A popular colloquial definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Israel launched military campaigns in 2008 and 2012, purportedly to eliminate Hamas’ rocket-launching capabilities from the Gaza Strip. Obviously, the campaigns failed: Hamas is again unleashing a barrage of rockets and Israel is again bombarding Gaza. Israel cannot win this war, primarily because it is fighting only the symptoms of the conflict with the Palestinians — rocket launching — not the underlying causes, which are the Gaza blockade and the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
The range of Hamas’ rockets was about 50 miles in 2012, reaching cities such as Ashdod. Today, some rockets have traveled nearly 100 miles, targeting Tel Aviv and even Haifa. Hamas launched more than 800 rockets in the first six days — more than it did in 21 days in 2008. Israel has launched more than 1,300 airstrikes on Gaza in those first six days.
Seventeen members of the extended family of Tayseer Batsh, the Hamas police chief, were killed by one such airstrike — the largest number from one family in a single attack in the three conflicts. We don’t know how long the current conflict will last, but it could prove more punishing this time.
The heavy bombardment of Gaza only deepens the Israelis’ problem rather than solving it. Over the last 47 years, Israel has systematically created one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world in the Gaza Strip. The more targets Israel destroys, the more frustration grows among the Gazans. The surviving relatives, neighbors and friends of those killed, and the rest of Gazan society, are more exasperated than ever by the Israeli blockade. Increased frustration within a besieged Gaza is what pushed things to the edge in the first place.
It is delusional to assume that when the current battle ends, both parties will return to their communities to resume normal lives. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has created two meanings of normality. The 40,000 Israeli reservists who were called up this time will, for the most part, go back to their jobs and homes when the fighting ends. But Gazans, 39% of whom are unemployed, will go back to their “normal” lives under the brutal conditions of the Gaza blockade and be at the mercy of Israel’s rules about what type and quantity of food and other basics are allowed into Gaza. The Palestinians in the West Bank will go back to their daily humiliation of roadblocks and expanding Israeli settlements at the expense of their livelihoods.
In fact, the two sides are more equal under the conditions of war than those of peace; although the Israelis are much stronger militarily and inflict more damage, both sides feel the effects of being under attack. But when the fighting ends, the Palestinians’ version of normality gives them every incentive to defy Israeli roadblocks and blockades. When the choice for Gazans is either accepting the blockade and life in what some have called the largest open-air prison in the world or fighting back, no sane person would consider anything other than the latter option.
To prevent another tragic war in the future, things must change. Palestinians mainly need two things: dignity and bread. Israel must end the occupation in general and the Gaza blockade in particular. The mistake of the 2008 and 2012 mediation efforts was that they produced cease-fires that allowed the Israelis to go back to business as usual — but left the Gaza blockade intact and perpetuated untenable conditions, which led to further and bloodier fighting.
Israel cannot win this or any future conflicts by bombing Gaza. Without addressing the root causes, even crippling Hamas — which was able to impose calm after 2012 — would not be a victory. Instead, it would merely set the stage for the next time, against whatever group or groups — perhaps even more radical than Hamas — that would inevitably emerge to take up its mantle.
Ibrahim Sharqieh is a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Qatar.