Who won the Gaza war?

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 30 2009 1:09 PM

Who Won the Gaza War?

Israel says the war was a success, but in Gaza, Hamas is more popular than ever.

JEBALIA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza—Along the dusty alleyways of this crowded camp in northern Gaza, cleaning crews wearing green Hamas baseball caps are beginning to clear the destruction of 22 days of heavy fighting between Israel and Hamas. Banners of green Hamas flags flutter above the streets.

Israeli officials say the war against Hamas was a success—that they have put an end to rocket fire into southern Israel and have established a new international mechanism that will clamp down on Iranian arms smuggling into Gaza. They point to an Iranian ship flying a Cypriot flag that the U.S. Navy stopped last week. Egypt refused to let the ship enter the Gulf of Suez, and it has now sailed to Syria.

But on the streets of Gaza, Hamas has become more popular and seems to be more firmly entrenched then ever before.

Rafat al-Rafati lived his with his wife and seven children, along with his brothers and their wives and children, in a three-story house in Jebalia. On Jan. 11, an Israeli missile crashed through the roof of the house, instantly killing one of his brothers and his 2-year-old nephew, Tasnim. A 10-year-old niece was killed when she ran outside, trying to escape.

On the second floor, jagged bloodstains are still visible on the wall. The floor is covered with concrete rubble, and glass crunches underfoot. There are gaping holes in the concrete wall.

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Since the attack, the family has been living in a nearby U.N. building. They say they have no money to rebuild, and because of the Israeli blockade, there are no building materials or cement in Gaza. Yet Hamas has begun distributing money to Palestinians whose homes were destroyed. They've promised $5,000 per home. A Hamas official has already come to the Rafatis' home to survey the damage.

The Rafatis do not consider themselves Hamas supporters and say they voted for Fatah in the January 2006 election. But in the future, they say, they will support anyone who helps them rebuild their home and their lives.

These sentiments are echoed all over Gaza. Palestinian anger is directed primarily at Israel. Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets at southern Israel since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, is now seen as the only power that is actively resisting Israel.

"Today, Hamas is stronger than ever before," said Asad Abu-Sharq, a professor of linguistics at al-Azhar University, as we sat in his third-floor apartment in Tel al-Hawa, a Gaza City neighborhood. His building was also damaged during the fighting, and he has saved several jagged pieces of metal in the corner of his apartment. "Hamas held out against the terrible, formidable Israeli army, and it won this war."

In 1967, he says, Israel defeated four Arab armies in six days. In the recent fighting, Hamas alone held out against Israel for three weeks and is still firmly in control in Gaza. He says Israel's disproportionate use of force and the large number of civilian casualties have increased anger against Israel and boosted support for Hamas.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev disagrees. He says that Israeli intelligence information shows that Gazans blame Hamas for the crisis and that Israel has succeeded in weakening Hamas. "Because they are an authoritarian regime, they can bring out 'spontaneous' celebrations of support and silence with their guns anyone who speaks out against them. But they have a real problem with the street in Gaza."

Regev says the money that Hamas is distributing might give it a short-term propaganda boost. But when the estimated billions of dollars in development aid start to flow into Gaza, they will be controlled by the World Bank or some other international body, rather than by Hamas.

Regev says Hamas had a set of assumptions about Israeli behavior that fell apart during the recent fighting. Hamas assumed Israel would not risk a ground invasion into the densely populated Gaza Strip, fearing large-scale Israeli casualties. Hamas assumed that Hezbollah would open a second front against Israel and that Palestinians in the West Bank would also support them. None of this happened, says Regev, which leaves Hamas weaker than ever before.

Many Hamas leaders, like Ismail Haniye, are still in hiding. A Hamas office in Gaza City was deserted. But Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmed Yusuf, who is seen as a moderate, says Hamas is satisfied with the results of the fighting with Israel. "I don't think Israel achieved any of its objectives," he told me in an interview in his office in Gaza City. "They said they would stop us from firing rockets, but the rocket capability is still there. They said they would make people angry at Hamas, but most people back Hamas. And they said they would weaken Hamas, but like a phoenix Hamas rises from the ashes."

Egypt is currently brokering an agreement that would lead to a more formal cease-fire and reopen the border crossings between Gaza and Israel, and Gaza and Egypt. Israel closed its borders with Gaza, except for humanitarian aid, after Hamas violently took complete control over Gaza in June 2007. Yusuf said Hamas does not oppose a European Union presence at the crossing and would even accept members of the rival Fatah movement. If the crossings reopen, and international aid flows in to rebuild Gaza, Hamas will almost certainly become even stronger.

Linda Gradstein was the NPR correspondent in Jerusalem for 20 years and is currently working on a book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.