GAZA CITY: It’s been barely a week since both sides of the Israel-Hamas conflict fumbled their way to a ceasefire. But when the guns stopped firing, both sides were quick to declare victory.
“Olmert: We’ve achieved what we wanted, read a headline in Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronoth, Reuters reported.
Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’ exiled leader in Damascus, was equally quick to announce victory and use it to try to bolster Hamas’ legitimacy in the international community.
“The resistance remained steadfast despite the huge imbalance in firepower. Our people remained standing and Hamas emerged stronger, Reuters reported him as saying.
“It is time for you to deal with Hamas, which has gained legitimacy through struggle.
With both sides engaging in their fair share of chest pounding and Gaza only just beginning to dig out from the rubble, measuring Israel’s success against its own stated aims is ever more complicated.
When the war started, Israel had one immediate objective with its air campaign: to stop the barrage of rockets that were falling on south Israel daily.
Israel has, it seems, managed to bolster short-term security for the residents of towns like Sderot and Ashkelon, which were pummeled by rockets day and night before the Israeli offensive and in its early phases.
Israel not only targeted known and suspected weapons caches but was also seen responding quickly by slamming the sites from which rockets were fired. The IDF claims to have significantly weakened the Islamist resistance movement’s weapons capability.
Israel has also argued that the strength of its response to Hamas rockets has deterred the group from firing what weapons it does have.
On the ground in Gaza, though, many argue that Israel has dealt Hamas little damage and that the decrease in rocket fire was a strategic choice in order to fight a longer war.
“It is a strategy, said Sager El Muzayin, whose house was destroyed in the north Gaza town of Tuwam. “This is a long fight to end the occupation.
“The Qassam Brigades are still strong, said Said El Magroun, a student and Fatah supporter. “Nothing happened to them.
A third possibility for the cause of decreased rocket fire into Israel is that Hamas leaders decided that Gaza could no longer bear continued destruction and bloodshed.
“There is no doubt Hamas got weaker, said Mohamed Abu Hama from Gaza City, “because every place has been destroyed.
Whatever the truth, it is unlikely to emerge clearly given the cloak of secrecy surrounding Hamas, the Qassam Brigades and their weapons capability.
With Hamas’ weapons kept a secret, journalists scoured the streets this week, looking for indications that Israel had made headway in accomplishing its second aim: weakening Hamas’ grip on Gaza.
All signs this week pointed to Hamas’ eagerness to reassert its authority. Traffic police were deployed to all major intersections to direct traffic while machinegun-toting police in military fatigues strolled the streets.
Many Palestinians whose houses had been destroyed in the war reported that Hamas officials had already stopped by, saying that they would cover the cost of rebuilding.
Even as power outages continued to plague much of Gaza, Hamas electricity crews could be seen repairing lines up and down the Strip.
In the town of Deir El Balah, just south of Gaza City, a youth group from the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, marched through the streets carrying banners of slain fighters last week.
Despite many of the positive civil obligations Hamas, Gaza’s ruling party, was seen to be fulfilling, reports also indicated that the group was moving to intimidate potential rivals.
The New York Times reported last week that Hamas members had begun shooting some Fatah loyalists in their legs to send a message that dissent would not be tolerated.
This comes on the heels of reports that ran rampantly through Gaza that Fatah, under the auspices of the Egyptian government, was preparing a force in the Sinai to retake Gaza after the war.
Many Gazans told Daily News Egypt that they had heard of this conspiracy.
“Between Ramallah and Israel, there was a treaty to destroy Hamas, Mahdy Hamad, a Hamas member and prison warden at the Gaza Central Prison, said.
“There were a lot of Fatah members, he said. “They were preparing to finish Hamas after the bombing.
Despite Hamas’ efforts to reassert control over Gaza, the movement’s leaders remain in hiding. Israel’s air campaign killed Hamas Interior Minister Said Siam in an attack that many say was a result of intelligence from within Gaza.
Other senior Hamas leaders, therefore, have remained in hiding, not even emerging as many expected they might to deliver sermons at Friday prayers last week.
Despite the absence of Hamas leadership, some argue that the lack of Fatah leadership in Gaza may be the biggest boost to Hamas’ bid to stay in power.
“There are no leaders of Fatah here in the Gaza Strip, said El Magroun. “When the leaders come back, it will be strong.
Signs this week also indicated that Israel may have fallen short in its bid to destroy the smuggling tunnels used by Hamas to import weapons illegally from Egypt. This issue had quickly emerged as one of the most important of the conflict as securing the Egypt-Gaza border became one of the last issues resolved through peace negotiations in Cairo and Sharm El-Sheikh.
A hundred yards from the Egypt border on Saturday, though, work on the tunnels was in full swing. Some of the tunnel entrances were concealed by white tarpaulin tents, while many sat in the open. Outside one tent, a truck idled as workers piled it high with the latest packages to arrive from Egypt.
The scene illustrated that many tunnels were open for business, while workers rebuilt others.
Jamil Al Masry, the owner of one tunnel that opens into an Egyptian farm field, showed off generators and toy dolls that had come through in the last 24 hours.
“We closed during the war, he said. “But now we bring through many goods everyday.
Vendors, selling gasoline, diesel and kerosene lined the streets between Gaza City and Rafah. Many admitted that the gas had just come through the tunnels.
Despite the continued flow of goods into Gaza through the tunnels, it remains unclear the extent of the damage that Israel dealt to Hamas’ weapons tunnels, which smugglers report are kept separate and secret from the other tunnels.
Diaa Hassan, who works in one tunnel along the border, confirmed that, barring any further Israeli military action, destroyed tunnels would be rebuilt quickly. He noted that most tunnels take only four months to construct.
If the quick rebuilding of the tunnels is inevitable, responsibility to stem the flow of weapons from Egypt will lie heavily on the Egyptian military to prevent weapons from even reaching the tunnels. As part of ceasefire discussions between Israel and Egypt, the Mubarak government has pledged to combat the tunnel network from its side of the border.
The legacy of the Middle East’s newest war may take some time to determine. History will serve as a better indicator of Israel’s success.
In the meantime, though, the outcome of this war has given both sides the evidence to declare victory, rally supporters and – inevitably – prepare for the next war.