Breaking Down the Current Gaza Conflict

May 14, 2021
Josh Lipowsky  —  CEP Senior Research Analyst

As of Thursday, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) had launched more than 1,200 rockets toward southern Israel, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, killing at least seven Israelis and wounding 46. In Gaza, the Hamas-run health ministry reported at least 109 people had been killed. As of last night, Israel said it had struck more than 700 Hamas targets inside Gaza and killed 50 Hamas operatives and 10 senior commanders. Hamas and PIJ confirmed 20 deaths between the two groups.

The current fighting is the worst between Hamas and Israel since their 2014 war, and it shows no signs of abating quickly. Egyptian mediators were reportedly in Israel yesterday attempting to broker a new ceasefire, but Hamas rejected an Egyptian request for a three-hour lull to further discussions. But while the consequences of this week have been deadly for both sides, there is also a sense Israel and Hamas have been here before. Each engagement has followed a similar pattern of Hamas launching barrages of rockets and Israel responding with air and ground forces, eventually resulting in a ceasefire under which both sides claim victory as Israel makes a strong statement against Hamas, which claims victory just for surviving. Since the end of the last confrontation in 2014, there have been flare-ups but Gaza has been relatively quiet—with the exception of a brief confrontation in 2018 that also ended in a ceasefire. To determine why this is happening now, we must ask who benefits from this? Let’s look at the key players.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Bibi is fighting for his political life after Israel held its fourth round of elections in two years. While his Likud again gained the most votes, he remains unable to form a stable coalition, opening the possibility that Israel’s longest-serving prime minister could be deposed. A statement against Hamas would do well to drive up his popularity among his coveted rightwing supporters. But this is not Bibi’s first major engagement with Hamas during his tenure. Each other instance ended in a ceasefire agreement as Israel drove into Gaza but ultimately left Hamas intact. It seems unlikely—though not impossible—that this conflict will end similarly. And then Bibi will be back in his political trials, as well as a criminal trial on bribery charges. Even as Israel calls up its reserves to the Gaza border, political opponents Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid seek to strike their own political blows against the prime minister. Making a statement against Hamas might give Bibi a temporary boost, but it is primarily a distraction that is not likely to save his political career. And while the Israeli right is calling for decisive victory over Hamas, this is not a conflict it wants. Israel’s rightwing is divided in its support of Netanyahu and the nation remains frozen without a fully functioning government. Further, the right wants to see the continued expansion of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, and the international spotlight this would-be war casts means they are unable to move forward without eliciting heavy criticism—particularly from the United States—at a time when Israel needs its international allies.
Verdict: Short-term but no ultimate benefit.

Mahmoud Abbas: Abbas is in the sixteenth year of his four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority. The PA had planned to hold its long-stalled parliamentary elections this month and presidential elections this summer. After polling suggested neither Hamas nor Abbas’s Fatah party could win a majority, the rivals negotiated an agreement for a unified government after the elections. But Abbas still feared a Hamas victory similar to its 2006 win—the last time the PA held parliamentary elections. Hamas and Fatah have tried sharing power before with disastrous results, and there is little guarantee Hamas would abide by any agreement if it surged in elections. Abbas seized on a gift from Israel, which said it would not allow Palestinians in east Jerusalem to vote in the PA elections. On April 29, Abbas postponed—again—the elections until Jerusalem’s Palestinians could participate. Abbas has used Jerusalem voting as an excuse in the past to delay the elections, and Israel has allowed voting there before. What Abbas needed was to appear to the Palestinian people as a strong leader. The Jerusalem issue offered Abbas the perfect excuse to delay the elections and claim a propaganda victory against Israel. But this conflict reveals his irrelevance. Intervening against Hamas would make Abbas look like an Israeli collaborator, even if it is in the best interests of the Palestinian people—and Hamas would use that against him politically. And Abbas cannot appear to cooperate with his arch-political rival Hamas, as that would endanger the PA’s fledgling renewed ties with the United States. The president of the Palestinian Authority is instead sitting powerless on the sidelines waiting for Israel and Hamas to decide the immediate fate of half the Palestinian population.
Verdict: Detriment.

Hamas: After Abbas delayed Palestinian elections last month, voices within Hamas’s political bloc called for the severance of all ties with him. Based on the outcome of its past conflicts with Israel, Hamas is gambling that it can give Israel a bloody nose and eventually there will a ceasefire agreement that eases some restrictions on Gaza. Gaza will again be devastated but Hamas can use that as a propaganda tool against Israel to rally support. With the delay of Palestinian elections, Hamas has time to engage in this conflict with Israel and spin itself as the hero of the Palestinian people that fought back against Israeli incursions and achieved victory against the Jewish state—even if that means only surviving the assault. Hamas can then cast Abbas and his Fatah party as incapable of bettering the lives of the Palestinians—or Israel-collaborating stooges—in the hopes of boosting its political fortunes. As in the past, reconstruction aid is likely to pour into Gaza from Qatar, Turkey, and other international sources, benefiting the Hamas-run construction industry and aiding the terror group in replenishing its arsenal and rebuilding its tunnel systems beneath the Gaza-Israel border.
Verdict: Benefit.

Final Verdict: Out of the three major parties involved, Hamas is the only one that stands to benefit. And it has no reason to believe that this engagement will end differently than past confrontations with Israel. Both Netanyahu and Abbas are politically weaker than they were during the past wars, and if one or both should fall politically afterward Hamas can claim another victory—as it did in 2018 after Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman resigned from Israel’s government. This confrontation has already killed scores of innocent Palestinians. But just as there is no such thing as bad publicity, no Palestinian life is wasted in the service of Hamas’s propaganda war.

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