Between Taiwan and personal obligations, I’m just getting caught up with what has been going on in other parts of the world over the past week. On the surface, the weekend conflict in Gaza seems to have had the earmarks of conflicts in the past. Dozens of civilian casualties, residents and businesses damaged or destroyed, and militant Palestinian leaders killed. Yet on closer examination, the weekend’s clashes between Israel and Palestinian militants was distinctively different in one way which could change the dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship in the future. Hamas largely remained on the sidelines while Islamic Jihad handled the bulk of the fighting. Hamas serves as the de facto civilian government in Gaza. By not joining the fight and allowing Islamic Jihad to take the lead, Hamas will undoubtedly score points among a Palestinian population exhausted by years of rocket attacks that lead to heavy and destructive Israeli military responses. Israel’s policy of issuing more work permits to Palestinian residents in recent months appeared to have played a major part in Hamas restraining itself in the latest round of fighting. There is hope that this trade off, and the overall more pragmatic relationship forming between Israel and Hamas will reduce the likelihood of more violence in the future.
Of course, there is also talk of a possible rift having formed between Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It’s unclear if there is any truth to this. On the surface, both groups share the same ideology and goals. But their priorities have become divergent. Islamic Jihad is concerned with violent opposition to Israel. It has little taste for joining the political structure of the Palestinian state, and this is where the group differs from Hamas. Hamas is a social and political movement as much as it is a militant one. This is evident from the roles it has played in both Palestine and Lebanon. Therefore, Hamas needs to pay close attention to public opinion in Gaza and conform its actions and priorities to prevent a wedge from developing between it and the people it serves. Right now Israel’s economic incentives are a valuable tool in this regard and Hamas appears dedicated to using them to its advantage.
It does not mean the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is over or that Hamas is seeking a permanent rapprochement with Israel.
The latest round of hostilities between Israel and Gaza have concluded. The Egyptian-brokered ceasefire has taken effect and it appears this latest spasm of Israel-Hamas violence is destined to follow a familiar pattern: Tensions rose and fighting between Israel and Gaza militants broke out. Escalation followed with Hamas rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes taking place around the clock. After an obligatory period of silence, Palestinian government officials quietly approached UN and Egyptian diplomats and inquired about the chances of a third-party ceasefire. After a period of backchannel diplomacy, a deal was formed and presented to both parties. Israel agreed without preconditions since its military goals had already been met. Palestinian authorities took their cues from Hamas and readily agreed to the ceasefire. Now the fighting is over and the post-crisis cycle begins once again. Residents of Gaza will clear the rubble, Hamas will begin funneling in weapons, Israel will warily monitor its neighbor and the rest of the world will soon lose interest. Oh, and of course Hamas will claim victory.
We’ve been down this road enough times before and in all likelihood will be traveling it again sooner than expected.
Tensions will remain high for some time, and this ceasefire is no less fragile than those of the past. It will not take much for the fighting to resume. The underlying causes of the conflict remain unchanged: land rights in West Bank, religious tensions in Jerusalem and no prospects for a Mid-East peace process aimed at resolving the conflict in an acceptable way for all parties.
Last but not least is President Joe Biden’s attempt to take some credit for the ceasefire when the truth is that his efforts, undertaken relatively late in the game, came at a point when a ceasefire was already a foregone conclusion. Sources I’ve spoken with in the past 4 hours have confirmed that Biden’s discussions with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi came after Egyptian efforts to broker a ceasefire were already underway.
US President Joe Biden’s call for ‘significant de-escalation’ of the fighting between Gaza and Israel apparently fell upon deaf ears. The content and tone of the message was intended to project the image of a confident US president able to bring Israel in line with his wishes. Unfortunately for Biden, his attempt at tough-love diplomacy fell hopelessly short for two reasons.
The first reason is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is no friend of the Biden administration’s foreign policy. Specifically, it has been the recent US diplomatic attempts to reenter the JCOPA on favorable terms that has gotten under Israel’s skin. This stance is not expected to change given that Iran is suspected of playing the role of instigator behind the scenes of the fighting. The other reason has to do with the purpose behind Biden’s call. At home he is facing significant pressure from a progressive arm of his own party, which is more sympathetic with the Palestinian cause. By calling Israel on the carpet and adopting a strong tone, Biden is hoping to put a damper on domestic criticism of how his administration is handling the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
It’s all a moot point now, however. Israel rejected the call immediately. Netanyahu said earlier today that he is “determined to continue” operations against Hamas on the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. The Israeli prime minister was diplomatic in his official reply, saying he “greatly appreciates the support of the American president.” However, he made it clear Israel will “return the calm and security to you, citizens of Israel.”
Israel’s rejection of Biden’s call opens the door for Washington to explore indirect diplomacy with European and other world powers to bring about a ceasefire and eventual end to the fighting. The US needs to keep in mind that the fighting will come to a stop at some point while its relationship with Israel will continue indefinitely. Therefore, the Biden administration should consider its next move carefully and make certain it does not take any action that Israel won’t be able to forgive. The White House also has to keep in mind that America’s allies around the world are watching closely. A failure to fully support Israel, a close US ally, could cause nations like Taiwan, Japan, and Poland to reevaluate Washington’s promises to come to their aid in times of trouble.
Calls for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas are becoming louder as the hostilities between Israel and Gaza enter their second week. The international pressure has spiked especially in the aftermath of Israeli airstrikes and heavy militant rocket attacks on Israeli towns. At a meeting of the UN Security Council earlier today, the United States made it clear it is prepared to offer its support “should the parties seek a ceasefire.”
Despite international pressure for a ceasefire rising, the Israeli government does not appear eager to begin negotiations with the Gaza government and Hamas. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the Israeli campaign in Gaza will continue on. “We are acting now, for as long as necessary, to restore calm and quiet to you, Israel’s citizens. It will take time,” Netanyahu said in a televised address following a meeting of his security cabinet on Sunday. Hours later, as midnight approached, militants launched rockets at the Israeli cities of Beersheba and Ashkelon. Not long after the initial launches, the Israeli Air Force launched a significant number of sorties against military targets in Gaza.
Palestinian sources claim 197 citizens of Gaza have been killed, including 58 children and 34 women. The high amount of non-combatant casualties cited by the sources (government mostly) bring their accuracy into question. In all probability, the numbers are being fudged, to put it lightly, by sources sympathetic to Hamas and Hezbollah.
What role is Iran playing in all of this? That’s the single most significant question to emerge from the growing unrest and violence in Israel and Gaza so far. Islamic Jihad is a well-known Iranian proxy, while Hamas is a lapdog of Tehran. Those realities alone make Iranian complicity in the current unrest a very strong probability at least. Last week, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Major General Hossein Salami warned of Israel’s vulnerability to a large-scale tactical operation owing to its small size. The high tempo of rocket fire coming from Gaza, coupled with Salami’s comments, certainly gives the impression that the operation was inspired by Iran. The fact that Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are being targeted by rockets for the first time is simply more evidence of Iranian involvement in one form or another.
Considering the shadow war that has been taking place between Iran and Israel lately, its likely that events in Israel represent a new phase of this conflict. Tehran is sending a message that Israel can be severely wounded by massed rocket fire and its internal divisions. Right now, Israel is contending with a political crisis as a fifth round of elections looms. Netanyahu’s government has been temporarily relegated to a caretaker status, making the timing of the rocket attacks, as well as the Al-Asqa mosque tensions and subsequent clashes suspect.
Israeli forces and Gaza-based militants have been exchanging attacks for days. Since the beginning of the week, Israel has struck hundreds of targets described as Hamas and Islamic Jihad weaponry and infrastructure. These strikes have killed over thirty militants, of which a dozen were senior leaders according to the IDF. With the violence now spilling over into Israeli cities as civil unrest, the question now appears to be whether or not Israel will escalate the conflict and begin a ground operation into Gaza, an option it avoided in 2014 and ever since.