What took place in Gaza and Israel over the past three weeks was not a war - it was one battle in a war. Or, to be more precise, it was one battle in what the soldier/scholar John Nagl has described as a "global insurgency" aimed at overthrowing the existing order, what we used to call - in a more confident era - the Free World.
"Yes, Allah is greater than America." Hamas supreme leader Khaled Mashaal said on al-Jazeera television a few years ago. "Allah is greater than the superpowers. We say to this West: By Allah you will be defeated."
Too many people refuse to understand: Hamas is not fighting for a Palestinian state. Hamas is fighting for the annihilation of Israel which it would replace with an Islamic emirate. Not the same thing at all.
Hamas takes inspiration, funding and instructions from the ruling mullahs of Iran, heirs to the Iranian Revolution that erupted 30 years ago next month when the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in France and established his theocratic regime. In the years since, Syria has become Iran's client; Hezbollah, based in Lebanon but with terrorist branches as far flung as South America, its proxy.
Israel's latest battle against Hamas began just after Christmas and ended just before the inauguration of Barack Obama. Israel's leaders apparently felt it prudent to announce a cease-fire before Obama sat down in the Oval Office and wrote "Stop the fighting!" at the top of his presidential to-do list.
In Arab and Muslim capitals, it did not go unnoticed that, as Hamas was being pounded by Israel, Iran did nothing to help. Nor was Hezbollah willing to open a second front on Israel's northern border. But as soon as a cease-fire was declared, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spun into action -- by spinning: According to official Iranian press reports, he called Mashaal -- who resides in Damascus rather than Gaza -- and told him: "Today is the beginning of victory!"
There are those who will believe him. But if Israel has succeeded in destroying most Hamas weapons caches and factories, as well as most of the tunnels through which Hamas imported thousands of missiles - even as it claimed Israel was blocking supplies of food, fuel and medicines through its "siege" - Israel achieved important, if short-term military goals.
Hamas spokesmen are saying they lost fewer soldiers than did the Israelis, and that they destroyed 47 Israeli tanks and armored vehicles. The carcasses of those machines have yet to be displayed for the cameras. And, by most accounts, Hamas fighters were short on both skills and fervor, despite Iranian and Hezbollah training. Many Hamas military commanders removed their uniforms and hid among women and children. "They turned houses and mosques into battlegrounds so that the people would protect them and those who trusted them now regret it," wrote Abd al-Fattah Shehadeh in the on-line Arabic newspaper ELAPH.
The European Union has warned that while humanitarian aid will be forthcoming, Gazans should not expect reconstruction assistance if Hamas continues to provoke new battles. "We don't want to go on to reconstruct Gaza every I-don't-know-how-many-years," said EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner. "We have been at the side of the Palestinian population always and we will be at their side, but at the same time it's also for the Palestinian population on both sides to say, ‘We want this peace.'"
That's a taller order than she probably understands. Prior to this battle it was not clear that most Palestinians wanted peace more than they wanted Israel's extinction. It's too soon to say whether their minds have been changed by the suffering they have endured. Even if that is the case, it would be unsafe for Gazans to say out loud that they'd prefer compromise in pursuit of coexistence to martyrdom in pursuit of victory.
There are those who will argue that Hamas wins merely by having survived. But Israel would have lost had it not fought -- had it continued to passively accept an endless rain of Hamas missiles on its citizens. Israelis knew that President Bush, during his final weeks in office, would not object if they tried to stop that rain. They don't yet know what President Obama will do in a similar circumstance.
Over the days ahead, Hamas may resume its attacks on Israel, or dig new tunnels to smuggle in new missiles to prepare for future attacks. If so, Israel may feel the need to respond strongly -- to re-establish deterrence and demonstrate that it can withstand pressure from those in the "international community" all too eager to try to appease radical Islam.
Iran will continue its drive to acquire nuclear weapons, a potential game-changer. But this is no game. It's a series of battles in a war that is likely to be as consequential as any in history.