There is a ghastly familiarity about Israel’s assault on Gaza. The scenes of carnage and destruction inflicted by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) recall very similar scenes during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9.
But there are very important differences. The most obvious is that the regional context has changed dramatically. Roula Khalaf, the Financial Times’ foreign editor, wrote a piece last week headlined, “Hamas’s struggle has receded as a priority in the new Arab world.”
In fact, ever since Israel’s invasions of Lebanon in 1978 and 1982, the Arab regimes have sat by and watched as the IDF has slaughtered Palestinians. Nevertheless, it is true that the regional balance of forces has shifted against Hamas.
In the course of the 2000s it became part of an axis resistant to the US and Israel. This axis embraced Hizbollah in Lebanon, Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and the Islamic republican regime in Iran.
The Arab Spring shattered this alignment. To its credit, the Hamas leadership abandoned its HQ in Damascus to side with the Syrian revolution. Meanwhile, Iran and Hizbollah have fought fiercely to prop up Assad.
The final blow came with the counter-revolution in Egypt.
Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The removal of Mohamed Mursi, the Brotherhood’s Egyptian president, and his replacement by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seemed to complete its isolation.
Hence Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fury in April when Hamas signed a unity agreement with Fatah, the secular nationalist party that dominates the Palestinian Authority, nominally in control of the West Bank.
Netanyahu seems to have decided to exploit the kidnapping and killing of three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank to drive Hamas into further isolation.
His brutal cynicism is indicated by the fact that the Israeli authorities have now admitted that Hamas had nothing to do with the boys’ deaths.
But the IDF were slow to move from bombarding Gaza to sending in ground forces. This was probably because they didn’t have enough good intelligence about Hamas’s missiles and rockets and about the network of tunnels that allow Palestinian fighters to penetrate Israel.
The Israeli daily Haaretz reported at the weekend that the IDF has “managed to establish a type of security zone in the region between the border fence and the outskirts of Gaza’s urban area, stretching in some places as far as three kilometres into the Strip, according to Palestinian reports”.
They are using this beachhead to try to destroy the tunnel network, which takes time—hence Netanyahu’s resistance to US demands for a ceasefire.
But there’s an important difference on the ground with previous Israeli incursions into Gaza—the IDF is taking far more casualties. In 2008-9 there were 11 Israeli deaths, four from friendly fire. By last Sunday 43 IDF had been killed.
The fiercest fighting so far took place in the Gazan neighbourhood of Shujai’iya at the start of the ground offensive. An IDF officer told Haaretz, “I’ve been to Shujai’iya before, but I’ve never seen it—or Hamas—like this before.
“Their equipment and tactics are just like Hizbollah. Missile traps and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) everywhere—and they stay and fight instead of melting away like in the past.”
A Hamas counterattack forced IDF commanders to save their troops by ordering them to take refuge in armoured personnel carriers and laying down an intense artillery and bombardment. Shujai’iya was flattened, while 13 Israeli soldiers and over 70 Palestinians, at least half of them civilians, were killed.
None of this reduces Israel’s massive military superiority or diminishes the terrible suffering of the people of Gaza. But Israel is locked into a long-term struggle with an enemy that can inflict some real damage.
And Hamas seems less isolated than Netanyahu calculated. Whatever their different attitudes towards the Assad regime, it is in Iran’s interest to back Hamas, both to keep up military pressure on Israel and to project itself as the champion of the Palestinians.
This is a war Israel may come to rue.