Israel set itself clear goals when it launched its assault on Gaza. Stop the rocket fire into Israel and close the tunnels that might allow Hamas to infiltrate fighters into Israel. Some 18 days into the offensive, and these goals have not yet been achieved. But that is not the only sign that Israel’s Gaza offensive is going wrong. On the contrary, there are multiple signs that Israel is losing control of the situation:
1. After a slow start, international outrage about the Gaza offensive is building. The international reaction had been relatively muted – perhaps because there are so many other competing horrors in the Middle East. (Some 700 people were killed in just two days fighting in Syria, last week.) As my colleague Roula Khalaf points out, Hamas has also lost crucial political support across the Arab world. The coincidence of the Gaza and Ukraine crises also probably took the pressure off Israel, briefly. But the shelling of the UN school in Gaza yesterday may mark some form of tipping point – with much stronger statements coming from the UN Secretary-General and Gaza dominating the headlines in Europe.
2. Unrest has spread to the West Bank. If the riots last night are repeated, then Israel risks facing a third intifada. The Gazan offensive will then have comprehensively back-fired, by ending a prolonged period of relative calm enjoyed by Israel.
3. The revival of Hamas: At the start of the Gaza offensive, Hamas was in an extremely weak position. It had lost vital support from Egypt and Iran, and enjoyed little sympathy in the west. But by successfully prolonging the fight with Israel – and even briefly all-but closing Ben Gurion airport – Hamas has chalked up some important propaganda victories. If it can get some sort of lifting of the Gaza blockade agreed – as part of the cease-fire negotiations – it will certainly be able to claim some sort of victory.
4. Israeli military casualties – while small compared to the toll of Palestinian deaths – are still shocking to the Israeli public. This is a small country with a civilian army.
If the Israeli government accepts a ceasefire, without achieving its goals and stopping the rockets, it will face a fierce domestic backlash. But the longer the fighting continues, the more the international backlash against Israel will grow – and the greater the chance that Israel will face a Palestinian uprising on the West Bank.