Why the new Israel-Hamas conflict is more dangerous

By PR Kumaraswamy

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 several Palestinians and some 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

(The opinion piece appeared in The Hindustan Times)

Image courtesy of (https://todayuknews.com)

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