In terms of sentiment and fear, Israelis and Palestinians have responded in remarkably similar ways to the conflict in Gaza. Israelis have united around the need to destroy the tunnels and rocket launchers manned by Hamas and groups such as Islamic Jihad. Palestinians are equally united in their refusal to accept any ceasefire that doesn’t ultimately lift the Israeli siege of Gaza.
Both sides feel more vulnerable than ever before. Both have paid a heavier price in terms of death, destruction and inconvenience than in previous confrontations. Both have toughened their negotiating demands. Both feel they have no option but to continue the fight. Both are more cohesive internally than they have been for many years.
This hardening of positions underscores how important it is finally to tackle the underlying reasons for the recurring wars in Gaza, rather than papering them over with yet another fragile ceasefire. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians can afford yet another such conflict.
The problem, of course, is that Israelis and Palestinians have reached diametrically opposed conclusions from this latest round of fighting. Some Israelis are now focused on radical measures to ensure their long-term security: underground sensor walls to block any new Hamas tunnels; new settlements to cement Israeli control over Palestinian lands; perhaps even permanent military control over the West Bank and Gaza.
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That leaves Palestinians to question whether Israelis have really understood the single most important lesson of this war – that time, technology, and superior military firepower are no longer on their side, nor are they sufficient to guarantee Israel’s permanent security.
What Palestinians see is that with every round of fighting over the past five years, since the 2008-9 Gaza war, Palestinian military and technical capabilities have grown. Tactically, Hamas has become more sophisticated in its efforts to kill, capture and wound Israeli troops. Politically, Palestinian support for the resistance has deepened and widened. At the conclusion of each bout of fighting, Israel has failed to eliminate Palestinian resistance or destroy Hamas, and has been forced to accept a ceasefire.
In this latest round, Hamas appears to have increased its capacity to absorb Israel’s massive firepower, to keep firing rockets and using tunnels, and to inflict pain and fear across Israel. The next time – should peace-making efforts fail yet again – Palestinians expect to enjoy yet greater technological and logistical innovations that will allow their brand of asymmetrical warfare to continue paying dividends.
Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups recognize that they will never destroy Israel. In their own way, they’ve even acknowledged the need to coexist peacefully – a reality they express in terms of a “long-term truce,” even while saying they wouldn’t themselves recognize Israel.
So what does Hamas expect to achieve through continued fighting, and why does it enjoy, for now, almost unanimous Palestinian support? It wants to force Israel to do two things: to honor the terms of the 2012 ceasefire agreement that would allow Gazans to live a relatively normal life, with freedom of movement, trade, fishing, marine and air transport, as well as economic development. And it wants to force Israel to address what are in Palestinian eyes the root causes of the conflict: the 1947-48 ethnic cleansing and displacement of the Palestinians.
Israelis are justified in demanding security and acceptance in the region. But that’s only half of the equation. Ending Palestinian refugeehood, occupation and siege is the other. The message Israelis should take away from Gaza is that if the Palestinians don’t see movement toward their reasonable goals within a framework of international legitimacy, the Israelis shouldn’t expect to rest in peace either.
The answer to this conundrum is simple: Move toward meeting the legitimate rights of both sides simultaneously – and quickly.
Rami G. Khouri is director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.