Israel and Palestine, a Strategic Background
Conflict has ravaged the holy land once again. The match that started the fire this time was the right to pray at the Al Aqsa mosque. At the beginning of the (Islamic) holy month of Ramadan, Israeli authorities imposed a limit of 10000 worshippers in the mosque, which is itself located in a compound of Jerusalem important to Islam, Christianity and Judaism. This triggered protests by Palestinians, who clashed with Israeli forces almost every night. Fuel was added to the flames in the form of complications regarding a legal appeal by Israeli settlers aiming to evict Palestinians from their homes. These incidents had only initiated a conflict that has been looming in the distance since the last Intifada (Holy war on Israel by Palestinians). Residents of the West Bank and Gaza were frustrated by the continuous setbacks on their dreams of a Palestinian Free State, dreams that has only been pushed further back by Washington’s recent approval of Jerusalem being appointed as the Israeli capital.
However, the full scale conflict that we then saw was directly triggered by a series of events that transpired on the holiest day of Ramadan, May 8th. Palestinians ignored the restrictions and gathered by the thousands to pray at the mosque. In retaliation, the Israeli forces closed off the Mosque, and used tear gas and stun grenades on the worshippers inside the holy building. Not many can blame Hamas for shooting hundreds of rockets into Israeli territory that night (most of which were successfully defended against), and not many can blame Israel for retaliating with airstrikes on rocket launch sites (which are usually hidden in civilian buildings). This escalation continued, with attacks on both sides mounting. While the answers remain shrouded in mystery, questions continue to mount. Were rockets fired from Lebanon and Syria? Is Hamas running out of ammunition? Can the state-of-the-art Israeli Iron Dome keep up with these attacks? The only thing we can be certain of at this point is the fact that things promise to get a lot worse. The question is, for whom? A ceasefire might have been agreed upon for now, but for reasons I will explain further, it promises not to last.
Palestinian Politics, inching towards fire:
Hamas is the last organised territorial resistance to the State of Israel. It controls the Gaza strip, a densely populated area blockaded both by Israel and Egypt. Scarcity is a way of life in the Gaza strip, and the reliance on Israeli aid is absolute. That militancy would arise from this land was not a matter of “if”, but a matter of “when”. On the western side of Israel lies the much larger West Bank. It is governed by the (relatively) moderate Fata, who lost elections to Hamas in 2006 and physical control over Gaza next year. It has retained control over the West Bank, which holds Jerusalem, and remains at odds with Hamas. At the same time, they are in agreement with Hamas to hold elections soon, but at an unspecified date.
Thus, with every rocket that Hamas fires into Israel in retribution for atrocities against Palestinians, it comes closer to claiming the status of the legitimate representative of Palestine. Whatever the reason for firing those rockets, the side effects will definitely play out in the upcoming elections.
The Israeli deadlock:
The leadership in Israel also has elections in mind. The Nation’s longest serving Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was in quite a pickle. After repeated re-elections and political bickering, he had been unsuccessful in his attempts to form a coalition government. His deadline approached in less than a month, and if he were to fail to remain on the chair as PM, there was a high possibility that he might be prosecuted for crimes that he was at the time only accused of. The picture of his political rivals, waiting for his defeat with fangs bared and legal notices ready, must surely be motivation enough to push him to desperate means. After twelve years in power, and 5 elections since 2019, his only hope lay in using rhetoric and nationalism to galvanise the public into giving him another term. To put it quite simply, the gears of the Israeli political machine were stuck, and many claim that Netanyahu has a vested interest in lubricating them with Palestinian (and Israeli) blood. However, his departure will in no way be a happy ending for anyone. The appeal of nationalist rhetoric in election speeches is high, and any leader after Netanyahu will have the same amount of, if not more, incentive to portray himself as the new Israeli strongman. Expecting a politician not to pluck so ripe a fruit is simple folly.
The Unexpected player that everyone expected, Iran:
The export of missile technology from Iran to Hamas has been a game changer. With the Arab nations abandoning the Palestinian cause (even those that aren’t active US allies), Iran has taken over leadership. Hamas is not an Irani puppet by any length, but its efforts to “make a lot of noise” as some put it, have greatly benefited through the procurement of missiles from the Persian nation. Proxy militias backed by Iran across Syria and Lebanon form Iran’s arc of influence along the Mediterranean, and they hold a large stockpile of missiles. Israel, faithful to the US dictum of being a “force of stability” in the middle east, has repeatedly engaged with Irani proxies in Syria, but has, so far, stayed away from the Lebanese Hezbollah. This is all a demonstrable effect of the power vacuum left by withdrawing forces on all sides. Currently, the effects of this new piece on an already complicated chessboard are still not entirely clear. However, with new determination on both Iran and America's side to create a functional nuclear deal, it will be interesting to see how their proxy conflict in the middle east (or this part of it at least) will play out.
Strategic objectives for Jerusalem:
The Isreali military objective is clear; prevent a prolonged missile campaign into the Israeli heartland. The delicate geography of the region has ensured that Israel will be extremely vary of any independent Palestinian state, and it is this same delicate geography that has forced Israel to come up with an overwhelmingly disproportionate response to every attack.
Israel’s political and cultural life is enclosed between the triangle created by the cities of Tel-Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. This region is the heart of the Israeli state, and enemy action so close to the centre is intolerable. The legendary Iron dome system does a good job of preventing the thousands of missiles launched by Palestinians from turning the region into a graveyard, but this system will not sustain for long. Attack technology always evolves faster than defensive capabilities, and for an organisation like the Hamas, which is able to use their meagre rockets so productively, the failure of Israeli defence technology is strategically inevitable. Thus, Israel responds overwhelmingly to every air attack, not caring for the tragic fact Hamas launch pads are usually civilian buildings. But then again, the justification of civilian casualties for military aims is not new. Many British passenger ships were sunk in the first world war by Germans alleging that they carried military equipment. To be fair, in both cases, the allegations were accurate quite a few times. According to the international rules of war, Israel is justified in attacking an enemy that hides behind schoolchildren and nurses. It is not accountable for the civilian casualties, legally speaking. But then again, neither was Germany.
Hamas is desperate. Their goal, at this point, is survival. For this survival, the lifting of the Egyptian and Israeli blockade is imperative. Therefore, a truce with Israel is necessary. Thus, to force the Israeli’s to the negotiating table, Hamas is using (or launching, rather) every trick in the book. But, as is usual in this part of the world, the situation is much more complicated than it seems. Israel is, naturally, unwilling to negotiate with Hamas. By ceding to the “terrorist” demands and giving Gaza an autonomous status, Israel will directly incentivise the leadership to fire a few more missiles before making their next demands. As explained earlier, production and usage of more missiles would be a fundamental risk to the Israeli heartland, and no Israeli strategist worth their salt is going to agree to such a system of negotiation. In fact, it seems that Israel would rather outright occupy Gaza than take the aforementioned alternative.
Occupation, another choice no one wants to make
Gaza is, in physical terms, small. However, it is densely populated and highly urbanized. Occupying Gaza would come at a huge cost to Israel. First, of course, the bad press. Furthermore, urban warfare with a highly motivated and resourceful terrorist group, amidst an incredibly hostile population is definitely not any army's battle of choice. The strategic advantages given to Hamas by fighting on its home stretch, with hiding and deploying being easy and the recent acquisition of anti tank weaponry, will more than cancel out the benefits of Israel’s better trained and much better equipped military. Furthermore, a prolonged missile campaign continuing alongside the attempted occupation could throw the political establishment of Israel, which will be busy trying to justify Israeli deaths to their country and Palestinian deaths to the world, into jeopardy. To put it simply, it seems unlikely that Israel will resort to outright occupation. At the same time, negotiating in this manner is not a favorable option.
The reason that this current crisis outstrips most recent ones in importance is that both sides have already crossed each other’s red lines. Scarcity has forced Hamas to roughly pull Israel onto the negotiating table. The Israelis would rather knock over the table, but will probably not do so. And even if, by some miracle, humanity wins over politics, and the leadership of the two sides seek to de-escalate, the nature of this multi generational conflict is such that it is going to be next to impossible. Frustrated constituents on both ends will force the hands of their politicians, there are simply too many dormant matches lying around for this haystack soaked in petroleum to not catch fire. Temporary peace might be negotiated, as it has, but it will be hard to reach a permanent consensus.
Lastly, one must remember the lesson that is hammered into every politician's mind. Never let a good crisis go to waste. And in this part of the world, there is no dearth of crises.