The War That Shouldn’t Have Been

Israel and Hamas had reached a pragmatic arrangement for years. How it was upended

The War That Shouldn’t Have Been
Smoke rises from a tower building destroyed by Israeli air strikes amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence in Gaza City/May 12, 2021/Ahmed Zakot/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Israel and Gaza are at war again. That may be nothing new, but it really wasn’t meant to happen this time.

After weeks of tensions, days of clashes, and a particularly violent morning, the situation on the ground in the Old City of Jerusalem on Monday afternoon was, if anything, relatively calm.

Israeli security forces had been deployed en masse in the wake of the earlier clashes with Palestinian worshippers near the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, and ahead of a planned march by Jewish ultranationalists through Muslim neighborhoods to mark the anniversary of the city’s capture in the 1967 war.

Israeli riot police manning the Old City’s narrow cobblestone warrens seemed bored, as did the Palestinian youth hanging about nearby. When Israeli authorities decided to change the provocative march’s route, on the correct assumption that it would only inflame the situation, local merchants rejoiced: they could remain open, selling sweets and drinks to devotees that had been observing the Ramadan fast.

This came after Jewish groups were banned from ascending to the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, site of the Second Jewish Temple, and after the Supreme Court postponed a decision on the eviction of several Palestinian families from their homes in a nearby neighborhood in favor of Jewish settlers.

All told, it appeared that after weeks of malign neglect, if not active meddling, the Israeli government had stepped back from the brink.

What few in Israel’s national security establishment saw coming was that Hamas would actively join the fray. The militant group, which controls Gaza, fired a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem for the first time in seven years.

As of this writing, over 80 Palestinians in Gaza have reportedly been killed and nearly 500 injured, with the Israeli military saying at least half of those killed were terrorist operatives; six Israeli civilians and one soldier have been killed, with dozens more injured civilians.

As recently as this past weekend, the Israeli military assessed that Hamas was not looking for a major escalation in Gaza.

As recently as this past weekend, the Israeli military assessed that Hamas was not looking for a major escalation in Gaza. The Islamist movement in 2007 seized control of the coastal territory in a violent coup against its secular rivals in the Palestinian Authority. Israel responded by blockading the territory (along with Egypt) on the assumption that the group’s rule would collapse if it was isolated.

This decidedly didn’t happen. The Gazan people suffered greatly under the yoke of the blockade, but Hamas maintained its rule via a regime of “steel and fire,” as one Palestinian official put it: the use of force and intimidation. But a solution to its macroeconomic crisis had to be found. “The sovereign loses,” Sheikh Hassan Youssef, a Hamas leader in the West Bank, once admitted to me, referring to the burden of governance.

In a bid to push back against the blockade and secure some humanitarian and financial relief, Hamas launched several escalatory rounds. “Negotiations via rocket fire,” it was termed, the calibrated use of force to secure concessions from Israel – and it worked.

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. 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.

Under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Hamas regime in Gaza has gained monthly cash payments from Qatar (sent through Israeli territory), infrastructure improvements (plans for new electricity lines and natural gas pipelines), thousands of permits for Gazans to work again inside Israel, and even an independent commercial crossing with Egypt.

Whenever Israel strayed from the understandings reached or was slow in implementing them, Hamas sent a reminder, usually in the form of rocket fire. And after every such escalation, no matter how severe, the cease-fire talks affirmed both the “quiet” and the easing measures for Gaza.

Which is what led the Israeli military to assess that, even amid the weeks of unrest, Hamas wouldn’t jeopardize these gains and that the established “rules of the game,” as defense officials unofficially call it, would be observed.

This assumption exploded over Jerusalem with Monday’s rocket fire, which predictably drew a severe Israeli response: immediate airstrikes on Gaza targeting Hamas and other militant factions, which have continued in tandem with Palestinian rocket fire.

So the question needs to be asked: If it was not seeking economic or other forms of relief as usual, what is Hamas looking to achieve politically by breaking with past habits?

The strategy of extracting concessions from Israel via the calibrated use of force really began in earnest after 2017, when Hamas official Yahya Sinwar rose to become the group’s political leader in Gaza. Israeli security officials speak of him in reverential terms, as a ruthless, cunning adversary due to his icy pragmatism and knowledge of Israeli politics.

“He sat in Israeli jail [for over two decades], and he learned us and our language,” one senior Israeli defense official told me last year, acknowledging that Sinwar had a coherent strategy that was still being tested. It was under Sinwar’s watch that Hamas succeeded in dramatically shifting Israeli policy toward the group — playing on the aforementioned Israeli fears of indefinite occupation and unclear exit strategy after a ground offensive in Gaza. But perhaps it simply wasn’t enough.

Sinwar almost lost his post in internal Hamas elections this past March, a sure sign of discontent towards him within the movement. The perceived strongman of Gaza needed a run-off election with a rival from the old guard – viewed as more traditional and hard-line – in order to prevail. Indicatively, last week it was Hamas’s shadowy military commander Mohammed Deif – not Sinwar – that issued the ultimatums toward Israel over Jerusalem.

“This is our final warning: If the aggression against our people in [Jerusalem] does not stop immediately, we will not stand idly by, and the occupation will pay a heavy price,” Deif declared in a rare public statement.

In recent days it’s been Ismael Haniyeh, Hamas’s overall political leader once viewed as having been overshadowed by Sinwar, that has made public pronouncements on Jerusalem.

“When Jerusalem called, Gaza answered,” Haniyeh said on Tuesday when reaffirming that Hamas’ new policy would now inextricably link the two.

Jerusalem, to be sure, has always been at the core of Palestinian identity. But in recent weeks the status of the contested city has taken on even greater urgency.

Palestinian legislative elections (last held 15 years ago) were abruptly canceled by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in late April. The pretext was Israel not allowing the vote in East Jerusalem, with Abbas calling the city a “red line” – although his real motive was likely fear of a dismal showing by his Fatah faction.

Hamas, for its part, followed suit, holding Israel responsible as well and competing with Fatah for who best could defend Palestinian interests in the holy city. It’s not a coincidence that, as it does battle with Israel, Hamas termed its recent escalation “Operation Sword of Jerusalem.”

“Everything we’ve seen in Jerusalem since [elections were called off] only confirms the decision [to call off the elections],” one Palestinian official told me recently. “We were right.”

Israeli intelligence officials allege Hamas helped further escalate the Jerusalem unrest in a bid to destabilize not only Israel’s control over the city but also Abbas’s Palestinian Authority in the adjoining West Bank – a long-term goal of the group’s. With the political route blocked to them via the ballot box, Hamas may have taken a strategic decision to attempt a putsch by embarrassing the PA into joining the fray and wrecking its relationship with Israel (it has so far refrained from doing so).

More worrisome from Israel’s point of view is the impact the escalation has had on internal Israeli politics and society.

In recent nights violent riots have taken place in mixed Arab-Jewish cities and towns inside Israel proper. According to reports, roving gangs of Arab-Israeli youth have burned synagogues, attacked Jewish passerby, and raised Palestinian flags in some locales amid intercommunal clashes that Israel’s police commissioner has called the worst in decades. Ultranationalist Jewish vigilantes have responded by attacking Arab-owned businesses and motorists, with Israeli officials considering the deployment of the military to help police quell the growing anarchy.

Israeli politics were already on a knife’s edge after four inconclusive elections in two years.

Israeli politics were already on a knife’s edge after four inconclusive elections in two years. In the wake of the most recent March poll, Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition; that task has now gone to a heterogeneous group of parties – from the left, center, and right – whose only common purpose is toppling the long-serving premier.

Before the violence truly worsened, opposition leaders were talking about forming a government perhaps as soon as next week – with the help of a small Arab-Israeli Islamist faction. Arab-Israeli political leaders over the past two years have sought to overturn their traditional stance of rejecting any involvement in official government business.

The latest Hamas-Israel fighting combined with Arab-Israeli communal violence may have buried those hopes. The Arab-Israeli Islamist faction temporarily suspended coalition talks on Monday amid the security crisis, and opposition leaders have come out in support of the government. It’s an open question whether the disparate parts of this incipient coalition can stay together amid the security emergency and rising tensions.

When this latest round of violence ends – and it will surely end, whether in two days or two weeks or two months – nothing will have changed except the number of dead on both sides. The need for all those in the Holy Land to live together in peace will only have grown more acute.

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