The new Israel-Hamas conflict is distinct and more dangerous
In the six days since the confrontation began in the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount area in the old city of Jerusalem last Sunday, the Israel-Hamas conflict has claimed the lives of at least 120 Palestinians and eight Israelis, and witnessed over 2,000 rockets being launched from the Gaza Strip and hundreds of Israel aircraft raids and artillery attacks on the Palestinian areas. With both sides determined to escalate, the prospects of an immediate ceasefire and cessation of hostilities look grim.
A measured response is not the Israeli style because such minimalist measures do not address its larger military objective — deterrence. Despite international criticism of “disproportionate use of force”, by inflicting a larger price, both in terms of lives and material destruction, Israel seeks to minimise the frequency and intensity of Hamas attacks, if not stop them completely.
Going by recent developments, the current round of hostilities will be as severe as the last one. The 2014 Israel-Hamas conflict lasted for 50 days, and Hamas admitted that at least 2,310 Gazans were killed. While Israel false-flagged a ground offensive, the bringing down of a 14-storey building in Gaza city on Wednesday indicates complex ground operations involving controlled demolition.
Still, even by West Asian standards, the ongoing Israeli-Hamas conflict is unprecedented and broke several previous landmarks, in the negative sense of the term.
One, the conflict is not confined to the Gaza Strip and has already spread to West Bank. During the previous three rounds of violence in 2008-09, 2012 and 2014, when Israel was pounding the Gaza Strip, the West Bank remained largely peaceful. While there were demonstrations in several western capitals and some Arab countries, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA)-ruled West Bank remained indifferent. The Fatah-Hamas hostility was so acute that West Bankers largely ignored the Israeli attacks on Gaza, despite the 2008-09 conflict lasting for 22 days, 2012 for eight days and 2014, for 50 days.
The ongoing violence is different, and there are clashes between Israel and the Palestinians in different parts of the West Bank. Though larger Palestinian towns are under the control of the PNA, Israel controls sizeable tracts of territories and smaller habitats. The intersections between the two areas have become friction points between the Israeli Defence Forces and the Palestinians.
Second, since the first intifada of 1987, Israel’s Arabs citizens (who make up about one-fifth of the total Israeli population) have largely stayed away from Palestinian violence. There were minor protests shortly after the outbreak of the second intifada, which resulted in the October 2000 riots in Arab towns and cities in northern Israel, leading to the death of at least 12 Israeli Arabs and one Palestinian from Gaza.
This time around, protests against the Israeli operations against Hamas have incensed Israeli Arabs, leading to riots in several mixed towns such as Beersheba, Ramle, Lod, Haifa, Acre and Sakhnin. Some of them witnessed violence against Jews and Jewish properties, and a synagogue was torched in Lod. Indeed, for the first time since the military government was abolished in 1966, Israel had to use emergency powers to manage the violence in the Arab sector. The incitement of Jewish extremist groups only made matter worse and several Muslim gravestones were desecrated and there are also reports of lynchings of Arabs and Jews.
Three, the Israel-Hamas violence has been used by elements in Lebanon and Syria to launch rocket attacks from the north. These attacks appeared to have been carried out by Palestinian elements in these countries. However, if the Gaza conflict escalates or Israel responds militarily to these attacks, one should expect militant groups in these countries, namely the Hizbollah in Lebanon and pro- and anti-Assad forces in Syria, to join the fight.
Thus, Israel is facing multiple challenges, the worst in its history. Even in the October War of 1973, Israel only had two State adversaries; now, it faces non-State adversaries from all sides, in addition to internal challenges from extremist elements within the Arab and Jewish population.
Four, the only similarity with the previous violence is the lukewarm administration in Washington. During its three rounds of conflict since 2008, Israel, more particularly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was facing Barack Obama, and now has to deal with Joe Biden. Despite his personal association and friendship with Israel dating back to the days of prime minister Golda Meir, Biden is yet to establish a modus vivendi with the Israeli leader. There are acute differences between the two over Iran, and Biden’s desire to tone down some of Donald Trump’s pro-Israeli policies and postures before the current crisis.
Several of Biden’s senior officials, including secretary of state Antony Blinken, are of the Jewish faith, but they represent the progressive wing of Judaism and the Democrat party. Hence, their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are radically different from the mainstream Republicans and less friendly than Trump’s.
Five, while the international community wants de-escalation and an early end to the conflict, the chances of successful external mediation are not bright. Iran wields considerable influence on Hamas but has emerged as the nemesis of Israeli-Palestinian peace and under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey is moving towards the enemy camp. In 2014, Qatari mediation backfired and only prolonged the conflict and Palestinian sufferings and other Arab players do not carry any leverage vis-à-vis the militant group. Though China and Russia have been engaging with Hamas, their diplomatic capital is not commensurate with the challenge.
The only country that has some leverage is Egypt due to its past engagements with Hamas and its geographical proximity to the Gaza Strip, and President Fattah el-Sisi carries some influence. But a ceasefire will be a stop-gap arrangement until the next round. A real solution rests with the Biden Administration and its ability to earn the trust and confidence of all parties towards restarting the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
PR Kumaraswamy teaches contemporary Middle East, Jawaharlal Nehru University
The views expressed are personal