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50 days of war leave Israelis and Palestinians only more entrenched

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JERUSALEM: Only time will tell whether Israel will maintain the quiet it so desperately sought during 50 days of war with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, and whether Hamas will leverage the world’s outrage over so many civilian casualties to improve the lives of the coastal enclave’s 1.7 million residents. 

But any gains for either side appear at best incremental and relatively short term, analysts said. The prospect of resolving the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, already a long shot, was dealt a significant setback, many experts believe, with both sides dug deeper into intransigent, irreconcilable positions. 

“Hope lost and fear won,” said Udi Segal, the diplomatic correspondent for Israel’s Channel 2 News. Referring to Secretary of State John Kerry’s nine-month negotiations whose collapse in April contributed to the escalation, Segal added, “I don’t think the people in Palestine or in Israel feel more confidence in those Western, American Kerry-like ambitions to solve our problem with those peace slogans.” 

Sami Abdel Shafi, a Gaza-based political consultant, said, “A very thin line separates between this being taken as an opportunity versus this latest round resulting in further disaster.” 

He continued: “It has just been demonstrated that military conflict will not present solutions. The only trouble is it doesn’t look like at least the present government of Israel is interested in a political solution.” 

After a ceasefire agreement this week finally appeared to halt the hostilities, leaders on both sides rushed to claim victory, pointing to their specific battlefield achievements and the other’s weaknesses. 

But Hamas, the militant Islamist group that dominates Gaza, stood down without winning the concessions it repeatedly said it would require to halt the fighting. Many Israelis complain that their campaign lacked clear, ambitious goals, and even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged in a television interview Friday that there was “not a certainty but a chance for us to have an extended period of quiet.” 

In terms of the big picture, long-term aspirations of people on both sides of the fences that divide the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, analysts see a bleaker terrain than before this latest battle began. 

The vast majority of Israeli Jews want, most of all, to feel safe, physically, and to secure the future of Israel as a Jewish democracy. Polls and interviews in recent days suggest most now feel more vulnerable. 

The repeated attacks through tunnels from Gaza raised the specter of similar underground operations on other borders. Hamas rockets reached all over Israel, and there is no protection from the mortar shells that killed two men and a 4-year-old boy in the war’s final chapter. (On Friday, an off-duty soldier injured in a rocket attack a week before died, bringing the toll on the Israeli side to 71 – 64 of them soldiers killed in action.) 

Israel did deal a harsh blow to Hamas, killing several of its top commanders, destroying dozens of tunnels and hundreds of rocket launchers. Some commentators have noted that the 2006 Lebanon war was widely deemed a failure at the time, but that Hezbollah, Hamas’ counterpoint to Israel’s north, has not attacked since. 

Restiveness among Israel’s Arab citizens and Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, along with anti-Semitism that reared in Europe and the rise of the radical Islamic State, have only deepened Israelis’ anxiety. 

“We have entered a period of great and dangerous uncertainty,” Shimon Shiffer, a columnist for Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s leading daily, wrote Friday. Aviad Kleinberg, a historian at Tel Aviv University said in a column Wednesday that Israel has “no long-term plan, no initiatives that will gain it allies in the region and supporters around the world.” 

In a poll published Thursday in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, more than half of Israelis said there was no winner. “For every Israeli asking himself if Israel didn’t go too far in the destruction and suffering it inflicted on Gaza,” wrote Amos Harel, the paper’s military correspondent, “there are two or three others who are convinced that the Israel Defense Forces should have hit harder.” 

Gaza residents, and the broader Palestinian public, yearn, primarily, for freedom from Israeli restrictions on the crowded coastal territory (and in the West Bank) and the establishment of a sovereign Palestine. 

Despite victory proclamations to the contrary, many say they are deeply disappointed that after all the destruction, the Egyptian-brokered cease-fire deal only returned them to where they were at the end of 2012. There is slightly more room to fish and farm, and a promise that cement, steel and gravel will soon flow more freely, but one nongovernmental organization estimated Friday that rebuilding alone could take two decades. 

“You can’t really talk about victory when there’s 500 kids dead,” said Diana Buttu, a West Bank-based lawyer and analyst, referring to the number of Gazans younger than 18 among the more than 2,100 killed. Still, she said, the militants’ performance “gave a measure of dignity back into Palestinian politics” by presenting an alternative to years of fruitless negotiations with Israel. 

“What happened was, at the end of 50 days, people are still standing,” Buttu said. “The Israelis have to acknowledge or deal with the fact that there’s a different way of thinking than there was before.” 

Kerry and other Western diplomats have stressed that the Gaza cease-fire must be accompanied by a renewed peace process, but the skepticism that surrounded the last one has only been amplified. 

Netanyahu has talked lately of a new “diplomatic horizon,” and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has spoken of a new “political initiative.” Neither has provided details, but they do not appear to be in sync. 

Netanyahu said during the conflict that it had only convinced him Israeli troops must remain in the West Bank indefinitely, something Abbas has long said is not tolerable. The Palestinian leadership, meanwhile, is demanding an international deadline for ending Israel’s occupation and establishing a state on the pre-1967 lines, something Netanyahu and his coalition partners have refused as a precondition for talks. 

“Enough is enough,” Abbas said in an interview Thursday night on Palestine TV. “We will not allow the situation to remain the same.” 

Netanyahu had said in a news conference the night before that Abbas “will have to decide which side he is on,” harking back to his weeks of withering criticism after Abbas’ Palestine Liberation Organization signed a reconciliation pact with Hamas in April after a seven-year schism. Just as Israeli leaders seem more open to accepting the Palestinian government of technocrats formed in June, Abbas’ team is talking about forming a true unity government that would include Hamas members. 

Martin S Indyk, the former US special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, said this week that the “Gaza war may have put another nail in the coffin of the two-state solution.” 

“I think it has made it a lot more difficult – as if it wasn’t difficult enough already – because it has deepened the antipathy between the two sides,” Indyk said in an interview with ForeignPolicy.com. “There was already the problem of distrust between the people and the leadership. I’m afraid that’s just going to be compounded by what’s happened.”

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