The clashes marked the worst escalation of hostilities since a devastating 51-day war in 2014 that saw close to 2,000 people die, including more than 400 Palestinian children. But it was in keeping with a consistent pattern of violence over Gaza, a territory of 2 million Palestinians that’s controlled by the Islamist faction Hamas and suffocated by an Israeli land, air and sea blockade.
Last year, Israeli snipers shot more than 1,000 Palestinians protesting conditions in Gaza by the barrier fence with Israel. This past weekend’s escalation followed a deadly exchange of fire in March.
The Israeli military blamed the militant faction Islamic Jihad for starting the attacks, but Hamas — at times a rival, at other times, a co-conspirator — also was involved. “Hamas officials said they escalated the violence to push Israel to stick to the terms it had agreed after another such flare-up in March, when rocket fire had caused Netanyahu to cut short a trip to Washington,” my colleagues reported. “Hamas accused Israel of reneging on the deal to allow in cash assistance of $30 million a month from Qatar, expand fishing rights and ease the restrictions on imports and exports that have choked Gaza’s economy.”
Now, according to reports, U.N.- and Egyptian-brokered talks have taken both sides back to the fragile status quo that preceded the weekend’s hostilities. It’s a stalemate that has irked both domestic allies and rivals of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces calls from the right to carry out a more systematic effort to defeat Hamas and other militants for good — no matter the hideous collective price in blood that Palestinians (as well as Israelis) would have to pay.
“The campaign is not over and it demands patience and sagacity,” Netanyahu said on Monday, in an attempt to assuage Israeli impatience. “We are prepared to continue.” Meanwhile, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said on Sunday that little would change if Israel does not take steps to lessen the economic pain of those in Gaza.
“It’s like Groundhog Day, it’s the same dynamic over and over again,” Khaled Elgindy, a nonresident fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, told Today’s WorldView. “We’re not really addressing the root of the problem,” he added, namely “the blockade and the enormous suffering and economic instability” endured by Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip.
Unemployment in the territory stands above 50 percent. The blockade has left Gazans dependent on foreign cash handouts from governments such as Qatar’s — funds that swiftly get spent to buy consumer goods from Israel or Egypt and do little to revive a ravaged local economy. Hamas and other militant factions have come to recognize that the occasional barrage of crude rocketry is an effective tactic to secure more aid.
Israel’s military, if not its political leadership, seems aware of the fundamental problem. “In a press briefing, the military said the country needed to make changes to its strategic policy to improve living conditions in the Gaza Strip if it did not want another flareup of violence in coming weeks,” noted a Monday report in the Times of Israel.
“While the army has reportedly pushed for measures meant to make the lives of Palestinians in the Strip more bearable,” wrote Times of Israel reporter Judah Ari Gross, “the political leadership has been more hesitant, fearing being portrayed as giving in to terror, especially with Hamas holding Israeli captives and the remains of soldiers.”
Some analysts also argue that Hamas’s continued presence in Gaza gives Netanyahu a permanent reason to ignore the two-state solution — the goal of an independent Palestinian state that has effectively died on his watch.
“For Netanyahu, Hamas is a hedge against a united Palestinian movement focused on serious negotiation to reach a two-state solution,” wrote former U.S. diplomat Aaron David Miller in March, adding that Hamas, too, is more interested in its parochial clash with other Palestinian factions in the West Bank than meaningful negotiation. “Indeed, both Netanyahu and Hamas would prefer the current situation — a de facto three-state reality — to a two-state solution,” Miller wrote.
Netanyahu’s desire to keep Hamas as “a viable counterweight to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ government in Ramallah,” wrote Shalom Lipner of the Atlantic Council, would suggest he gains by letting it maintain power in Gaza. Lipner added that Hamas, too, is likely happy with “a sustained course of intermittent conflict through which it exercises a degree of leverage over Israel.”
For Israel, there’s little political incentive to change things. “Ongoing conflict with Gaza helps Netanyahu fuel Palestinian divisions, and kills the two state solution,” wrote Gaza-based commentator Muhammad Shehada in Haaretz. “Improving the situation in Gaza is anathema to his extremist constituency, drip-fed for years by the myth that might is right and the only way to deal with Palestinians is brutal force, to keep them in line.”
But experts fear that things will only get worse. “I think we will reach a point that it will be difficult for the Israeli government to continue like this and it will feel obliged to respond more violently,” said Celine Touboul, deputy director general of the Tel Aviv-based Economic Cooperation Foundation think tank, to NBC News. “If money doesn’t enter Gaza or restrictions on the border remain, I don’t see any reason why we won’t see another wave of escalation.”
All this is taking place while the Trump administration has vowed to unveil a new chapter in the moribund peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. But there’s little optimism about the White House’s plans — which Palestinians have already rejected, given the slate of unilateral concessions President Trump gifted Netanyahu — and the current cycle of hostilities in Gaza points to a broader failure of diplomacy.
“That this could become the norm shows you how completely dysfunctional the peace process is,” said Elgindy. “Now that we can definitively say that it’s dead, there’s nothing that is working to resolve the underlying causes of this kind of violence.”
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