The past has many bitter lessons for the present. Many times the lessons themselves unfortunately provide no answer to current dilemmas since they provided no clear answer to the past dilemmas either. That is what makes these types of historical lessons such bitter ones. It presents the problem in clear perspective but denies us any clear solution to it.
One hundred years ago at the beginning of World War I the Western front became deadlocked after a few months of bitter and bloody fighting. Trench warfare and a war of attrition ensued that would continue for the next four years causing millions of casualties on both sides. That the front was stalemated was now obvious to both Germany and the Allied powers. Yet the losses of the first few months of the war were so enormous that neither of the adversaries could emotionally or politically afford to come to an armistice then and there.
The losses engendered by both sides at the beginning of the conflict precluded any chance of reaching a settlement then since no settlement or armistice would justify the horrendous cost that the war had already caused. By looking backwards at the costs already incurred and by not seeing the greater costs that the next four years of war would bring, both sides committed themselves to continuing horror and slaughter.
The First World War ended indecisively, almost guaranteeing a second greater conflict – the Second World War. In order to avoid such a result in the Second World War, the Allies demanded and obtained unconditional surrenders from Germany and Japan. It was the only way they felt that somehow all of the millions of deaths and untold destruction of Europe and Asia could be justified in the long run of history.
We are facing a somewhat similar problem in the eighth week of our current war against Hamas. Hamas looks back at the grievous losses it has already sustained and any agreement, cease-fire, or settlement has to be to their advantage, and sufficient enough to justify the losses that it has already sustained.
Understandably, Israel is loath to give Hamas any gains in a war that it unjustly initiated and that has caused over seventy Israeli deaths, hundreds of wounded and significant property and social damage. I think that looking back at what the war has cost, it is hard to see how anything less than unconditional surrender can justify its costs.
Yet, to achieve the unconditional surrender of Hamas – which is just a euphemism for its complete eradication – a far greater cost undoubtedly will be exacted from Israel in terms of human life and social turbulence. Because of this, the dilemma facing the Israeli government as to how to proceed and avoid a long war of attrition has become starkly clear to all.
The government will undoubtedly be punished politically and in the realm of public relations by whatever course it will now choose to pursue. Hamas has no choice but to look back, for under the present circumstances it has no future. And by looking back and assessing what it has already lost, even in desperation, it cannot bring itself to admit its failure.
Because of this, the future of the Gaza conflict is very murky. The Jewish farmers and citizens in the land bordering Gaza have sustained enormous social, financial as well as physical pain and damage. They will have to rebuild and be rehabilitated. Gaza itself has, in many places, been reduced to shambles and ruins. It now has three hundred thousands refugees and displaced persons, many of them permanently homeless.
But if Gaza is to be rebuilt it cannot once again be a terrorist stronghold endangering the life and limb of the citizens of Israel. How to accomplish this diplomatically and practically is no easy matter. A temporary cease-fire that will only guarantee another round of conflict and death is no longer an acceptable answer to the dilemma.
It is no longer sufficient to say that quiet will be met by quiet. For if quiet gives Hamas the ability to rearm and to once again dig tunnels into Israel, then it will be very hard to justify in historical terms the costs already paid by Israel in this Gaza struggle.
Hopefully, the international community realizes all of this and is prepared to finally take positive steps to pacify Gaza and give its inhabitants a chance for a better life. Hamas is in no way interested in a better life for the Gazans. It is only interested in a worse life for the Israelis. It will be a long time before that mindset is changed and therefore the entire issue of Gaza and its future remains clouded and dangerous.