In the Israel-Hamas conflict, the victory of cynicism
The humanitarian tragedy in Gaza has embarrassed some moderate Arab regimes, particularly those which had recently signed the Abraham Accords
The adage “In war, truth is the first casualty” is apt for the 11-day Israel-Hamas conflict that ended last Friday. The doublespeak of its protagonists – from fighting terrorism to resisting the occupation, from right to security to the right to freedom – cynically conceals their ulterior motives which either triggered the conflict or prolonged it.
In retrospect, the breakout of the conflict on May 10 seems presaged by its prevailing context. The strongest impetus for the hostilities were the two elections — for the Israeli Knesset held on March 23 and Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections after 15 years, but postponed on April 30 by President Mahmoud Abbas citing Israeli obstacles. Further, it was the end of the holy month of Ramadan – during which young Palestinians frequently confront Jewish hardliners and Israeli police over access to the holy al-Aqsa mosque complex. It was the verdict day (also postponed) for the controversial court case to evict several Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem by the Jewish settlers. It was also on the eve of May 11, when Israelis celebrate Jerusalem Day and preceded the May 15 anniversary of Israel’s founding in 1948 – marked by Palestinians as Naqba (“catastrophe”) day.
Against this emotively charged backdrop, let us weigh in the various players – both groups and individuals.
For Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, the fourth Israeli polls in two years were a disappointment as he failed, again, to put together a majority coalition. It was also an existential issue for him as losing the job would also take away his legal immunity – opening him to a possible jail sentence in a long-pending anti-corruption trial that finally began last month. Thus, donning the mantle of defender of Israel and its citizens by going on the offensive against the rocket-firing Gazans did no disservice to his political and personal objectives. Israel’s military, too, wanted a free hand to “degrade” the asymmetric capabilities of Gaza-based Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Moreover, the regional geopolitical context was conducive to Israel as the few remaining backers of Hamas and PIJ, were either preoccupied or enfeebled or both.
The situation on the Palestine side was even more complex.
The Palestine Authority (PA) has been in suspended animation: although it was able to scupper the Donald Trump Administration’s “deal of the century” last year, there was nothing to replace it. Apart from this political limbo, PA had to contend with two other setbacks — intensified Israeli settlement activity in West Bank and four Arab countries normalising ties with Israel, jeopardising the “Palestinian Cause” for a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Meanwhile, a call for PA elections after 15 years has revived the dormant contest between, the mainstream and moderate al-Fatah, ruling West Bank, and the radical Hamas, ruling Gaza Strip. The two ruling factions are mostly mutually exclusive, both territorially and in their political orientation. Al-Fatah has gradually lost its cohesion and popularity since the death of its iconic founder and PA President Yasir Arafat in 2004. It is currently riven by dissidence against the leadership of 85-year old President Mahmoud Abbas. Thus, the coming elections offered Hamas an opportunity to launch an electoral campaign of sort for the West Bank by launching a salvo of its Qassam rockets from Gaza to Jerusalem on May 10. Although the gambit provoked a conflagration with Israel, it figured that the potential political gains outweighed the costs.
Among the players outside the immediate theatre of conflict, Egypt and the United States (US) are the most important. The military regime of Egypt – the only country with a land border with Gaza – has no love lost for Hamas which was closely allied to Muslim Brotherhood it ousted. While it did not mind Hamas being pummelled, it also had to be seen as not letting the Gazans down. So, Egypt rendered some humanitarian assistance and mediated a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel.
The US labels Hamas as a terrorist organisation. While the Joe Biden administration had initially kept its distance from PM Netanyahu, it leveraged the hostilities to ingratiate itself to Israel and the pro-Israel domestic lobby in the US, by supplying weapons and ammunition and maintaining frequent and closer contacts “to de-escalate the conflict.” It also stone-walled any anti-Israel moves at the UN Security Council giving the Jewish state’s military the time to “sanitise” Gaza. Similarly, it leveraged the crisis to re-engage links with some influential Arab leaders whom it had hitherto kept at arms distance.
The humanitarian tragedy in Gaza has embarrassed some moderate Arab regimes, particularly those which had recently signed the Abraham Accords. Though tactically put on the defensive, their respective overtures towards Israel were based on the pursuance of their respective national interests and are unlikely to be reversed. Israel’s normalisation with other Arab and Muslim countries might, however, be put on hold for better optics.
To rationalise the ceasefire, a new wheel of cynical calculus has to be spun. On its part, Hamas is certain to claim having won the war by merely surviving it. Having defanged Hamas and PIJ, their martyrdom status is not in Israel’s interest: it would only lead to the preponderance of the hardliners in Ramallah within al-Fatah, or with a Hamas takeover. Cynically speaking, the current Palestinian dispensation, sans Hamas’s offensive capability, serves Israeli – and most other stakeholders’s — strategic interests. And so just as cynical calculations led to the conflict, a cynical synergy in objectives has led to its end, for now.
Mahesh Sachdev is a retired Indian ambassador with expertise in West Asia and President of Eco-Diplomacy and Strategies, a Delhi-based consultancy
The views expressed are personal