It looks like, finally, the 2014 Gaza war is over. Israel and Hamas have agreed to an indefinite ceasefire, under terms that Reuters explains here. Everyone agrees that the deal doesn't alter the fundamental dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — so in a real sense, about 2,100 Palestinians and 69 Israelis died for very close to nothing. But, even under the depressingly narrow terms that these wars are judged by, did anyone come out ahead?
At a first glance at the text of the ceasefire, it looks like Hamas came out ahead. Israel and Egypt both committed to relaxing constraints on the border crossings, a major pre-war Hamas demand. Israel didn't get much of anything.
But in truth, this came out badly for Hamas. Israel's concessions don't mean that much, and there's one potentially major concession to Hamas' main political rivals, the Palestinian Authority (PA). But Hamas's loss, such as it is, may prove ephemeral. For the ceasefire to substantially change things, Israel and the Palestinian Authority would need to go beyond the terms of ceasefire, and actually make themselves look like actors that Gazans can work with.
On paper, it looks like Hamas won
Quite a few observers think Hamas got the better end of this deal. "The Egyptian cease-fire proposal that Israel accepted on Tuesday did not deliver a single achievement [for Israel]," Ha'aretz's Barak Ravid, a well-respected Israeli reporter, writes.
Hamas, meanwhile, got a number of its pre-war demands. It wanted Israel to start letting more goods in through the above-ground crossings between Israel and Gaza; Israel, according to Ravid, agreed to let construction materials through the crossings. That's a big deal, as construction materials were previously heavily restricted for fear that Hamas would use them for military aims rather than civilian reconstruction projects.
Hamas also got Egypt to agree to ease restrictions on the Rafah crossing between eastern Egypt and Gaza, a major pre-war objective. And partway through the war, it looked like Hamas's military struggle with Israel was boosting its popularity among Palestinians, at the expense of the rival Fatah party that controls the Palestinian Authority.
But, despite these concessions, it is not accurate to say that Hamas "won."
Hamas doesn't actually get what the agreement says it does
Here's the thing about the ceasefire terms: they don't actually mean a whole lot. "The ceasefire itself is just a ceasefire," Brent Sasley, a political scientist who studies the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the University of Texas at Arlington, says. "It's how the ceasefire is implemented and the talks that build on it [that matters]."
Sasley points out, correctly, that the on-paper terms of the ceasefire are not all that different from the terms after the 2012 Gaza war. But that ceasefire still left room for pretty tight restrictions on Gaza. Israel and Egypt agreeing in theory to allow Gazans greater freedom of trade and movement doesn't guarantee that it will actually happen in practice.
The agreement also punts on some of Hamas's most important demands, including letting international (read: Qatari) money flow into Gaza to pay Hamas employees. The group was nearing the brink of insolvency before the war, which is one of the major reasons it agreed to a shared government with the Palestinian Authority in April. Moreover, Israel arrested hundreds of Hamas operatives in the West Bank before the war, dealing a devastating blow to the group's operation there. Freeing those prisoners is relegated to future negotiations, in which Israel could simply say "no" without the specter of an ongoing war hanging over its head.
And the war itself was bad for Hamas. Sasley rattled off a list of Hamas setbacks during the conflict: "the war [closed] the tunnels, which were a source of revenue for Hamas, it [degraded] Hamas' military capability [by] destroying rockets and launchers ... everything Hamas did, including attacks through the tunnels, efforts to capture a live soldier, and cause mass civilian death, Israel shut down."
"I can't see any metric by which Hamas wins the war," he concluded.
The ceasefire gives the Palestinian Authority a huge opportunity
There is one major, novel provision of the ceasefire deal. "The Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, is expected to take over responsibility for administering Gaza's borders from Hamas," Reuters reports. "Israel and Egypt hope it will ensure weapons, ammunition and any 'dual-use' goods are prevented from flowing into Gaza."
If it actually happens, this could be a huge deal. The PA hasn't had a major security presence in Gaza since Hamas kicked it out during the 2007 Palestinian civil war. "If PA security came from the West Bank and deployed, especially if not just at Rafah, that would be an important shift," Jeremy Pressman, a University of Connecticut political scientist, told me over email. Fatah could be in a position to turn that security control into actual political gain in Gaza, at Hamas's expense.
That's especially true because Fatah would be, in a sense, providing the goods necessary to rebuild Gaza after the war. "In theory, Fatah is taking control of the process of making lives better for Gazans," Sasley says. "It gives Fatah the ability to now present itself as improving the lives of Palestinians and saying 'Look, our way is working, we didn't get here through our use of violence, but through negotiations.'"
This comes at a time when Hamas's gains in popularity from firing rockets at Israel are in jeopardy. "There's a small and growing bubble of opposition to it," Sasley says, citing a few protests that Hamas has put down as well as Hamas's executions of 19 alleged "collaborators" with Israel. Internal Israeli intelligence estimates support Sasley's theory, saying, according to the Jerusalem Post, that "the prevailing mood in the street is one of bitterness and anger toward Hamas, whose leaders were among the first to hide and left the civilians to fend for themselves."
That Israeli assessment is probably overstated. Sasley's view is far more qualified, suggesting Hamas has received an overall temporary bump in popularity that's likely to recede. But the point is that Hamas doesn't have an ironclad grip on Gazan support, and that the PA's new authority over the border crossings could undermine its standing. That's all assuming, of course, the agreement is implemented.
This all depends on Israel and the PA — and there are reasons for pessimism
"This is an opportunity to constrain Hamas," Sasley says. But it depends on Israel and the Palestinian Authority being willing to take advantage of it, and it's not clear either is well equipped to do that.
Start with the PA. Assuming the agreement to have the PA run the border crossings is actually implemented, the PA guards have a really tough job ahead of them. They have to both ensure enough goods get into Gaza to make life there more livable, but simultaneously prevent Hamas from using the border to rearm and resupply for the next conflict. That's a hard balance to strike for any policing organization, especially for the notoriously corrupt PA bureaucracy.
Israel would need to cooperate closely with the PA in this. But if it really wants to bolster the PA's political support at Hamas' expense, it needs to start making other concessions. Sasley suggests, for example, a unilateral settlement freeze, at least outside of major blocs near the Israeli border like Gush Etzion. Actually undermining Hamas means making the PA look like an attractive alternative for Gazans and West Bank residents alike. Concessions on major issues like settlements are good way to do that.
The problem, though, is that these concessions are very unlikely. Since a ten-month partial settlement freeze that began in late 2009 expired, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been extremely hesitant to make major concessions in these areas even under heavy American pressure. The war is unlikely to change that: the right-wing members of Netanyahu's coalition opposed the ceasefire deal, at least publicly.
Netanyahu's governing coalition depends on right-wing parties — including his own Likud list. He's unlikely to jeopardize his conservative base by helping the Palestinian Authority now.
The big losers are ordinary Palestinians and Israelis
In short: the war weakened Hamas militarily and politically. Yet it's unclear if Israel and the Palestinian Authority are able or willing to take advantage of the opportunity. "I don't see [Hamas's] hold on Gaza declining to any great degree in the near future," Sasley says. "In the intermediate future it's possible, depending on what Israel does and the role of the PA and the international community."
What this suggests, then, is that the war won't end up changing very much. "The deeper issues were left for a month down the road," Pressman explained, referring to planned Hamas-Israel indirect talks. And those negotiations, he notes, won't even touch " the fundamental issues like self-determination and security."
"If Hamas is able to rearm and rebuild its political legitimacy," Sasley concludes, "then the war was costly to Israelis and of course Palestinians in Gaza, but it didn't have any long term effects."
So barring an unexpected outbreak of good luck, it looks like thousands of people died for minor — at best — changes to the status quo.