It is the “David and Goliath” scenario again, only there has been a role-change from the Biblical text where Saul and the Israelites are facing the Philistines in the Valley of Elah. The underdog, or the smaller and weaker opponent, in the contest this time round is the Palestinians, who are facing a much bigger and stronger adversary-Israel.
In the fighting that erupted with the Palestinian Hamas movement in May, Israel has displayed military superiority on the tactical level, but on the strategic one the conflict has been nothing short of a humiliating political setback, including through a dramatic loss of public support worldwide.
Israel said it was triumphant after its airstrikes killed more than 230 Palestinians, including 65 children, and brought widespread devastation or damage to the already impoverished Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, including to its sewage systems, water pipes and hospitals.
The Israel army said it had destroyed hundreds of rocket launchers, a network of underground tunnels, weapons stores and the homes of several Hamas leaders in its bombing blitz on Gaza. Israel also claimed that it had killed a number of the group’s leaders.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted of the success of the entire operation, including the thwarting of Hamas drones and most rocket attacks, which meant the group was completely contained and its ability to launch rockets into Israel curtailed.
But Hamas also claimed victory after an Egypt-brokered and US-backed ceasefire took hold early on 21 May. The group declared it had succeeded in taking on one of the world’s best-equipped armies by firing some 4,000 rockets into Israel.
Hamas and Israel engaged in the latest round of fighting that began when the Palestinian group fired a barrage of rockets at Israel in response to Israeli abuses against the Palestinians in Jerusalem. Israel responded with a sustained and lethal aerial campaign.
Hamas rocket attacks throughout the confrontation played havoc with Israeli cities and military sites, with multiple impacts on infrastructure and civilians. Twelve people in Israel, including two children, were killed as a result of Hamas missile attacks.
There has been a flurry of reactions, reviews and analysis of the war with various stakeholders, and supporters and observers alike are divided over the outcome of the confrontation.
Like in all wars, when the guns fall silent, there is usually a winner and a loser, and in this war there is no shortage of metrics to show Israel’s utter failure, considered according to the traditional definition of war, in defeating its enemy and forcing it to surrender.
Even before the truce began, scepticism abounded that Israel could meet its military objectives. As soon as the dust of the war had settled, it became clear that Israel had endured a remarkable disaster.
Here is why Israel is the biggest loser from the war, no matter what its leaders may claim about a triumph.
In the context of the Israeli military strategy against Hamas and threat perceptions, deterrence has focused on “preventive” airstrikes and intensive and indiscriminate bombing directed against the group’s infrastructure targets.
Eleven days after the beginning of the bloody campaign, Israel’s bombing of Gaza had proved ineffective and Israel’s “forceful deterrence” had been turned into a shambles, however.
Hamas still have thousands of rockets and hundreds of rocket launchers and more interestingly the know-how and ability to build an arsenal of home-made rockets largely with civilian materials for future wars.
In the words of Aluf Benn, the editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and a prominent columnist, the Gaza war was the “most failing and pointless border war” in Israel’s history and has exposed “serious military and diplomatic failures.”
Israel’s bid to weaken Hamas politically has also been slammed.
Israel had hoped that Hamas would be isolated through its punitive military campaign, forcing the movement into submission and consequently diminishing its political power.
Yet, the Islamist militant group, the de facto ruler of Gaza since 2007, has succeeded in keeping power despite Israeli, US and international pressure, as well as repeated Israeli military incursions.
By linking its missile response to Israeli transgression on the Al-Aqsa Compound in Jerusalem and Israeli plans to grab predominantly Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem, Hamas also emerged as the leading Palestinian resistance group to Israel.
By trying to substantiate its claim as the true defender of the Palestinian cause, the group succeeded in increasing its popularity among Palestinians while weakening the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas, whose legitimacy has been shaken by a failure to stand up to Israel, governance failure and corruption.
In addition, many foreign governments that had previously labelled Hamas as a terrorist organisation have now started talking about the need to engage the group in the peace effort with Israel.
A statement by German Chancellor Angela Merkel that “indirect talks” with Hamas were “essential” to advancing the ceasefire was seen as a sign that the European Union, which has long shunned Hamas, may be looking for new avenues for political engagement with the group and its transformation into a mainstream Palestinian political force.
On the regional level, Israel’s failings have extended to its new stature following last year’s normalisations of relations with four Arab countries. The process, sponsored by the former US administration, was trumpeted as being a means towards regional peace.
But thanks to the Israeli brutality, which has been capturing Arab public attention, the so-called “Abraham Alliance” concluded with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan has been rendered virtually irrelevant.
Significantly, Israel, which has long capitalised on government and public support in the US and the Western world, has sustained a dramatic blow in terms of empathy and solidarity in the recent escalation.
While governments have implicitly blamed Israel for its disproportionate attacks on Gaza, politicians, activists and writers in the West have unreservedly held Israel accountable for the excessive use of force and the collective punishment of the Palestinians.
Protests took place in London, Paris, Dublin and in numerous cities around the world this weekend for Palestine solidarity. The protest in London was one of the largest pro-Palestine demonstrations in British history.
Online solidarity with the Palestinians has been remarkable and has included some international celebrities whose words of support have gone global and helped to drive a groundswell of condemnation of Israel.
Employees at Amazon, Google and Apple have voiced their support for the Palestinians in public posts and letters and have been asking their employers not to be “complicit in state killings and human rights abuses.”
Diminishing public support for Israel could shift the dynamics of global public opinion, particularly in the US and Europe, against Israel and could irreversibly change the narrative to the benefit of the Palestinians.
There is a major failing in Israel’s efforts to bury the Palestinian story about grievances in living either in the open-air prison of Gaza, under the apartheid regime of the West Bank, or as second-class citizens in the self-declared Jewish state of Israel.
Since it came into being in 1948, Israel has tried to keep the existential nature of the problem out of the international headlines by denying such realities with rhetoric about Israeli democracy and trying to frame the conflict as part of the war against terrorism.
Israel has tried to sideline and diminish Palestinian grievances in the international debate, but the war on Gaza has now reignited the Palestinian question, and it is expected to create a new dynamism to put the issue back on the international agenda.
To assume that nothing has changed after the missiles have fallen silent in this war would therefore be wrong both tactically and strategically. The debate is no longer about Hamas’s attacks or Israel’s ability to deter the group by inflicting collective punishment and coercive measures on the Palestinians.
It is rather about taking the submission of the Palestinians as a forgone conclusion. If David and Goliath can serve any lesson of how the underdog can overcome the odds and be triumphant, then Israel should no longer be blind to the fact that it cannot stop the Palestinian resistance by relying upon its military superiority.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly