It seems the fourth Gaza war is not over yet. Hostilities could resume at any time as a result of new circumstances in Palestinian politics. Reconciliation efforts have just run up against a wall again after a short period of calm and near solidarity between Fatah and Hamas during the war and its aftermath. The circumstances in Israel are also new. After more than a decade under Benjamin Netanyahu, the country has a new coalition government made up of eight Israeli “factions”, one of which is Palestinian in identity and affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, just like Hamas in Gaza. Whether in Palestine or Israel, the situation could not be more fragile. Neither can afford to resume a war the wounds of which are still gaping. Yet neither is inclined to reassess their difficult circumstances.
In Palestine the crux of the problem is the confusion between a legitimate government in Ramallah and another authority that rests on force of arms in Gaza. It is hard to say whether either is truly committed to advancing the Palestinian cause. It could be that while the Palestinian Authority (PA) is trying to re-establish its primacy as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, Hamas feels that the best way to sustain its popularity is to keep the cause ablaze. So it plays with fire, literally, by launching incendiary balloons into Israel – and the latter has retaliated with extreme force.
On the Israeli side, the new government, which hinges on a Knesset majority of a single seat, knows that it has no chance of survival unless it has enough time to achieve the minimum aims of each of the eight coalition partners which hail from the far left to the far (Arab and Israeli) right. All they have in common is the desire to keep Netanyahu out of power forever. Apart from that, their calculations are complicated, especially in the light of Egypt’s continued efforts to prevent a resumption of hostilities and to promote its initiative to transform the truce into an enduring ceasefire. The main instruments to this end are the reconstruction of Gaza, prisoner exchange negotiations, securing a halt to missiles from Gaza and other measures that make life easier for both sides. This seemed possible when, “following a security evaluation”, Israel allowed a limited resumption of commercial exports from Gaza, a measure that remains “conditional upon the preservation of security stability.”
However, the resumption of war versus a more durable ceasefire is not solely contingent on the Palestinians and Israelis. This is because the war between them is actually three intricately interrelated wars in one. The second is the war between Israel and Iran, the terrain of which extends from Iran to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Gulf and the Gulf of Aden, to the Mediterranean. The weapons in use range from fighter planes and missiles to cyberattacks. The missiles that Hamas used during the fourth Gaza war were versions of the Iranian Badr missile, which suggests that other Iranian missiles, as well as drones, could also come into play. Tehran’s intervention in Gaza is a way to retaliate against the continued strikes and cyberattacks against Iranian targets, from the Natanz nuclear facility to the bases and facilities of pro-Iranian Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), Hizbullah and other such organisations in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. That Iran is currently engaged with the US in an attempt to revive the Iran Nuclear Deal has not reduced the intensity of the Iranian-Israeli war. In fact, both sides are using it as a means to leverage negotiations or to their advantage. After all, both war and negotiations are ultimately political tools for attaining ulterior ends.
As though the Iranian factor has not complicated the Palestinian-Israeli conflict enough, a third war has taken it to new thresholds because it is unfolding all across the region. This war pits the forces of stability, which have been fighting to restore order after a decade of the anarchy and destruction wrought by the so-called Arab Spring, against the forces of instability which seek to perpetuate revolutionary anarchy. The former forces are striving to attain their ends by means of extensive reform processes at home and defusing hotspots abroad, in Libya, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and, of course, Palestine. The destabilising forces use radical ideologies and extremist groups as their weapons, relying on the Palestinian cause as an instrument to stoke the widespread anger that fuels anarchy. The former camp includes Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries that have endorsed stability as an aim and reform as a goal. The latter is spearheaded by Iran, which relies on subordinate Shia groups, Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and various other groups in the countries that were swept by upheaval, which has not yet subsided. It is no coincidence that Iranian-made missiles are used by both Hamas and the Houthis in Yemen as well as Hizbullah in Syria and Lebanon. Israel, at present, is not a force for stability. Nor can it be as long as it persists in settlement expansion in the West Bank, inflaming hatred between Jewish and Arab citizens in Israel, attacking Islamic holy sites, threatening Arabs with evacuation and catering to violent Jewish extremist groups, all the while ignoring the fact that six Arab countries have made peace with Israel while many more have signed the Arab Peace Initiative.
Perhaps there is little new in these three interwoven wars, at least considering what the crisis-ridden, war-plagued Middle East is used to. Perhaps it is a matter of course that certain regional forces are keen to perpetuate this condition and intensify tensions, taking advantage of the US’s gradual withdrawal from the region after its failed attempts at state building in Iraq and Afghanistan where it tried to apply a special kind of democratic project that only succeeded in tearing these countries apart. Nevertheless, the profound reform processes underway in several leading Arab powers, with the emphasis on rapid and extensive social and economic development, have worked to counter the destabilising dynamics. This, in turn, throws into relief the need for profound reform at the regional level. It’s a process that must, first, take as its primary building block the Arab nation state, in light of the authenticity and cohesiveness of its borders, identity, history and future. Secondly, it must engage the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other states. Thirdly, it must espouse the pursuit of peace and regional cooperation. In fact, considerable progress has already been made in this regard, to which testify the Abraham Accords and the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, both of which are founded on new and unprecedented bases for regional relations. Fourthly, the reform must step up efforts to resolve this region’s chronic problems. This includes, of course, the Palestinian question which, as recent history tells us, might seem to subside for a while but will always flare up again. It also includes the problems of ethnic and religious minorities, particularly acute in Iraq and Syria, in the framework of the civil nation state. Fifthly, it will do well to take the initiative that Egypt is currently pursuing, with considerable support from Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, as a platform for a much broader drive than just securing a ceasefire.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly