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Israel won the 2021 Gaza war

While Hamas indeed scored some successes, primarily in the intra-Palestinian arena, it failed to change the status quo in Jerusalem.

An Israel Defense Forces artillery unit near the border with the Gaza Strip, May 18, 2021. Photo by Gili Yaari/Flash90.
An Israel Defense Forces artillery unit near the border with the Gaza Strip, May 18, 2021. Photo by Gili Yaari/Flash90.
Efraim Inbar

Who won the latest Hamas-Israel war? Victory can be evaluated via two separate parameters. The first is the balance of material damage inflicted by each side on the other. The second is the ability of each side to sustain that damage. Based on these two parameters, Israel can be declared the winner of the recent confrontation.

Material damage is a quantifiable indicator. The world can see on television the magnitude of the destruction in Gaza. By contrast, only 130 Hamas rockets fell in Israeli civilian centers (out of 4,300 rockets and missiles launched from Gaza). Israel’s Iron Dome air-defense system intercepted 90 percent of the incoming missiles, seriously minimizing the material damage and casualties in Israel. In addition, Israel attained its declared goal: the degradation of Hamas’s military capabilities.

The second parameter, regarding the endurance of each side, is more difficult to measure. But it would appear that Israel won the war in this regard as well.

It was Hamas that asked for a ceasefire to end Israeli destruction of its military infrastructure and the hunting of its leadership. It was Hamas that was less willing than Israel to continue to pay the price of military conflict. Hamas sympathizers all over the world demanded a truce. In contrast, Israelis (including hard-hit residents of the Gaza-envelope communities) were ready to continue the war.

Most Israelis likely have mixed feelings about how this encounter ended and wonder whether enough damage was done to Hamas to deter the terrorist organization. This indicates great social resilience and willingness to sustain pain on the part of the Israeli public.

The war ended when it did primarily because Israel ran out of worthwhile and attainable Hamas targets to strike from the air (not because of international pressure on Israel). This underscores the limits of Israel’s remarkable military intelligence and of its offensive airpower. In a next round of fighting, an Israeli ground invasion might bring about better results, but that could be very costly in casualties. Moreover, Israel’s need to counter more dangerous challenges from Hezbollah and Iran to the north mandates caution and the preservation of fighting forces for that front.

War is not always a zero-sum game. In this case, Hamas indeed scored some successes, primarily in the intra-Palestinian arena. It proved to be the “carrier of the flame of resistance to Israel,” with an emphasis on the fight for Jerusalem. However, Hamas’s capability to capitalize on this achievement is limited. It failed to change the status quo in Jerusalem. In fact, Israel reopened the Temple Mount for Jews and tourists immediately after the truce went into effect. Moreover, most Palestinians in the West Bank did not demonstrate in support of Hamas, and fears of a Hamas takeover of the West Bank are greatly exaggerated; the Israel Defense Forces can prevent this.

Hamas sparked a small and short insurgency of Israeli (Muslim) Arabs against Israel. This surprised Israel and is probably Hamas’s greatest achievement. This was an awakening for Israel. Israeli leadership now understands that it has a problem that must be taken care of before a multi-front war erupts.

Nor is the international fallout bleak from Israel’s perspective. The United States backed Israel for 11 days of fighting while upholding Israel’s right to defend itself. At the U.N. Security Council, Washington blocked several attempts to one-sidedly censor Israel or impose a ceasefire. Europeans were divided, but Israel’s friends in the European Union prevented anti-Israeli resolutions from being adopted. The foreign ministers of Germany (the most important European country), the Czech Republic and Slovakia traveled to Israel to show their support. Eastern and Central Europe stood with Israel. In an unprecedented display of support, Israeli flags were hoisted on some European government buildings and parliaments.

Most Arab states expressed only mild criticism of Israel and none recalled their ambassadors. In truth, they were happy to see Israel pummel Hamas. They know Hamas to be an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that is their enemy as well. Egypt, Israel’s strategic ally, got credit for the ceasefire.

Unfortunately, most of the international media continues with biased reporting against Israel, and more sympathetic coverage cannot be expected. The juxtaposition of destruction and dead children in Gaza with the success of the Iron Dome air-defense system in intercepting Hamas rockets over Israel is not conducive to winning a media war.

A second goal for Israel in this war was the restoration of deterrence against Hamas, at least in the medium term. Indeed, Hamas will probably need time to recuperate and rebuild after this military encounter. Of course, the length of the lull between this war and the next greatly depends on how Israel reacts to “minor” Hamas provocations, such as the firing of one or two rockets or the launching of incendiary balloons into Israel. Only time will tell whether Israel has been successful in buying for itself some time before it needs to “mow the grass” in Gaza again.

Professor Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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