UN-recognized statehood would terminate what remains of the Oslo Accords, which, according to Tel Aviv, permit only bilateral negotiations to resolve the conflict. More recently, however, Israel has signaled that it may respond to a purely symbolic recognition of Palestinian statehood at the UN with a show of indifference. Should the PA go beyond symbolism, however, the very least that Israel would invoke is financial sanctions; the very worst, a toppling of the Authority.
These tangled diplomacies have only underscored what for most Palestinians and Arabs the confrontation in Gaza seemed to affirm: that Hamas’s policies of resistance and defiance pay greater dividends than Abbas’s strategy of conciliation. The popular perception of a Hamas military victory in Gaza, coupled with a PA political defeat in Ramallah, has contributed to a new reality in the occupied territories in which Hamas—and particularly its military wing—is now openly challenging Abbas’s Fatah faction as the dominant party.