Analysis |

Gaza, Jerusalem, Jewish-Arab Tensions and Israeli Politics: A Roadmap to Bloodshed

Hamas is nearly exhausted, the Israeli military isn't interested in ground invasion, but the real threat is within Israel – and shouldn't have come as a surprise

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A man pulls his luggage while passing the rubble of a destroyed building which was hit by Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
A destroyed building which was hit by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City.Credit: Adel Hana,AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

One need not be overly impressed with the confident, aggressive rhetoric. The truth is that almost everyone wants to end the conflict in the Gaza Strip. It appears that Hamas has had enough of this round of fighting after its first rocket attack on central Israel, if not after the attack on Jerusalem that preceded it. The image of victory Hamas portrayed in a giant poster featuring its leaders was hung by worshippers at the entrance to the al-Aqsa Mosque on Thursday. In the competition with the Palestinian Authority, East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount are already in Hamas’ hands. Any more fighting with Israel will only increase its losses.

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The Israel Defense Forces, which tells us morning and night that Hamas is close to the breaking point, wants to go home, too. The amount of significant damage it can inflict on Hamas will diminish over time, and the army has no appetite for a ground invasion. In addition, the cabinet realizes that the main threat to the country – to Hamas’ joy – is the anarchy in the streets of Israel’s mixed Jewish-Arab cities. This has become a problem demanding urgent and decisive attention more than the conflict in Gaza.

The ball, as usual, is in the court of one man: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Like with the coronavirus in March a year ago, the timing of the events of recent weeks have played into Netanyahu’s hands perfectly (at least some of the first phases of the escalation in Jerusalem were done with his active encouragement). When his back is against the wall, a minute before his enemies were about to form a government that would remove him from power after more than a dozen years, possible salvation arrives in the form of the Jerusalem disturbances, the fighting in Gaza and the rioting in Arab communities inside Israel.

But the big danger he faces is on the ground. Rocket barrages over much of the country, the chaos in the streets and the hatred expressed on social media all expose Netanyahu’s weaknesses as someone under whose watch such a severe disintegration of state and society has taken place. As long as the crisis continues, the risk that he will become entangled in it increase not only in the form of more and more casualties but also in popular support.

Egypt is taking an active role in indirect contacts between Israel and Hamas. Its involvement, says sources in the IDF general staff, is deeper than it was during the Gaza conflict in 2014. Intelligence officials in Cairo are in continuous contact with both sides. The formula is clear and echoes those of previous rounds of fighting: Quiet in exchange for quiet, even if this time around, the braking time before a complete cease-fire could be longer due to the number of casualties and events inside Israel.

The negotiations, it appears, will not address the issue of the prisons and missing Israelis in Gaza. In the field, Israel is still trying to wrack up some more achievements before the whistle calls game over. Hamas has answered with rockets on the center of Israel in response to the pain being inflicted on it – the killings of senior leaders and the toppling of the high-rise building it uses as its offices. On Wednesday night, U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Netanyahu. It appears that Washington has accepted the Israeli narrative that Hamas started the attacks without any justification, but American support is ensured only for a limited time. A lengthy military campaign, certainly if it evolves into a ground war, will not be enthusiastically welcomed.

In the meantime, international understanding for Israel is surprisingly widespread. That seems to be due to the rocket fire aimed at Tel Aviv. Israel was never able to elicit much world sympathy when the communities surrounding Gaza came under fire. But the entry of ground forces to the Strip would involve close fighting with Hamas, many casualties on both sides and calls for an international investigation. The atmosphere at the International Criminal Court in The Hague has become more hostile to Israel. The main claims against Israel in the ICC’s current probe involve ground battles during the 2014 Gaza war in Shaja’iya and Rafah.

The IDF’s goal in the current campaign is defined in relatively modest terms: to cause as much damage as possible to Hamas in order to bring its leadership to the conclusion that its policy of escalation was a mistake. In doing so, the idea is to restore some of the battered Israeli deterrence and bring a degree of stability to the area. Negotiations on calming hostilities have already begun. As usual, it could go awry because of what can happen while the talks are underway, and escalate into a more serious escalation. A reminder: both the 2014 Gaza conflict and the 2006 Second Lebanon War erupted due to failures of communication, misunderstandings and mistaken considerations on both sides, not as a result of some malicious plan.

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