While foreign diplomats pushed for a cease-fire between the Gaza-based militant group Hamas and Israel, there was little sign of a cessation in hostilities. At the time of this writing, Israeli air and ground forces were striking the embattled territory as part of a widening assault. Elsewhere, soon after sunset on Thursday, clashes between Jewish and Arab Israelis also resumed in various cities across the country, part of a worrying spasm of communal strife within Israel’s 1967 borders that could prove even more difficult to tamp down than a shooting war over Gaza.
The drivers of the current explosion of violence may be familiar. Hamas has long used the threat of its rockets in Gaza, which has been under Israeli blockade ever since the Islamist group seized control in 2007, to extract various humanitarian concessions from Israel and aid from Arab states. Netanyahu, who has been in power for much of this time, presided over a strategic arrangement that saw Israel periodically “mow the grass” in Gaza — no matter the collateral damage in Palestinian civilian lives — yet also saw Hamas revive each time as strong as ever.
“In return for a halt to the rocket fire, or in Israeli parlance, ‘quiet,’ the two sworn enemies began negotiating indirectly via Egyptian, Qatari and U.N. auspices,” wrote Neri Zilber in Newlines magazine. “Israeli officials eventually laid it out clearly: continued Hamas rule over Gaza was much more preferable over a bloody, drawn-out ground campaign through the territory’s cramped warrens and bunkers to stop the rockets.”
The calculus this time may be slightly different, my colleague Steve Hendrix reported, as both Hamas’s leadership and Netanyahu have extracted immediate strategic benefit from the fighting. For both parties, the crisis came at a politically fraught — and opportune — moment.
After a fourth indecisive election in the span of two years, Netanyahu had failed to form a viable coalition in Israel’s Knesset, or parliament. At the start of the week, a motley pack of the right-wing leader’s rivals — ranging from an Arab party to centrists to ultranationalists and pro-settler factions on the right — had taken up the project of creating a new government without Israel’s longest-ruling premier at its head.
They were possibly on the cusp of an initial deal. Then came the surge in violence, sparked by unrest in Jerusalem, where far-right allies of Netanyahu had for weeks played a provocative role as Muslim Palestinians observed the holy month of Ramadan. “Instead of rewarding, incentivizing, and building progressively on the fact that the first three months of 2021 have been the least violent for Israel in decades — with zero rockets from Gaza and no single successful lone wolf attack in the West Bank — Israel’s leaders saw this as an opportunity to make life for Palestinians more unbearable, and to push their limits: from fast-tracking settlements to restricting Muslim worship, from maintaining the blockade on COVID-ravaged Gaza to barricading the Damascus Gate,” wrote Muhammad Shehada in Haaretz.
The coalition talks halted Monday, with a key Arab leader suspending his participation as rival vigilante mobs carried out attacks in Israeli cities. “They were just about to call the president and say, we have reached a deal, we have a coalition,” Gayil Talshir, professor of political science at Hebrew University, told The Washington Post earlier this week. “The riot came just in time to prevent the change of government in Israel.”
Then on Thursday, Naftali Bennett, a right-wing “kingmaker,” abandoned the talks to renew negotiations with Netanyahu’s Likud party. “He cited the ‘emergency situation’ in Israeli cities that have both Israeli and Arab citizens, which he said ‘demands the use of force and sending the military into the cities’ — something that would be impossible in a government backed” by Arab factions, reported Barak Ravid of Axios.
For Hamas, its entry into the fray comes amid a tangled intra-Palestinian squabble. It’s at odds with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah faction holds nominal sway over the West Bank. (In an earlier era, Israel allowed the emergence of Islamist outfits like Hamas in a tacit bid to undermine the strength of more-secular Palestinian resistance groups like Fatah.) Abbas decided to scrap long-anticipated Palestinian elections this month, further delaying any prospect of reconciliation among the bitterly divided Palestinian leadership and intensifying public frustration with the increasingly unpopular PA.
“If Netanyahu is struggling to extend his rule by months ... Hamas leaders in Gaza are playing a longer game and, according to Palestinian analysts, stand to benefit from the confrontation with Israel,” my colleague reported. One Ramallah-based pollster and former Palestinian Authority official said: “From preliminary indicators, many people in the West Bank are admiring what Hamas is doing. We don’t know their motivations, but it was effective of Hamas to confront Israel on the basis of their support for the Palestinian people of Jerusalem.”
“Hamas does not actually want something from Israel,” wrote Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum. “It is seizing upon the current moment as an excuse to capitalize on a unique opportunity within Palestinian politics, and the rockets that Israelis are sheltering from are Hamas’s effort to get a leg up on Fatah.”
For Palestinians in Gaza, watching their neighborhoods collapse and pillars of smoke entomb their homes, the suffering is only deepening. “In 2014, during the last war, Israel killed my brother Hamada; it destroyed my apartment when it brought down the family home that housed 40 people,” wrote Refaat Alareer, a university professor in Gaza, in the New York Times. “It killed my wife’s grandfather, her brother, her sister and her sister’s three kids. We have not overcome that trauma yet. We have not finished rebuilding the homes Israel obliterated then.”