by Sol Schindler
So who won?
In wars of attrition there are rarely any winners. It is usually just a question of who is still standing when the fighting ends. In the Gaza conflict foremost among the many losers was our own beloved United States. We have long been the arbiter in Arab Israel conflicts. A whole series of presidents have worked strenuously to bring peace about, sometimes with striking success, as in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Other times we have not succeeded, but we have always been there. It was only natural, therefore, for our Secretary of State, John Kerry, to leap forward and assume the role of arbiter. He suggested Qatar and Turkey, being interested Near East neighbors, play a role in the proceedings. The fact that we have good working military relationships with both countries may have influenced him. For those of us who occasionally read a newspaper, however, his choice seemed odd. The Turkish Prime Minister had likened the Israeli Prime Minister to Hitler and regularly faulted Israel for all the errors – of which there are many – in the Middle East. Qatar has financed Hamas along with other elements of the Moslem Brotherhood for a long period of time. No one, except possibly Mr. Kerry, was surprised when the Israelis blew their lid and refused acceptance of the new arbiters. Egypt came to the rescue and despite the fact that they and Hamas have publicly announced their dislike of each other was able to bring about a cease fire. The Egyptian ruler, General Sisi, knows what he wants and is aware that in setting pre-conditions favorable to one side he would be abandoning the neutrality he is striving to maintain. He stood his ground and Hamas ended up accepting the cease fire they had initially turned down. This is a diplomatic triumph for Egypt, the only real triumph in this tragic war.
The European countries including Russia have said little and done less, perhaps to everyone’s relief.
As for the two combatants, both have suffered considerably. One consideration the throng of writers covering the Middle East often fail to take into account is the miniscule size of the contestants. Israel has a total population of 7.9 million including its Muslim and Christian minorities. The Gaza Strip though densely populated has all of 1.8 million. These populations cannot accommodate wars of attrition. For Israel to undertake any form of meaningful military action it must mobilize its reserves. Doing so means depriving its economic structure of skilled laborers and managers. Shortages of this type can be overcome by having remaining staff work overtime, but this solution clearly has its limitations. The actual process of war itself is very expensive. The smart bomb is much desired because it hits the target and thus avoids a good deal of the much deplored collateral damage, but it is much more expensive than the old dumb bombs of WW11. It would be cheaper to firebomb and thus destroy the whole city than pick out individual buildings and smart bomb them. Fortunately Israel did not reach that point of desperation. The Iron Dome, Israel’s newly established anti-missile defense, has proven successful, but each anti-missile initially cost $50,000. Costs may have declined as production developed and whatever the cost the people living at the end of the incoming rocket’s arc think it is money well spent. But for a nation as small as Israel it is still expensive. All ammunition is expensive, as is the fuel for the jets that carry the expensive bombs.
The only time in recent years the Gaza Strip has shown signs of economic progress was when it was under complete Israeli occupation. A thriving export market for fruit arose using the produce from Israeli established green houses. There were local job opportunities while many Gazans commuted to Israel proper for better paying jobs. When General Ariel Sharon became Prime Minister of Israel and ended the occupation pulling all Israelis out, the Gazans celebrated by razing all Israeli property including the green houses. The export fruit market unsurprisingly disappeared and economic activity slowed. When Gaza split from the Palestinian Authority (Fatah) and elected Hamas to be its governing body, economic activity slowed further. Life in Gaza became an economic dead end. Most blamed the doldrums on the occupation or rather the “blockade” conveniently forgetting the economic activity that existed when the occupation was real. Now portions of the city have been destroyed and there is a grievous housing shortage. Thousands of civil workers have not been paid for four months. Yet amidst all the destruction and the crowds of mourners for the dead the city government staged a victory parade. Whether the people were happy because the fighting had stopped or because someone had told them they had won a victory is unclear because except for two minor changes, a border post has been pushed back into Israel a hundred meters and Gazan fishing boats may now venture twelve miles out to sea rather just six, the situation is exactly the same as it was before the hostilities. Except, of course, that the city is in even a more ruinous state than ever and its population has been lessened by a couple of thousand.
Gaza desperately awaits reconstruction, but there is no money, and none will be forthcoming until some sort of an agreement is reached in Cairo between the Israeli government and Hamas. That agreement may never be attained which means international aid may be exceedingly difficult to organize, but we may be sure the UN will make the effort and that the United States will be among the first to be approached.
The situation in Gaza is both tragic and desperate, and we do not know what to do. The White House having fallen into the habit of leading from behind must now rely on the resolve and clarity of vision of General Sisi and the Egyptians. One may suppose there are worse fates.
American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.
Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service Officer.