For eleven days and nights the Israeli air force, which has unfettered control of the skies, and supported by ground and naval artillery surrounding the Gaza Strip on three sides, has relentlessly pounded the Gaza Strip.
The Gaza Strip is so miniscule it is barely discernable on most maps. Additionally, it has been under a strict and punishing blockade for 15 years. Every square meter of its territory is under 24/7 Israeli surveillance. The personal details of every last one of its residents are known to Israel.
In military terms the Palestinian organizations in the Gaza Strip are not considered particularly sophisticated, and their weapons and equipment are on the whole rudimentary. Yet for eleven days and nights the combined might of Israel’s military and intelligence services failed to eliminate either the political or military leadership of even one of the Palestinian organizations, and apparently failed to assassinate a single senior leader of any of them. Israel additionally failed to significantly degrade the Palestinian ability to continuously launch coordinated rocket and mortar salvos at Israel, which have continued undiminished. The comprehensive cessation of Palestinian fire emanating from the Gaza Strip on the night of 19/20 May, and its coordinated resumption on the morning of 20 May also demonstrates that Israel failed to disrupt these organisation’s command, control and communications. Israel furthermore refrained from using its overwhelming military advantage to launch a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip out of a fear of significant military losses.
If Israel’s claims about the annihilation of an underground Palestinian tunnel and bunker network were even remotely accurate, the leadership of the Palestinian organisations would be dead and buried, their rockets launchers pulverized, the rocket/mortar fire would have all but ended and continued only sporadically, and Israeli APCs would be driving through Gaza City with their windows rolled down.
The civilian toll in lives and infrastructure has been horrific, but militarily insignificant. If the purpose was to generate popular pressure on the Palestinian organizations to accommodate Israeli terms, it indisputably failed.
Throughout this confrontation, Israel has been insisting it needed to achieve a decisive victory, not only to teach the Palestinian organizations a lesson they would never forget, but also because Hassan Nasrallah and Iran are watching closely and need to be decisively deterred.
Does Israel genuinely expect its military and intelligence capabilities to be taken more seriously after the events of the past two weeks? That Saudi Arabia has now concluded that regime stability and territorial security is best ensured by formalizing its alliance with Israel? That the United States will now abort negotiations with Iran and instead expand cooperation with Israel to promote US interests in the Middle East? Asking for a friend.
Operation “Guardian of the Walls”, as Israel has called it, has clearly been an unmitigated debacle for Israel, and may also precipitate the end of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister. While Israeli leaders made the usual statements about their performance having exceeded their expectations, they have yet to identify a concrete objective they achieved. In the coming days and weeks we can expect the tunnel network under the Gaza Strip to extend several hundred kilometers with every new Israeli press release. As of this writing, the victorious Netanyahu has yet to appear in public to explain the secret of his triumph. Israel’s military, intelligence, and political leaders are already exchanging recriminations, and will probably settle on a scapegoat before the month is out.
Obsessed as they are with the inchoate concept of “deterrence” – and regardless of what it may be – one can assume that Israel’s leaders have already decided they need to do something to re-establish it, particularly because in contrast to previous confrontations, in 2021 Hamas had the audacity to strike the first blow. Israel’s 2008-2009 assault on the Gaza Strip was in fundamental respects an effort to reclaim the “deterrence” lost in Lebanon in 2006. A massive Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip, designed to catch the Palestinian organizations off guard before they have sufficiently recovered, is entirely possible.
Operation Guardian of the Walls was also a failure in a more fundamental respect. The walls Israel has constructed within the framework of the Oslo agreements to fragment the Palestinian people and isolate its various communities were already weakening on account of Israel’s recent actions in Shaikh Jarrah and the Haram al-Sharif. Its rampage in the Gaza Strip bought them crashing down. Palestinians have not been this united since the late 1980s, when the uprising in the occupied territories in December 1987 achieved an end to the murderous Amal siege of the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut. When celebrations erupted across the Palestinian world as the latest ceasefire came into force, these were not only on account of having prevented Israel’s war machine from achieving anything. It was also very much a festival of recovered unity. Consolidating this unity and keeping it operational is the most important challenge Palestinians will face in the coming weeks.
In the international arena Israel also fared poorly. US President Joe Biden was generally receiving high marks during his first months in office, whether from Washington’s foreign allies, the US public, or the expanding progressive wing of the Democratic Party that made no secret of its doubts about him. Both Biden and his secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, had previously made clear that their attachment to Israel notwithstanding, they had no intention of getting involved in Israeli-Palestinian issues and had bigger domestic and international fish to fry. With respect to one of these fish, they were already annoyed with Netanyahu’s determination to sabotage US efforts to rejoin the Iranian nuclear agreement.
Israel’s insistence upon pressing ahead in Shaikh Jarrah and Gaza has brought Biden’s honeymoon to an abrupt end. Because he decided to stand by Israel, and did so for longer than he initially anticipated on account of its incompetence, Biden was as isolated in the United Nations as Donald Trump, while at home the progressives took the gloves off – demonstrating against his support for Israel in Michigan where he had travelled to promote a signature policy otherwise popular with them. Even establishment Congressional Democrats, normally vocal in their support for Israel irrespective of its government or policies, were this time conspicuously silent. The progressive initiative to suspend arms shipments to Israel won’t pass, but is still a political earthquake. It will get a hearing in Congress and force opponents to go on the record. Biden is unlikely to forget that he had to devote more time this week speaking to and about Netanyahu than his real priorities, and that this was so because private engagement of Israel is ineffective.
Blinken has announced that he is now on his way to the Middle East. As can be surmised from Biden’s remarks shortly before the ceasefire, Washington is determined to revive the PA as a credible institution in order to weaken Hamas and Islamic Jihad. While raising the dead back to life has a history in Palestine, this attempt – much like the failed 2007 US-sponsored Dahlan coup in the Gaza Strip – is a dead letter. Not because Hamas and Islamic Jihad are invulnerable, but because at this stage they can only be co-opted, and only as genuine partners within an organizational framework dedicated to Palestinian rights rather than US-Israeli interests. Even so, the attempt to bolster the credibility of Mahmoud Abbas, futile as it is, necessarily involves weakening Israel’s controls over Palestinian lives.