Adnan Abu Amer
Al-Jazeera / July 25, 2021
The persistent violence against Palestinians in Jerusalem and an Israeli desire for a revanche may rekindle hostilities.
As soon as the 11-day Israeli war on Gaza ended in May, preparation began in Israel and in the strip for a new confrontation. It was clear from the start that the ceasefire brokered by Egypt was fragile and may not last long. The temporary truce was concluded under pressure from the United States but it did not settle the most triggering issues between the two parties. As a result, conflict between Israel and Hamas could be easily reignited in the near future.
From the Palestinian perspective, the sponsors of the ceasefire have done nothing to stop the Israeli aggression in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque, which provoked Palestinian anger and ultimately led to Hamas launching rocket fire on May 10. Forced expulsions and house demolitions of Palestinian homes in occupied Jerusalem have continued, and so have Israeli settler break-ins under Israeli security protection into the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, where the mosque is located.
Despite international pressure on the Israeli government to stop these raids on Islam’s third holiest site, it has continued to enable them. One of the main reasons for that is its own fragility. The new Israeli government is an unstable coalition of disparate political forces which is now subjected to fierce political attacks by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after his ouster from power. Facing accusations of being “left-wing”, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is intent on proving his right-wing credentials and would not risk angering the Israeli settler community or the Israeli far right by stopping the raids on Al-Aqsa.
The same is true for the forced expulsions of Palestinians from their homes in occupied Jerusalem. Ethnically cleansing the city of its Palestinian population and making it Jewish-only has been a top priority for the Israeli far right for decades. Bennett likely fears that putting a stop to these crimes would destabilise his coalition. This continuous violence against Palestinians and the violation of Al-Aqsa’s sanctity could well trigger another conflict if left unaddressed.
From the Israeli perspective, Hamas emerging as the victorious side from the 11-day war was hard to swallow. Hamas’s rockets fired at Israel were welcomed by Palestinians across historic Palestine, not just Gaza, and increased support for the movement. This caused much frustration within the ranks of the Israeli army and it is likely that its leadership will push for an opportunity to even the score and polish its tarnished image.
Meanwhile, to counter Hamas’s growing popularity, Israel has intensified its siege of Gaza, closing crossings to the strip, limiting the entry of aid and the export and import of foodstuffs, and decreasing the supply of electricity.
As a result, the humanitarian situation in Gaza has deteriorated significantly. As Palestinians in the strip face ever-worsening conditions, they are increasingly putting pressure on Hamas to provide for their needs. Hamas, however, does not have an answer to these legitimate humanitarian demands. Finding itself in this difficult position, Hamas might try to export its internal crisis to Israel through another round of hostilities.
One of the important economic issues that Hamas seems unlikely to compromise on is the monthly financial grant which has been provided by Qatar since October 2018, after the movement, and Israel reached an understanding under the sponsorship of Qatar, Egypt, and the United Nations.
As part of this deal, Doha sends $30m per month distributed over many economic sectors in Gaza, including the transfer of $100 at the beginning of each month to tens of thousands of Palestinian families. The cash given to Gaza residents helps to revive the economy of the strip and mitigate the effect of the Israeli siege.
Israel and the US have pushed for an end to the Qatari cash grant and suggested replacing it with purchase vouchers of the same cash value. This proposal was categorically rejected by Hamas, as it realises that many of Gaza’s residents survive on these cash handouts and that losing them will likely lead to an explosive situation in the strip.
There also seems to be a deadlock on another issue: the exchange of prisoners. Although for a while there has been talk that such a deal is imminent, there are serious disagreements that have led to the failure of the indirect negotiations. This is another problem that could potentially reignite hostilities between the two sides.
For its part, Hamas has expressed its desire to exploit any military confrontation with Israel to increase the number of Israeli soldiers it has captured to gain more leverage and be able to exchange them for more Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
While the forces pushing for a new conflict are considerable, there are a few factors that have so far prevented the breakout of another war in Gaza.
First, the same reason that keeps the new Israeli government’s hands tied on the raids on Al-Aqsa and the forced expulsions of Palestinian Jerusalemites from their homes – its fragility – also prevents it from launching another assault on Gaza. If it were to do so, one of its coalition partners – the Palestinian Raam Party – would likely withdraw its support. Others might also abandon ship if Hamas’s retaliation is successful, especially if it manages to strike the Israeli interior.
For this reason – at least for now – the new government would rather engage in indirect talks with Hamas, raise its negotiating demands, and engage in brinkmanship without necessarily falling into direct confrontation.
Second, Hamas is aware that both its fighters and Gaza civilians might not be able to pull through another Israeli campaign of massive destruction. As soon as it emerged from the last war, its armed wing began restoring its military capabilities, but it was apparent that its fighters needed “a break”. Given the difficult humanitarian situation in the strip, its residents are also severely exhausted from warfare.
The awareness of “conflict exhaustion” among Palestinians in Gaza was evident in Hamas’s response to the march organised by settlers through occupied Jerusalem after the new Israeli government took power.
Rather than launching a military response to the march as it happened last Ramadan, Hamas contented itself with denouncing it.
Third, the US does not want to see any confrontations in the Palestinian territories. In May, it sent its envoys to the region to pressure all parties into committing to the ceasefire so there are no fresh hostilities while it tries to finalise a nuclear deal with Iran. The US wants calm in the region also because it needs to devote itself to its confrontations with China and Russia.
Although so far these factors are precluding another conflict between Israel and Hamas, the situation is quite unstable and unpredictable. At any point, the calculus of each actor can change and the benefits of another war could be perceived as greater than a commitment to the present ceasefire. A more lasting truce will not be established until the major outstanding issues between Israel and Hamas are resolved.
Adnan Abu Amer is the head of the Political Science Department at the University of the Ummah in Gaza