Peace in Gaza?

Israel’s Inaugural Day gift to Barack Obama will be to complete its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Two unilateral cease-fires, somehow coordinated through Egypt, have for now brought an end to the fighting. For now.

Yesterday I was on a conference call (sponsored by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East) with military historian Michael Oren, a former American-Israeli paratrooper, combat veteran, and author of the acclaimed Six Days of War. He believes the Gaza operation reached its goals. He points out that it had the support of 80 percent of the population, including that of left-wing parties such as Meretz.

As it ended, the left was saying that the army stayed in Gaza too long, while the right was saying it should have stayed and finished destroying Hamas. Oren takes this as evidence that the length of the action was just about right.

Militarily, he said, “The war went very well.” It showed that “an Israeli army can march pretty much to the center of Gaza City” with minimal casualties. Hamas promised to turn Gaza into a “graveyard” for the IDF, which at this point has lost fourteen soldiers. Hundreds of Hamas fighters were killed, around a fourth of their armed force, including key leaders. Two hundred tunnels used for smuggling were destroyed; although many remain, they will be easier for Egyptian and other forces to monitor and control.

Oren is under no illusions. He urges that we wipe the word “solution” from our vocabulary, replacing it with the concept of managing the conflict. He predicts Israel will be fighting for many years to come, and he believes the question of the long-term impact on Hamas’s prestige is a “no win” one for Israel.

But he also believes Hamas has been significantly degraded in its ability and credibility as a fighting force. They will have to explain to the people of Gaza why they hid in their holes and let everybody else take the consequences. They will also have to explain the difference between Gaza and Bethlehem, which had very nice Christmas celebrations this year.

As for Israel, after an ambiguous result in the Second Lebanon War, its deterrent capability is firmly reestablished. The destruction of 40 or 50 targets from the air in the first five minutes of the war demonstrated to Iran the exquisite skill of the Israeli air force, and the action as a whole is Iran’s most important defeat for many years. As for the northern front, “The 2006 war, for all its deficiencies, succeeded in deterring Hizbollah in the current conflict.”

He compared Iran to a boxer leading and jabbing with his left–the fighting by proxy forces Hizbollah and Hamas–while holding his right in reserve for a future nuclear attack. While he denied having top-level inside information, Oren said, “Israel will not allow Iran to nuclearize.”

On the diplomatic front, he considers the war a complete success. It “revealed serious rifts in the Arab world” and “almost an Arab cold war,” with important support for Israel’s action. “Egypt generally acted in a positive fashion throughout the war,” and “Mubarak said publicly that Hamas must not be allowed to win this war.” Most Arab countries want to see a weakened Iran, and they did.

Europe has been drawn into the region in a larger role, as indicated by the 15 countries represented at the Sharm-el-Sheikh meeting on Sunday. The fact that the U.S. is between administrations expanded Europe’s role, and there is a new diplomatic reality. NATO agrees to patrol Gaza’s Mediterranean shore, and Egypt has taken new formal responsibility for smuggling across its own border.

Oren does not believe that this will prevent all smuggling, but it will establish an international cover for any future Israeli action. If Egypt and NATO fail in their responsibilities, they cannot object to an Israeli response, which will follow any significant resumption of rocket attacks.

All in all, he said, “it was a very successful operation.” And, “at the end of the day, it really comes down to us as Jews, How are we going to defend ourselves? …We haven’t had a nanosecond of peace, but we’ve survived and thrived.”

Regarding the civilian casualties, Oren said that as a military historian, he knows that modern urban warfare results in a typical casualty rate of 75 percent civilians, 25 percent fighters. According to the IDF, these proportions were reversed in Gaza. Even if we accept the UN estimate of 40 percent civilians, or the unlikely Hamas estimate of 50 percent, the rate was still substantially below that expected in urban combat.

But of course Oren’s analysis did not include the human face of the war. On Saturday, Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, a Palestinian physician who was trained in Israel, lost three of

his daughters—Bisan, 22, Mayer, 15, and Aya, 14–and a niece—Nour Abu al-Aish, 14–when an Israeli tank shell hit his home, reportedly because a sniper had fired from its vicinity. His wife died recently of cancer.

Abu al-Aish, who spoke Hebrew well, had appeared regularly by phone on Israeli television news throughout the conflict, providing eyewitness reports of events in Gaza. The reporter who took the call considered the doctor a friend was visibly moved; many calls came from Israelis who knew and loved Abu al-Aish. "I want to know why my daughters were harmed,” he said. “This should haunt Olmert his entire life." His daughters, he said, were "armed only with love."

Today’s lead editorial in Haaretz, “With the power of hope,” calls for a vigorous peace initiative. “Obama's grace period won't last long; would that he use it for the benefit of the Middle East.” That will no doubt happen, and we can indeed invoke the power of hope as we have done so often in the past, but it won’t bring back Bisan, Mayer, Aya, or Nour Abu al-Aish, nor assuage the boundless grief of a father and doctor who until just the other day had been one of those Palestinians who could have helped build the bridge to peace.