The seeds of this war were sown in 2005, following the Second Intifada. During that time, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced a plan to unilaterally pull out of Gaza. In the absence of any real partner to negotiate with, Sharon hoped that unilateral disengagement would at least take Gaza off Israel’s hands and give the Palestinians a chance at self-governance. The subsequent pullout and removal of Israeli settlers was a deeply traumatic event, but was nonetheless backed by a broad consensus across the country.
In the 2006 election, the Palestinians of Gaza voted Hamas into power. A year later, Hamas routed and purged Gaza of its rival party, Fatah. Fatah is the nationalist Palestinian party, and has been involved in peace talks with Israel regarding an eventual two-state solution. Hamas, on the other hand, is the Islamist Palestinian party, and opposes any agreements with Israel; it instead seeks the destruction of the Jewish state.
Consistent with this ideology, Hamas, once in power, began investing not in infrastructure, but in new ways to attack Israel. One such innovation was a complex tunnel system that affords both secrecy and mobility to terrorists. In summer 2006, these tunnels were used in the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held hostage ever since. The tunnel system has also been used to smuggle in weapons, allowing military stockpiles within the Strip to increase dramatically. Hamas’s weapons, meanwhile, have grown not only in quantity, but in range and lethality. Even while Gaza’s hospitals, schools, and economy languished, Hamas focused on acquiring Kassam missiles and firing them at Israeli towns, particularly Ashkelon and Sderot.
Despite Hamas’s actions, the Israeli government was very hesitant to go to war; it exhausted all options before finally launching “Operation Cast Lead.” It first cut off aid to Gaza, as did much of the Western world. Then, after Hamas’s attacks restarted, Israel closed the broader entrances to Gaza and blockaded the coast in an attempt to both reduce the flow of weapons into the Strip and isolate the radical government. This, too, failed to quell the violence. As the heavy shelling of southern Israeli towns continued, Israel opted not for a military option, but for an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire in June 2008. Hamas, however, was reluctant to sign on, and only did so after their foot-dragging prompted Israel to prepare for major military operations.
During the ceasefire, the rocket attacks abated but did not stop, leading Israel to attack the missile launchers and the tunnels being dug into Israel. After the ceasefire expired, Defense Minister Ehud Barak sought to continue the ceasefire in order to continue peace for the South. The Israeli public, tired of constant shelling, felt great need for an operation, while politicians still hoped to delay the inevitable oncoming war. This, however, was not to be.
As I write this article, the ultimate outcome of the war is still unknown. The suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza is horribly tragic and the Israeli Army is taking great pains to reduce civilian casualties. In contrast, Hamas missiles are aimed at civilian centers and are designed to instill terror. The Israelis do not enjoy the pain that is inflicted on the Palestinians in Gaza, but until their country is safe from missile attacks, they remain resolute in their support of military operations.
The renewed outbreak of war offers two lessons. First, Israel’s unilateral withdrawals should be repudiated. The past two wars (Lebanon 2006 and Gaza 2008) were the result of unilateral Israeli withdrawals that facilitated terrorist havens. Both withdrawals were pursued with the hopes of peace and quiet, but resulted in war and bloodshed. Thus, the future of the West Bank will only be decided when the Palestinian leadership can guarantee peace for Israel.
The second lesson centers on the stark contrast between the two paths chosen by the Palestinians themselves. The path of war and agitation chosen by Hamas led to the collapse of Gaza’s economy and an extreme humanitarian crisis. While the Israeli blockade and closure of the Strip is the most common target of blame, Hamas’s neglect of Gaza’s economy in order to continue its attacks on Israel are the real culprit in the deterioration of Gaza. To turn the little strip into a military launch pad constantly goading the army next door made this war inevitable.
The path of peace chosen by Fatah, meanwhile, has led to an unreported yet substantial growth of the West Bank economy, as well as a rise in the living standards of the Palestinians living there. Ramallah, the headquarters of the PLO, has witnessed an economic boom as industry and infrastructure continue to grow. Similarly, Israel has made overtures with prisoner releases and raising check points in order to reduce the burdens placed on the Palestinian people. The Palestinians can readily see the outcomes of the two options before them; they alone can determine whether theirs will be a future of peace and statehood or of war and suffering.