Israel and Hamas have ended their 11-day “war”, but even before the shooting stopped it had transformed the political landscape. The Israel/Palestinian confrontation has shifted away from focusing solely on Gaza to multiple fronts – Jerusalem, the West Bank, Israel itself– and an upsurge in any one of them could start a new round of violence.
Events in Jerusalem ignited the present crisis and there is every chance that they will do so again. Far-right Israeli groups are intent on tightening their grip on the city and eliminating the Palestinian presence wherever they can. “The political temperature will stay high, simmering just below boiling point” says Daniel Levy, a former Israeli diplomat and president of the US/Middle East Project. “Another flare-up in Jerusalem would make it boil over.”
Israeli leaders had hoped that the cantonisation of the Palestinians – three million on the West Bank, two million each in Israel and Gaza, 300,000 in Jerusalem – would fragment them politically as well as geographically. For a time, this strategy appeared to work, but over the last two weeks the crisis in one Palestinian canton has swiftly spread to the three others.
Israeli police efforts to evict Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of Jerusalem and their use of stun grenades and teargas in al-Aqsa mosque led to Hamas firing rocket barrages from Gaza. This in turn provoked protests by Palestinians in Israel on a larger scale than anything seen since the second intifada 20 years ago. On the West Bank, protesters poured into the streets in every town and the internationally recognised Palestinian Authority was mocked and marginalised.
For all the empty talk about one- and two-state solutions to the Israel/Palestine problem, the outcome of the fourth war centred on Gaza proves that the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean is a single political unit. What affects one part of it affects all the rest.
The latest Gaza war showed that Israel does not have a viable military or political strategy for fighting or engaging with the Palestinians. Israeli generals and officials claim to have degraded the military infrastructure of Hamas, killed some of its commanders and destroyed part of its tunnel system. Israel was certainly surprised by Hamas firing 3,700 rockets into Israel, despite being isolated in Gaza for 15 years.
Even if Hamas proved to have a little more military muscle than expected, though, there is no doubting Israel’s superiority over the ill-equipped paramilitary force it faces in Gaza. But this superiority stubbornly refuses to produce victory or rather that Israel knows what such a victory would look like. It cannot realistically expect to eliminate Hamas and carry out regime change in Gaza without reoccupation, which would provoke even stronger Palestinian resistance. Keeping the Palestinians there under a state of permanent siege, the status quo for the last 15 years, has just been shown not to work.
Claims of Israeli military success as justification for agreeing to a ceasefire are a smokescreen concealing Israeli failure to gain any real advantage from a bombardment that killed 232 Palestinians, including 65 children, but did little else. Israeli commentators are franker and better informed about this lack of success than their western counterparts. The editor-in-chief of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Aluf Benn, calls the conflict just ended “Israel’s most failed and pointless Gaza operation ever”.
He says that all the PR of the Israeli army cannot “cover up the truth: the military has no idea how to paralyse Hamas’s forces and throw it off balance. Destroying its tunnels with powerful bombs revealed Israel’s strategic capabilities without causing any substantive damage to the enemy’s fighting abilities.”
Many states have faced similar frustration when fighting a so-called asymmetric war against a militarily inferior but undefeatable opponent. This happened to Britain in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1998. The sensible response of a government that fails to get its way by physical force is to seek political engagement with the other side to work out a compromise.
But this is precisely what the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political partners cannot do. For almost a quarter of a century, his strategy since he was first elected Israeli leader in 1997 has been to argue that Israel can have a permanent peace without compromising with the Palestinians. This view, dominant from the centre left to the hard right, held that the Palestinians had been decisively defeated and there was no need to concede anything to them. With President Donald Trump giving total support to this maximalist position during his four years in the White House, many Israelis were persuaded that Netanyahu had been right.
Gaza looked as if it had been successfully sealed off, the West Bank broken up into Palestinian Bantustans and expanding Israeli settlements, Jerusalem was encircled from without and increasingly de-Palestinianised from within, while the Palestinians in Israel remained an embittered but impotent minority. Arab states were normalising relations with Israel and the Palestinian Question no longer figured on the international agenda.
It was all a mirage. The latest war in Gaza may look like the three previous ones in 2008-09, 2012 and 2014, but it is far more important because the Netanyahu/Trump policy has collapsed and there is nothing much to put in its place. The old Israel/Palestinian crisis is back and is more envenomed and widespread than before. An ominous new feature of it is Palestinians in Israel taking to the streets to demand equality and an end to discrimination. Israeli settlers from the West Bank have been coming back to Israel to lead anti-Palestinian demonstrations within mixed Jewish/Palestinian towns and cities.
Such developments do not mean that the balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians has abruptly skewed in favour of the latter. On the contrary, one of the problems in convincing Israelis at every level that they should engage with the Palestinians is that they do not believe they need to. Hamas may have been energised and the Palestinian Authority further discredited by the latest conflict war, but there is an overall vacuum of Palestinian leadership and organisation. This is not quite such a crippling disadvantage as it might appear since Palestinian political movements have a long tradition of prioritising their grip on power over everything else.
The ceasefire that came into force between Israel and Hamas early on Friday morning ushers in a period of enhanced instability. Daniel Levy sees Israel as being in a state of permanent crisis because it has no military solution to Gaza/Hamas while its right-wing leaders are blocked off by ideological fixations from seeking to open up diplomatic and political options.
The idea of weakening the Palestinians by fragmenting them has turned out to be counterproductive. Israeli leaders will now have to cope with four different variants of the Israel/Palestinian crisis, each of which may, like the coronavirus, become the dominant strain and detonate a new explosion.