The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced many millions of people and has its roots in a colonial act carried out more than a century ago.
With Israel declaring war on the Gaza Strip after an unprecedented attack by the armed Palestinian group Hamas on Saturday, the world’s eyes are again sharply focused on what might come next.
The Israeli–Palestinian conflict has its roots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the birth of major nationalist movements among the Jews and among the Arabs, both geared towards attaining sovereignty for their people in the Middle East.
However, it primarily attributed the situation to Israeli policies, including “the continued illegal occupation of Palestine land, continued settlement expansion, desecration of the Al Aqsa Mosque and Christian holy sites, and ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people”.
Hamas issued its demands when it first launched rockets at Israel over the Jerusalem crisis. Yet it is unclear what it could hope to achieve beyond a ceasefire and a return to the political status quo ante, at which point it will face huge physical devastation in Gaza, especially to its own facilities and capabilities, and to some extent also to its military capacity and command structure. The Israeli military claims it has killed at least 100 Hamas fighters, including commanders, so far, as well as its military research and development team. It posits that these losses, along with the fact that Hamas has used most of the rockets in its arsenal, will force the group to pursue a ceasefire – at which point Israel would need to decide what to do next.
Outside powers could help in laying the ground for a ceasefire. Turkey and Qatar enjoy proximity to Hamas, but Egypt, because of its longstanding interest in what happens on its northern border, is particularly well suited for this task. When the last major Israel-Gaza war happened in 2014, Cairo’s rulers were new in their seats, fresh off the 2013 coup deposing President Muhammad Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member. They were in no rush to press for a ceasefire, seemingly content to let Morsi’s ideological confreres in Gaza take a beating. Since then, Cairo’s rulers have become more pragmatic, in part because of the Abraham Accords, which threaten their privileged status as Israel’s main partner in the Arab world. They have pressed for a ceasefire since fighting broke out, in an effort to divert attention from their internal challenges and demonstrate their relevance and diplomatic worth, especially to a new administration in Washington. But with Hamas focused on Jerusalem, and Israel bent on crushing Hamas, their effort so far has come to naught. At the moment, Cairo can give neither side what it most wants.
While the UN and Europeans, too, can play useful roles, today only the U.S., Israel’s primary backer, is able to make a real difference in Israel’s calculations. So far, the Biden administration seems content to follow Israel’s lead. Israel will want to be able to claim to its public that it has exacted the right price for Hamas’ rocket barrage – that it has, in the words of its security establishment, “restored deterrence”. With the Security Council meeting on 16 May, however, the White House’s diplomatic considerations might change. So, too, might its domestic considerations. The longer the fighting in Israel-Palestine goes on, the greater the risk of spillover into U.S. domestic politics and disruption of Biden’s agenda. Already, the crisis has started to bleed into Congressional debates.
There is another variable at play in this escalation that has not been there before: the violence between Palestinians and Israelis on the streets of Israel itself. Whether a ceasefire with Gaza would end all this violence is unclear. But continuing the bombardment of the coastal strip likely will keep feeding the country’s internal convulsions. Israel must make a choice: seek a quicker ceasefire than it otherwise might like or see a quicker unravelling of its social fabric.
This new situation gives Hamas new leverage, but it also confronts the movement with a new quandary. Does it continue to press for substantial Israeli concessions in Jerusalem, which are difficult to imagine, or does it consider the sort of deal that in its past wars was unachievable but today might be more plausible and within Cairo’s ability or even Israel’s willingness to deliver, such as a more substantial relaxation of the blockade? Today, Hamas says such a step-back is off the table – that it has its sights set on Jerusalem and has rockets sufficient for a two-month war. But as time drags on, its arsenal is depleted, Gaza’s destruction mounts and, most importantly, the Palestinian death toll climbs, it might wish that it had looked for the deal that it had been unable to achieve in four previous wars.
As for Israel’s choice, if it wishes to prevent a slide into deeper civil strife, Israel should end categorical limitations on Palestinian access to the Holy Esplanade, in all but the direst circumstances, while Muslim religious authorities (the Waqf) should control stone throwing and other violent protest activities there. Israel also should immediately call a halt to evictions of families in East Jerusalem, or at least communicate privately to Egypt and other parties that it will indefinitely postpone any further action.
More broadly, Israel should denounce violence and incendiary hate speech, no matter the source, and mete out impartial justice to all. Israeli officials have a particular responsibility to combat ethnic hatred emanating from the Jewish far right and to make sure Palestinian citizens are protected from both police and civilian violence in the same way that Jewish citizens are. Palestinians leaders in Israel have a parallel obligation within their own communities. Many around the globe, and especially in the U.S. and Europe, have been surprised by the images of Jewish mob violence, but the sentiments they embody did not spring up overnight. They have long been cultivated and endorsed at the highest levels of the state. Tamping down ethnic incitement is a matter of self-preservation for the Jewish majority, because the alternative, a steady escalation of civil strife, is already on the horizon