The seeds for the Hamas War were sewn in 2005 when the terror group Hamas won municipal elections in Gaza and the West Bank, shortly after Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and the West Bank. Many Arabs saw Hamas as a practical alternative to the corrupt Fatah government. In 2006, Hamas won a plurality of seats in the Palestinian parliament, though the presidency remained in the hands of Fatah member Mahmoud Abbas.
The United States and the European Union cut off aid to the Hamas government under the condition that they recognize Israel’s right to exist and renounce violence. The Israeli government withheld taxes and customs revenues collected on behalf of the Palestine National Authority under the terms of the Oslo Accords.
By June 2007, there was civil war in Gaza between Fatah and Hamas. After intense fighting, Hamas ousted Fatah from Gaza and took the reins of the government there. Shortly after, a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel broke down and Hamas began firing rockets across the Gaza border into Israel. Israel responded by cutting off the flow of electricity and food into Gaza.
In June 2008, Egypt brokered a new ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. Rocket attacks decreased from 500 in May to 20 in July as Hamas increased security and even arrested some militants who fired the rockets. However, Hamas accused Israel of not allowing food deliveries to increase to pre-2006 levels.
When the ceasefire expired on December 19, Hamas decided not to renew it. It was speculated that Hamas wanted to provoke an Israeli attack in order to distract from rising unemployment and the group’s declining popularity. Violence had already been increasing since November when Israeli planes bombed a tunnel near the Israeli border, killing six militants. Israel believed that the tunnel under the border was designed to allow Hamas to kidnap Israeli soldiers. Rocket attacks began to increase around the same time. The Israeli town of Sderot was particularly targeted.
On December 27, 2008 Israel launched a heavy bombardment against a variety of targets in Gaza. Government buildings, such as police facilities, and Hamas bases were attacked, as well as civilian targets such as schools, medical buildings, and mosques, which were used by Hamas for training and weapons storage. Hamas increased rocket and artillery attacks in response. Israeli cities such as Beersheba and Ashdod were struck for the first time.
On January 3, 2009, Israel launched a ground invasion of Gaza. The goal of the incursion was to destroy as much of Hamas’ infrastructure as possible while minimizing civilian casualties. Israel hoped to avoid many of the mistakes made in the war against Hezbollah in which Hezbollah was viewed by many to have fought the IDF to a draw. The ultimate goal was to stop Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israeli cities. Israeli President Shimon Peres said, “When they stop shooting, we will leave.”
The fighting continued until January 18, when both sides separately declared ceasefires. Hamas’ ceasefire announcement came about twelve hours after that of Israel. The UN Security Council also passed Resolution 1860. The resolution called for both sides to stop fighting and for the Israeli troops to withdraw from Gaza. The resolution also condemned terrorism and called for member states to prevent arms smuggling into Gaza.
Statistics for the war are still disputed as of this writing, but Arab casualties are vastly larger than those of the Israelis. As many as 1,400 Gazans are believed to have died in the war. Many of them were undoubtedly civilians, but exact figures will probably never be known since Hamas militants do not wear uniforms. Hamas fighters often set up defensive positions near civilians, which led to increased civilian casualties. Approximately 4,000 residential buildings were destroyed at a cost of $1.6 billion.
Thirteen Israelis died in the conflict. Ten were soldiers and three were civilians.
As Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, made a speech on al-Aqsa television to claim victory, Israeli agents hijacked the broadcast. After the television showed pictures of Israeli attacks on Arab rocket crews and fighters, the final message flashed across the screen: “Hamas was defeated.” Yet several months after the war, occasional rocket attacks continue, drawing retaliatory Israeli air strikes.
Sixty years of fighting between the Arabs and Israelis has accomplished next to nothing for the Arabs. In spite of repeated attacks, in which the Arab forces vastly outnumbered the Israelis, the Arab armies have failed in their primary goal of overrunning the Jewish state. Since the Six Day War, a secondary goal has been to recapture the occupied territories of Gaza, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and Jerusalem. Attempts to realize this goal have also failed, although Israel did unilaterally withdraw from both the West Bank and Gaza.
On the other hand, Israel’s primary goals have been to ensure the survival and safety of its citizens. While it has preserved its territorial integrity and gained defensible borders, Israel remains in a de facto state of war with many of its neighbors. Jordan and Egypt have peace treaties with Israel, but many other countries such as Syria and Iran, as well as groups like Hezbollah and Hamas that reside on its borders, remain hostile. It is therefore extremely unlikely that the Middle East has seen its last Arab-Israeli war.
The next flash point is likely to be Iran. Although the Iranians are Persian rather than Arab, their radical Islamic government is attempting to arm itself with nuclear weapons. Weapons of mass destruction and the will to use them make Iran a particularly dangerous foe for Israel and a likely candidate for opponent of Israel in the next middle east war.