What happened during the Israel-Palestine conflict and who won?

By: Behzad Taimur      Published: 05:08 PM, 23 May, 2021
What happened during the Israel-Palestine conflict and who won?

A conflict between the apartheid state of Israel and two allied organizations associated with the Palestinian resistance – Hamas and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami (or, the Islamic Jihad Movement) – has just come to an end. As both sides claim victory, the on-looking world is beginning to wonder who, if any, really won. The answers to that question mostly snake in parallel to commentators’ and analysts’ personal politics or belief systems. The generally pro-Israel, find merit in the Israeli claims of victory. The generally anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian claim to hear rattles of a Palestinian triumph. Those who possess such views are of two shades. One, those who see a tactical and strategic politico-military victory in a purported moral victory of the Palestinians. Two, those who are citing superior military capability of the Israelis, acknowledge a tactical military defeat for the Palestinians but emphasize their strategic victory in an undefined ‘broader scheme of things’. So, which shade of opinion is the correct one? The answer may surprise you. 

First, the Palestinians. The few and severely under-resourced Palestinians have had to fight with crudely-made rockets, some foreign-supplied long-range missiles, smuggled anti-tank weapons, ‘suicide drones’, threats of suicide bombings and an unwavering, brave, almost reckless, rhetoric that pledges resistance, envisages liberation and avows the destruction of the state of Israel. In particular, in recent years, Palestinians have come to rely heavily on crude, unguided, inaccurate rockets. 

Conversely, the Israelis maintains one of the most powerful militaries in the world. With top-of-the-line warplanes and thousands of seemingly invincible tanks, Israel is a true goliath to Palestinian Davids. Its technologically advanced armed forces can easily meet any challenge that the under-resourced Palestinians can throw at them. The only real challenge Israel faces has been the rockets. They can fall on Israeli cities and villages, causing physical damage as well as fear, panic and public demoralization. 

To counter this threat, the Israelis have developed their multi-layered so-called “Iron Dome” air defense system. The system works on a hit-a-bullet-with-a-bullet mechanism. That is to say, the “Iron Dome” launches rockets at incoming fire that intercept and destroy projectiles mid-air and, before they can land and cause damage. During the 11-day conflict, Palestinians fired 4,360 rockets toward Israel. This comes to an impressive rate of fire of 396 rounds per day. However, unfortunately for the resistance, the Israeli Iron Dome logged more than 2,000 mid-air interceptions. During these early days after the conflict, it is difficult to give accurate figures because data remains patchy, but we can assume that the system intercepted between 50 and 60% of all rockets fired. Of the remainder, around 680 rockets (or, 15.6%) misfired or malfunctioned. An unknown number simply fell into open fields. Ultimately, only a handful managed to get through and hit any target. So few got through that there were only 125 casualties (of which, just 11 dead) on the Israeli side. To put this into perspective, even if around a quarter of Palestinian rockets had hit a target, we should have had more than 1,000 casualties. Yet, we only have a tenth of this already small number! What this means is that Israel’s Iron Dome has finally effectively blunted the last weapon Palestinians were left with. 

Undercover, provided by the Iron Dome, Israel attacked Palestinian resistance with devastating air, naval and intelligence operations. Over 11 days, hundreds of Israeli air force jets pounded Palestinian positions with extremely powerful guided bombs in more than 1,500 sorties (or, about 137 air attacks a day!). In doing so, Israel has targeted Palestinian rocket production facilities, rocket launch sites and rocket launch crews. At this time, Israel claims to have wiped out nearly 100% of Harkat-ul-Jihad’s rocket production facilities and between 80 and 90% of Hamas’s production sites. In addition, it has hit Palestinian ammunition depots, command and control centers, military infrastructure, both above-ground and subterranean (destroyed around 150 KM of underground tunnels!), Hamas’s naval assets and the resistance forces’ leadership. All this has left more than 200 Palestinian combatants “neutralized”, including many of Palestinian commanders, especially middle-ranks. All of this has come at the cost of just two Israeli soldiers killed and a handful injured!

It is clear from the above analysis of Israeli military strategy during this conflict that it no longer wishes to even engage Palestinians in real combat, let alone wish to defeat them militarily. Its focus is now heavily on rendering Palestinians into an ineffective threat altogether. In other words, the new strategy Israel has developed involves simply degrading Palestinian ability to fight. Note that the Palestinian leadership and combatants “neutralized” as well as the ammunition stocks, military infrastructure and defensive positions will take vast resources (which Palestinians don’t have anyway) and a very long time to replace. During the time in which all that has been lost, is being replaced or rebuilt, Palestinians will not be able to seriously challenge Israel

In this context, Israel can be seen to have cleared its way (even if partially) for continuing a broad spectrum of its policies. In particular, its settlement policy in Palestine (especially in West Bank), a more thorough incorporation of Jerusalem into Israel and its diplomatic efforts to “normalize” relations with countries in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. On a slightly different tangent, with the Palestinian threat significantly reduced, Israel will now feel freer to focus on its arch-nemesis, Iran. On the one hand, Israel will have less to worry about in its backyard (Gaza) and more free resources to devote to combating Iran. On the other hand, Iran has the new task of helping rebuilding Palestinian resistance’s capabilities on its head. You see, Iran has longstanding relationships with Gaza-based resistance organizations, especially Hamas. After this devastating conflict, Iran will be forced to channel more funds and resources into helping its regional ally Hamas. 

At most, the ongoing conflict in Gaza has served to corner such countries as were trying to normalize relations with Israel, especially Arab countries. Their hand has been forced and they were made to come out in support of Palestine and condemn Israel. However, now that a ceasefire has come through, it would hardly require a stretch of imagination to see that this temporary escalation of rhetoric on Israel will soon pass. Things would soon revert to pre-Gaza days and foreign countries will get on with “normalization”. In fact, an Israeli delegation was promoting tourism in Israel in the UAE even during the conflict! I think it is quite clear what will happen soon after. As Palestinians reel from their losses, and focus on rebuilding their military capability, they would be less effective in offering resistance to Israel on these other fronts. More so, they would be less effective in sabotaging any of Israel’s policies in a meaningful way. 

Thus, in the final analysis, the 2021 conflict is both a tactical as well as strategic victory for Israel. Tactically, it has both effectively blunted Palestinians’ major threat to itself and, degraded their ability to fight and resist for the times to come. Strategically, Israel has reduced in size and effectiveness the most critical source of resistance to, as I said, a broad spectrum of its policies. These policies, or at least their effect on the ground, are irreversible in nature. For example, once a particular country has recognized Israel, it is unlikely to de-recognize Israel later. Similarly, once Israel has built a particular settlement on Palestinian land, and families have moved in, it becomes extremely difficult to remove them later. The point here is that Israel needed to forge more space for itself to more thoroughly pursue several of its policies. It has achieved this, even if in part. It will push these policies with more vigor and will have the time for them to realize an irreversible materiality. Finally, Israel has also created a boggy ditch for its key rival, Iran, to come and get trapped in – or, at the very least, divert some of its attention. Therefore, in these ways, Israel has managed to secure a time-sensitive strategic victory for itself as well. 

As for the Palestinians, they have earned some more global support and sympathy. They can perhaps even claim some manner of moral victory as well. However, their core interests cannot be served by sympathy alone. In short, the Palestinians need to simply redefine the entire gamut of their means of resistance and develop a completely new way forward given today’s harsh realities. If they do not, they will remain locked in this cycle of rebuild-only-to-get-destroyed again. Increasingly now, the losses are entirely theirs. The Israelis have developed capabilities that cut their losses to as few as just two soldiers killed. The game in the Middle East has very decisively changed.