Indecisive end to Gaza conflict

Palestinians mourn two teenaged brothers killed in Israeli air strikes in Gaza on 26 August 2014 Fifty days of fierce fighting left more than 2,200 people dead, most of them Palestinians

Any ceasefire only lasts until the moment it is broken - but the latest truce agreed between Israel and the Palestinian militant groups of Gaza has a more solid feel to it than the many others which came and went over the last few weeks.

It is not hard to say who lost in this war - the thousands of bereaved families in Gaza with broken homes and shattered hearts and the civilians in Israel who grieve for lost sons and brothers or fallen soldiers.

Establishing who won - if anyone - is much more difficult.

Ordinary civilians across the heavily bombed Gaza Strip and in the much-rocketed towns and kibbutzim of southern Israel can at least go about their lives without fear of attack.

But, however welcome peace may be, there are still questions to be asked about the price that was paid to achieve it.

Hamas ground down

The Palestinian strategy has been to treat the outcome straight-forwardly as a victory.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum celebrates in Gaza City after the ceasefire announcement (26 August 2014) Hamas said the ceasefire agreement with Israel represented a "victory for the resistance"

There were crowds on the streets of Gaza City very soon after the first word of a deal began to circulate and the streets crackled for hours with the dangerous sound of celebratory gunfire.

Hamas was unequivocal. Its spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, urged local people to "celebrate victory and the fulfilment of the Palestinian people's demands".

In reality the situation is not so clear cut.

Hamas remains a secret organisation, but even though there is not much evidence in the public domain it is reasonable to speculate that its military capabilities have been severely ground down.

It has lost hundreds of fighters for a start.

Hamas militants parade through Gaza City after the ceasefire announcement (27 August 2014) One Israeli official said Hamas had been dealt a "devastating blow"

And if Israeli calculations that Hamas had stockpiled 10,000 rockets at the start of the fighting were correct then it may have lost two-thirds of its heavy weaponry in a single campaign - a loss with which any military organisation would struggle to cope.

The smaller mortar bombs and short-range rockets are workshop weapons and can be replaced locally.

But with Egypt and Israel maintaining tough controls on Gaza's borders it will find it hard to replenish its depleted stockpiles.

Awkward questions

It has also lost senior leaders - three top military commanders and a civilian official identified as the organisation's "money man", Mohammed al-Ghoul.

And mystery still surrounds the fate of Mohammed Deif - Hamas' top military commander who previously displayed a Houdini-like ability to survive Israeli assassination attempts.

People return to Gaza City's Shejaiya district (27 August 2014) More than a quarter of Gaza's population has been displaced by the fighting

At the height of the conflict a bomb destroyed his home, killing his wife and two young children.

Hamas has claimed he survived without providing evidence and Israel says it is not sure. However, his death would represent a huge blow - both practical and symbolic - to the militant cause.

Gaza does not function as a democracy so Hamas does not have to worry about immediate accountability to its own people, but many will question its judgement on two key points.

One is the decision to embark on a conflict when the agreement ending it only guarantees the restoration of the status quo that went before, together with commitments to discuss other grievances.

The other is the tactic of insisting on huge, headline-grabbing concessions (like the construction of a seaport in Gaza) in return for merely agreeing to enter talks.

A rocket is launched by militants in the Gaza Strip towards Israel (21 August 2014) Israel has said it wants the full "demilitarisation" of Gaza, something likely to be rejected by the Palestinians

It seems possible that that tactic made it harder to secure a ceasefire.

From the Palestinian perspective much will now depend on the extent to which their tightly controlled borders are opened and to what extent supplies begin to flow, not just to restore some semblance of normal daily life but to allow the work of rebuilding to begin. That task will take many years.

So there are awkward questions ahead for the militant leaders and difficult days for their people.

'Dismal draw'

In Israel too - in spite of the government's claim to have secured victory - there are plenty of doubts about exactly what has been achieved.

One newspaper columnist described the outcome as neither a victory nor a defeat but a "dismal draw".

Israelis walk past a house damaged by a rocket in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon (26 August 2014) Thousands of rockets were fired at Israel, killing civilians and causing damage to homes

Everyone understands that this was an asymmetric conflict - but there is frustration in Israel that it could not turn its overwhelming military superiority into something that looks or feels more like a victory.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is often portrayed as a hawkish right-winger overseas, but in Israeli political terms he sometimes seems more like a cautious strategist.

He will face plenty of criticism from right-wing members of his government that he did not show enough resolve to continue the operation until some kind of decisive defeat was inflicted on Hamas.

Instead, Hamas gets to head into talks making demands on Israel (even if they are not ultimately satisfied) and has demonstrated its ability to resist the strongest and best-equipped army in the region to a standstill.

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz attend a news conference in Tel Aviv (28 July 2014) Some have criticised Moshe Yaalon, Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz for not delivering a victory

That will improve the standing of Hamas not just within Palestinian society but across the wider Arab world.

The columnist Amir Oren, writing in the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, put it like this.

"'Veni, vidi, vici,' Julius Caesar said. 'Benny, Bibi, Bogie,' goes the Israeli version... They came, they saw, they were defeated.'"

That is strong stuff when you consider that the "Benny, Bibi and Bogie" at the heart of that disparaging jibe are, respectively, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon.

Concessions required

Israel's army was designed to fight a conventional war - it is going to have to find new tactics to cope with the attack tunnels and short-range mortars, which were the Palestinian militants' most effective weapons.

Israeli tanks near the Gaza frontier (21 August 2014) The Israeli army had clear superiority in firepower over the militant groups in Gaza

And it is going to have to decide how to play its hand when negotiations on those longer-term issues eventually start.

It may be determined that Hamas will not emerge with anything that looks like a victory, but negotiations do not always go to plan and the Palestinian militants will be equally determined to get something.

It is one of the more remarkable outcomes of the process that the two sides are now to be locked in negotiations - albeit indirect ones - when Hamas does not recognise the state of Israel and Israel regards Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

The truth is that if this ceasefire really is to be extended definitely then both sides are going to have to make concessions - even if neither is apparently prepared to now.

The talks will be difficult, dense and circumlocutory - and the two sides (who will never meet face-to-face) are still separated by a mutual loathing.

The best that can be said of them is that they will be better than the fighting that went before them.

And that makes them a fitting final act to a conflict which in the end proved indecisive and which seems doomed one day to repeat itself.

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