As the sun set over the Mediterranean on Tuesday, Israel’s military commanders allowed themselves some cautious optimism.
The doomsday scenario of a second day of violent protests and rioting had not taken place.
“Only” 4,000 Palestinians had returned to the five encampments on Gaza’s border to confront Israeli soldiers, less than ten per cent of the number that arrived on the previous day. The casualty rate fell as well: two Palestinians were killed by Israeli sniper fire, down from 60 dead on Monday.
Nakba Day, extended due to the ceremony opening the US Embassy in Jerusalem to a two-day event, was finally over.
Another source of cautious optimism was the situation in the West Bank. While there had been clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces at 18 separate locations, these were all small and isolated, involving just 1,300 protesters or rioters.
Contrary to the original fears, the scenes of death in Gaza had not triggered violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — at least, not yet.
Under the auspices of the Egyptian government, messages were passed between the leaders of Hamas and Israel.
From Israel came a threat of violent retribution against Hamas leaders and veiled suggestions of a possible easing of the closure on Gaza, which were met by half-promises from Hamas to rein in the protests that have been taking place every Friday since March 30 — at least, for now.
Hamas hope that they have demonstrated that — even during a period when they enjoy no international support, not even from their Arab brothers, and the Palestinians have rarely been so divided and demoralised — they can still dominate the world’s media agenda when Gaza bleeds.
In the space of just over six weeks, 110 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire. But with the exception of the first two Fridays and Monday of this week, Hamas struggled to attract the masses to the border.
Its leaders realise that they are still not trusted by the people of Gaza to deliver them from their beleaguered status and that inviting further violence and destruction on the strip is not the way to endear them to its inhabitants.
The next few days will remain tense but as the month of Ramadan has begun, with its daily fasts and nights of feasting, there is reason to expect at least a temporary lull.
Assuming that this round of violence is nearly over, it is clear that both sides have lost.
For the people of Gaza there has been more death and thousands of wounded. Hamas may have succeeded in bringing Gaza and the Palestinian cause back to the headlines for a
few days, but the world’s attention is likely to be short-lived.
What is more, they have no tangible achievements to point to. The overall goal of Hamas’s Gaza Prime Minister Yahya Sinwar of ending the closure is no closer.
On the Israeli side, there is some satisfaction at the fact that there were no Israeli casualties and that at no point did the Palestinians come close to entering Israeli territory, as was feared.
But the price in Palestinian casualties was bad for Israel, and not only for image and international public-relations purposes. Many Israelis, including senior figures in the security establishment, believe that the dozens of deaths could have been avoided by a more flexible approach towards the rules of engagement.
The intransigence of politicians at the top is bad for Israeli policy-making. Worse, the refusal of the government to seriously consider a long-term solution to Gaza’s plight means opportunities were lost to preempt the current predicaments.
The headlines in the international media will change in a day or two, especially now it is known that at least 50 of the 62 killed were Hamas terrorists.
The diplomatic fallout has been largely limited to the expulsion of Israeli diplomats from Turkey, whose government under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is resolutely anti-Israel, and from staunchly pro-Palestinian South Africa.
The lingering damage will mainly be a deep feeling of unease among some of Israel’s supporters, particularly in the Jewish diaspora, who believe that much of the bloodshed could have been avoided.
They have heard Israel’s explanations, of Hamas trying to carry out terror attacks under cover of “non-violent” protests, and are not entirely convinced.
Even if the Gaza violence is dying down for now, Hamas have seen how they can place the Palestinian issue back on the international agenda very quickly and are likely to use this tactic again if none of their demands are met in the near future.
They cannot seriously threaten Israel’s security, and entertain no such illusions, but they have succeeded in portraying it as a lumbering and unthinking regional bully.
In Gaza’s dismal and desperate situation, even that is an achievement.