When it comes to Israel’s conflict with Palestinian organizations in Gaza, the past is sadly prologue more often than not. Last weekend’s Egyptian-brokered ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad after five days of rockets and airstrikes won’t end the conflict even if it holds long enough to resolve this round of fighting.
Since Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 to escape the burdens of an occupation, the Israel Defense Forces have undertaken no less than 15 significant military operations. Indeed, an even more threatening Israeli-Palestinian conflagration looms. Here are four important questions explaining what just happened — and what’s coming next.
1. What was at the heart of the flare-up?
The current conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad began with Islamic Jihad launching more than 100 rockets from Gaza in retaliation for the death of one of their officials, which resulted from a hunger strike the official undertook while being detained by Israel for support of terrorism and incitement.
Aaron David Miller - Courtesy Aaron David Miller
Backed and heavily influenced by Iran, Islamic Jihad focuses on armed struggle against Israel and isn’t interested in governance. (In contrast, Hamas, the largest of the other Palestinian groups operating in Gaza and the de facto government of the strip, aspires to take over the leadership of the Palestinians from the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.)
The Israeli Defense Forces responded to the rockets by trying to degrade the organization, targeting rocket storage and manufacturing facilities as well as members of the group. Islamic Jihad said the IDF killed 11 of its leaders. Of the 35 people killed in total, the strikes resulted in the deaths of 10 Palestinian civilians (at least one of them by Islamic Jihad fire) and one Israeli.
By day five, both sides may have reached the conclusion that their immediate objectives had been realized, while Islamic Jihad may also have come under pressure from Egypt and Hamas to stand down. But while Israeli strikes clearly damaged the group’s operational capacity, over time it will regenerate and identify new commanders.
2. Why didn’t Hamas join in?
Israel avoided hitting Hamas leaders and infrastructure during the current campaign since doing so would have broadened the conflict, triggering Hamas’ more accurate and larger stockpile of high-trajectory weapons, risking more Israeli casualties and, if the situation truly deteriorated, necessitating the use of Israeli ground forces in Gaza — something no Israeli prime minister, least of all the risk-averse Benjamin Netanyahu, has wanted.
It may seem counterintuitive, but Israel and Hamas need one another in Gaza. Hamas, while still committed to fighting Israel, needs it to allow entry to some 20,000 Gazans who work in Israel, as well as the import and export of basic goods.
Though Hamas probably welcomed Israel’s efforts to degrade Islamic Jihad, its competitor as well as its ally, the last thing Hamas seems to want right now is an escalation that destroys essential infrastructure and contributes to the public’s hardships. Hamas has other priorities for the present — among them trying to undermine the Palestinian Authority.
For Israel, the inconvenient truth is that, as Israeli security and intelligence officials have admitted to me, they view Hamas as a stabilizing force to control Gaza and are fearful of the consequences — as is Egypt — of a vacuum of power. Furthermore, for the right-wing Netanyahu government, Hamas’ militancy offers another justification for why Israel cannot and should not negotiate with the Palestinians for a state of their own.
3. Is this ‘Wag the Dog’?
Yes and no. One could be forgiven for believing that last week’s military engagement was informed by the movie that saw a US president start a superfluous war to avoid a domestic scandal. Netanyahu is facing mass protests for trying to limit the power of the judiciary, which would give the right freer rein.
No doubt Netanyahu was eager to change the channel, reassert his authority and burnish his security credentials as prime minister. For now, he seems to have succeeded; Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, whom Netanyahu had tried to fire six weeks before over his opposition to the judicial changes, expressed public admiration for Netanyahu’s performance.
The prime minister was also able to make clear his dominance over Israel’s security policies by not allowing the security cabinet — of which outspoken agitator Itamar Ben-Gvir is a member as the minister of national security — to play a role in the operation.
Still, Netanyahu was not looking for a war, and he knows, given the political tumult in the country over his judicial overhaul, neither was the Israeli public. But he can’t mind that, if the Gaza ceasefire holds, it provides a temporary distraction from his political travails. Indeed, for the first time in 19 weeks, organizers cancelled the massive Saturday night protest in Tel Aviv.
4. When will the fighting resume?
Maybe soon. The Egyptian-brokered ceasefire will buy a little quiet, but not much. Indeed, it’s only a matter of time — days, weeks, months — until the next Gaza go-round.
Meanwhile, a broader confrontation looms. Israel and the Palestinians are trapped in a strategic cul-de-sac with little promise of finding a way out. And a perfect storm is building. The Palestinian Authority cannot control terror and violence by individuals, let alone organized groups. In Israel, the most fundamentalist government in the country’s history is committed to Israel’s exclusive control over the West Bank — expanding settlements, confiscating land and doing little to stop settler violence to make that control permanent.
Given the volatile mix of fundamentalist flame-throwing ministers in the Israeli government, extremist settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and a Hamas eager to continue the armed struggle in Jerusalem, the West Bank and mixed Arab-Jewish cities within Israel, and even from southern Lebanon, it’s a wonder there hasn’t already been a major explosion.
Thursday is Jerusalem Day, which commemorates the reunification of Jerusalem after Israel captured the east part of the city during the 1967 war. It’s replete with a right-wing flag march through the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. Last year during the march, there was significant rioting; the year before, Hamas launched rockets in the area of Jerusalem to start an 11-day Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza that saw the worst violence between Jews and Arabs in Israel proper since the State of Israel was created.
The only meaningful intervention could come from the United States. To make a real difference, the Biden administration would need to define a political horizon — a two-state solution and a general approach on issues such as borders, refugees and Jerusalem — and then a set of steps Israelis and Palestinians would need to take to reverse the current terrible environment and to create a better one for negotiations.
For the Israelis, that would include curtailing settlements and land confiscation. For the Palestinians, it would mean ramping up security cooperation and cracking down on terror cells. Not much short of that has much of a chance of making a difference, but Washington does not seem inclined or even capable of attempting that right now.
Perhaps there’s no better way to capture the sense of what may be coming than the line from John Buchan’s classic World War I novel “Greenmantle”: “There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spark.”
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