The ceasefire struck last week between Israel and Hamas after eight days of conflict seems to be holding. But that’s not to suggest that the time for diplomacy is over. To the contrary, it’s precisely now that the United States needs to survey the new landscape that has emerged in the Middle East, and determine how it can shape it going forward.
The place to start is with the most obvious question of all: who won and who lost? In this particular case, there is an irony: Israel, Hamas, and Egypt all gained something.
Israel’s declared goal was to re-establish its deterrent. In fact, Israel sought to prevent Hamas from defining a new normal—where Israel would tolerate periodic rocket attacks into the south, with the lulls between attacks shorter and shorter, life for a million Israelis frequently disrupted, and the IDF unable to preserve a buffer along the border. In the weeks leading up to the conflict, Hamas did less and less to prevent Jihadi groups from firing rockets into Israel and also began to conduct its own attacks against the IDF on the Israeli side of border. Three Hamas attacks, in particular, set off the Israeli alarm bells: an IED attack, a tunnel dug under the fence and packed with explosives and ignited, and an anti-tank missile attack on an Israeli jeep. It was as if Hamas’ leaders thought the new Egypt, Israel’s concerns about not threatening its relationship with its post-Mubarak neighbor, and Israel’s election preoccupation, all combined to allow Hamas to establish a new baseline for attacks against Israel and have it tolerated.
So Israel felt it must act and prove to Hamas that it had crossed a line and would pay for that. Unquestionably, Hamas miscalculated and Israel caught it by surprise, and, in so doing, was able to eliminate Ahmed Jaberi. Killing Jaberi, the architect of Hamas military buildup and the mastermind of attacks against Israelis, was certain to trigger a barrage of rockets in retaliation for some period of time—and the Israelis knew that. But the Israelis hoped to temper that with their threat of a ground invasion of Gaza and the ability to use Iron Dome to minimize the costs to Israel. Israel also believed that its mobilization of ground forces would give Egypt a reason to persuade Hamas to stop, recognizing that the last thing Egypt needs now is an extended Israeli military operation in Gaza that could divert Egypt from addressing its failing economy.
The U.S.-funded missile defense system Israel is using to stave off Hamas attacks seems to be working well, experts say. Though the true test is yet to come.
The day before the Israelis commenced Operation Pillar of Defense against Hamas, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren told U.S. News the “Iron Dome” system was roughly 85 percent effective at repelling enemy rockets and missiles. Experts say it has likely maintained about that average over the last five days of fighting.
However, Hamas is only firing primitive rockets over a short period of time, experts say. A more advanced enemy might be able to get through Israel’s newest defensive umbrella.
[PHOTOS: Palestinian Death Toll Soars as Israeli Attacks Continue]
“The technical teams that put these things together have really showed some spectacular skill,” says Prof. Theodore Postol of MIT, a missile system specialist who was previously a scientific advisor to the chief of Naval Operations. “Whether it makes a difference or not, I just don’t know.”