Hamas-Israeli conflict escalated in November 2012, before reverting back to the fragile truce in the permanent state of war between the Islamist-ruled Gaza Strip and Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Both sides claimed victory, but there was little change to the status quo.
Here’s what we learned from the Operation Pillar of Defense:
1. Israel’s Military Supremacy Undiminished
Israeli military action against Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza was partly aimed at demonstrating that Israel’s room for military action has not been diminished, even if the Arab Spring brought to power governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya that are sympathetic to Palestinian militants.
Indeed, the Operation Pillar of Defense has shown that the balance of power remains decisively in Israel’s favor, and that Hamas, although a resilient enemy, still falls far from the advanced capabilities of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that sits atop Israel’s northern border.
For all the official talk of Hamas’s threat to Israeli security, the IDF was virtually unchallenged during aerial bombardment of suspected missile sites in Gaza and naval blockade of the besieged territory. Hamas’s resistance was limited to inaccurate rocket attacks which, while causing panic in some residential areas, posed no threat to any military or government targets inside Israel.
That said, Israeli government’s decision not to proceed with the ground invasion underlines the costliness of any attempt to destroy Hamas through pitched battles in the densely populated Gaza City, where Hamas’s military presence and grip on power remain unshaken.
2. Hamas’ Rocket Threat: Upgrade But Not a Game Changer
Much has been made of the Fajr-5 missile that hit Tel Aviv on November 15, the first time the city’s residents experienced an air raid alert since the Scud missiles fired by late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf war. Fajr-5 is an Iranian-developed missile with a 75 km target range, supplied to Gaza through underground smuggling tunnels.
Together with the Grad rockets with a range of 20 km, also believed to be supplied by Iran, this marks a considerable improvement to Hamas’ home-made arsenal, previously limited to short-range and highly inaccurate Qassam rockets. If you add Hezbollah into the picture, all major Israeli urban centers now fall within the range of rocket fire from the northern and southern border (BBC has more on Gaza rocket arsenal problem).
But while the news of people in Tel Aviv running to the shelters provided a rare psychological boost to outgunned Palestinians in Gaza, in the larger picture it falls far from a real deterrent to future Israeli attacks on Gaza. Hamas’ stock of long-range missiles is scarce, countered by Iron Dome missile shield, and vulnerable to Israeli air power.
You can count on Hamas working hard to resupply the arsenal depleted during the November conflict, but it can’t (yet) inflict any great damage on the IDF.
3. Egypt: Still Defining Its regional Role
The Gaza crisis was the first foreign policy test for Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist politician sympathetic to Palestinian resistance. Many in Washington and Tel Aviv had feared the implications of Morsi’s presidency for the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement, but other than dispatching his prime minister to Gaza in defiance of Israeli bombardment Morsi refrained from any radical measures that might have compromised the relationship with the US.
Morsi’s cool handling of the crisis and mediation efforts that led to a (fragile) ceasefire agreement won him praise from Hillary Clinton, in a sign that the US can work with Egypt’s Islamists on key security issues in the region.
But the crisis also signalled “revolutionary” Egypt’s dilemma over Gaza, as it struggles to strike a balance between desire for return to center stage of regional politics, and the reality of dependence on US military aid. And, caught in the messy political transition at home, Egypt will probably anxiously try to avoid becoming the guardian of Hamas’ regime in Gaza (see Peter Beaumont’s article in The Guardian).