While regional and international powers are trying to bring about a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas after ferocious battles that have claimed hundreds of lives and caused thousands of injuries, it seems the political calculations that led Hamas and Israel to this devastating confrontation are the same ones hindering a truce.
In Israel, all the signs indicated there could be extensive protests as many occasions were coming up that would push Israeli and Palestinian extremists to trouble. A trial date was set for 10 May to settle a dispute between Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah on the outskirts of East Jerusalem and fanatical Jewish settlers. Whatever the verdict, the losing side would likely resort to violence to protest the decision by the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, there were habitual clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan, which had become a common occurrence. The same month marked two important occasions: a Palestinian one marking Jerusalem Day (an anniversary Iran called for on the last Friday of Ramadan, to object to Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem); and a celebration by Jewish settlers and religious extremists of the Unification of Jerusalem (the day Israel occupied Jerusalem in 1967, declaring the unification of the city, and proclaiming it as Israel’s eternal capital).
May 15 was also the anniversary of the creation of Israel in 1948, a date the Palestinians mark as the Nakba – the loss of their homeland. This anniversary always triggers clashes with the police on the part of Arab Israelis and Palestinian demonstrators in the occupied West Bank, and sometimes on the border with Lebanon and Syria. It would have been impossible for all these dates not to come together and trigger massive clashes, so why did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ignore this and push for confrontation?
It is most likely that Netanyahu’s calculations were based on the assumption that escalation would be limited and can be quickly contained. Meanwhile, he would benefit on several fronts in his domestic battle to remain on the political scene. First, his rivals in the so-called Bloc for Change led by Yair Lapid, the head of the Yesh Atid Party currently charged with forming a coalition government of centre and left parties, as well as right-wing parties opposed to Netanyahu’s person, would not be able to form a coalition cabinet unless they are supported by the United Arab List led by Mansour Abbas. Abbas, who has Islamist leanings, has declared his clear objections to Israel’s actions in Jerusalem. This means that repression by Israeli police which is supported by all Zionist political parties, including the Bloc for Change, would prevent Abbas from supporting Lapid’s coalition efforts out of concern for losing his popularity among Arab Israelis.
Secondly, Netanyahu thought that escalating tensions with Palestinians would hinder attempts by the Biden administration to relaunch the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians based on a two-state solution – which is rejected by most of Israel’s right-wing parties. Thirdly, based on Netanyahu’s political experience, raising fear among Israelis of Palestinian aspirations and security conditions in general could shore up his teetering position, resulting from corruption and abuse of power charges against him. Therefore, a limited, vicious confrontation with Palestinians may increase his popularity in general and among right-wing voters in particular.
However, Netanyahu’s calculations failed him. The limited clashes he wanted have evolved into all-out war, forcing half the population of Israel to race to bomb shelters to avoid intense rocket attacks (until 15 May, nearly 3,000 rockets and shells rained on Israel). Even worse were the violent clashes in mixed cities, where Arabs and Jews live side by side, such as Jaffa, Haifa, Acre, Jerusalem, Lod, etc. Arabs clashed with Jewish extremists and Israeli security forces. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin described the situation as a harbinger of civil war in Israel.
It is most likely that Netanyahu will be strongly censured after the fighting ends and a truce is reached with Hamas. He will not gain much from the ceasefire that mediators are currently trying to bring about, since it is most likely that Israeli public opinion will push for an investigation into what happened in this war. Netanyahu will be required to answer several crucial questions. Did intelligence briefings before the crisis warn him against tampering with the situation? Did he intentionally ignore these reports in pursuit of political gains? Or was there an intelligence failure and miscalculation by Israeli security agencies?
Regarding the performance of the army, why did the Iron Dome anti-missile system fail to confront the rockets launched by Hamas? If it was known that this system is only effective in countering individual missile attacks or a handful at once but unable to confront intense firepower or from several launching points at once, why did Netanyahu risk provoking Hamas into intense missile attacks even though he knew this would endanger the lives of millions of Israelis?
Why was the public not informed ahead of time about what Israeli intelligence anticipated in this war? Netanyahu will also have to answer to whether he was aware of the risk of the policies adopted in Jerusalem and Sheikh Jarrah for Arab-Jewish relations inside Israel, how he should have anticipated this possibility, but failed to predict the outcome, and whether he intentionally implemented these policies to serve the radical right wing he is leading.
Other than what Netanyahu could face during an investigation, Israel’s radical right wing may not forgive Netanyahu if he leaves this war with a deal that is limited to restoring a truce. Many right-wing leaders such as Naftali Bennet, leader of Yamina Party, and Avigdor Lieberman have been asking for years to take advantage of any extensive war in Gaza to overthrow Hamas there and so end the perpetual threat it poses to Israel. On the other hand, Netanyahu will be severely criticised by those who believe peace with Palestinians is the only means to avoid such wars.
For Hamas, clashes between Israeli security forces and residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood were an opportunity to portray itself as the sole defender of Jerusalem, as opposed to the Palestinian Authority (PA) that refused to hold elections on the pretext that Israel would not allow East Jerusalem residents to vote.
Political competition between Hamas and the PA for monopolising the Palestinian cause in general, and Jerusalem in particular, caused Hamas to make a serious strategic mistake when it did not calculate the Israeli response to heavy rocket attacks against Israeli cities. At the beginning, Hamas demanded that Israel must first stop its actions in Jerusalem and Sheikh Jarrah, withdraw its security forces from there, and allow Muslim worshippers to reach Al-Aqsa Mosque unhindered, in order for it to stop attacking Israeli cities. Now, it seems, the group is being offered a mutual ceasefire only and, if it agrees to this, it would mean Hamas failed to prove its ability to defend Jerusalem Palestinians.
When Gaza residents wake up from the nightmare of Israeli air raids, the question will be: Why did Hamas undertake this war which only brought more suffering to Gazans while not serving any cause, whether for Jerusalem or Arab Israelis? Palestinian public opinion, especially in Gaza, may also ask about the role of foreign players such as Iran, Turkey and Qatar in pushing Hamas to take risks that come at a high cost for the Palestinian people, but benefit regional powers that have special interests whether with Israel or the US.
The victim is always the Palestinian on the street.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly