Now that there is a cease-fire in Gaza, questions are emerging about what Israel has achieved. Of course, the lopsided casualty figures and Israel’s military dominance certainly make it the battlefield winner. But such a “mission accomplished” assessment is as misleading in occupied Palestine as it was in Iraq. Although Hamas could not come close to matching Israel’s armed might, it may have won a major battle for Palestinian hearts and minds. Reports from the West Bank, Gaza and the Palestinian diaspora suggest widespread anger at the Palestinian Authority for its passivity and a rise in support for Hamas, even among secular Palestinians, in appreciation of its determined resistance to the brutality of the Israeli occupation and military operations. If Hamas becomes the dominant political force in all of occupied Palestine when the next elections are held, Israel will be the loser.
The scorecard is also complicated on the diplomatic front. Perhaps Israel’s military display will have some inhibiting effects on its opponents, but the extreme one-sidedness of the struggle evoked widespread protests and some negative diplomatic repercussions. Qatar and Mauritania, among the few states in the region that had accepted Israel, broke relations, and the European Union has suspended moves to improve Israel’s status as a trading partner. The Turkish prime minister even suggested expelling Israel from the United Nations.
In this inflamed atmosphere, it is no wonder that respected international voices, ranging from the UN’s high commissioner for human rights to the president of the General Assembly, are for the first time calling for a war crimes investigation. The Malaysian Parliament has unanimously called on the UN to establish a special war crimes tribunal. Even before Israel’s December 27 attack, its prolonged blockade of Gaza had brought about a grave humanitarian crisis. The blockade is a form of collective punishment, and as such it is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. On top of that, Israel’s military assault inflicted massive loss of civilian life and severe damage to civilian infrastructure, including many public buildings not connected to Hamas’s military. Even if Israel’s claims of defensive response are accepted at face value, this is excessive use of force. There are also widespread reports that Israel has used legally dubious weapons like white phosphorus, dense inert metal explosives and depleted uranium. And finally, through its rigid control of exits, Israel has denied the people even the right to flee the fighting, a violation of humanitarian law that lends credibility to the claim that Israeli occupation policy essentially imprisons Gazans.
Winning militarily but losing politically should not surprise students of modern warfare. After all, the United States won every battle in Vietnam and yet eventually lost the war. The same was true for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and indeed it was the general pattern in decolonization struggles. In such wars the militarily dominant side not only loses the war but generates a deep crisis at home and experiences a tarnished international reputation. What these counterinsurgency or neocolonial wars have in common is that “the enemy” is merged with civilian society; the fighting abandons the restraints of international humanitarian law; and by killing helpless civilians, the occupying or colonial power is perceived as committing war crimes. This has been the case in Gaza, with worldwide outrage inflicting on Israel a major defeat in the battle for public legitimacy, which in the end is often decisive in shaping the outcome of major conflicts.
Neither the United States nor Israel has discovered the limits of military power in the contemporary world. The leaders of both countries seem unable to learn the lesson of recent history: that occupation in the postcolonial world rarely produces the desired results at an acceptable cost. It is from this perspective, despite a horrific price in lives and suffering, that the Palestinians may be slowly winning the “second war,” the legitimacy war, whose battlefield has become global. Perhaps the most impressive victory in a legitimacy war was won by South Africa’s antiapartheid movement. If the Gaza conflict brings the Palestinian struggle for self-determination to the top of the global justice agenda, it will be a major victory for Hamas. Of course, Hamas is not the African National Congress, and Israel is not South Africa. The Palestinians lack the sort of inspired leadership that Nelson Mandela and other ANC figures provided.
Military campaigns usually have a clear beginning and end, as well as a visible battlefield. In contrast, legitimacy wars have no clear boundaries and involve subtle shifts of public opinion that can alter the overall political climate in decisive ways. I believe the Gaza conflict, especially against the background of Israel’s prior siege and its 2006 Lebanon misadventure, is approaching that tipping point. Despite the frightful punishment inflicted on Gaza’s people, despite the bitterly divided Palestinian leadership, despite the cruelties of more than four decades of occupation, the Palestinians are poised to achieve victory.
The fragile cease-fire poses new challenges and opportunities. There are hopeful scenarios, but they depend on leaps of imagination that have been lacking on both sides. Hamas could confirm its willingness to behave as a political actor and stop firing rockets at civilians. Israel could recover in the legitimacy war by dealing directly with Hamas and taking its offer of a long-term cease-fire seriously. Israel could also show a willingness to engage in peace talks based on the 2002 Arab League Peace Initiative. Even at this late stage of the conflict, such alternatives offer both Israelis and Palestinians a promising, if perilous, escape route from the inferno.