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Viewed in isolation, Israel's current “Operation Protective Edge” has relatively modest ambitions. It's not envisaged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a game-changer; more like another round of what is known in the Israeli security establishment as “mowing of the lawn” – a periodic degrading of Hamas' military capacity. Netanyahu's other strategic goal is to disrupt the fledgling effort at Palestinian reconciliation between the key rival national organizations, Fatah and Hamas. Even Israel's ground incursion has set the limited goal of destroying tunnels and rocket launching sites.
Hamas, too, does not believe its rocket fire will fundamentally reframe the Israeli-Palestinian equation – indeed, it made clear at the outset that this was a confrontation it preferred to avoid. The movement has been so squeezed by its isolation in Gaza, intensified by the hostility of Egypt since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, that it had pursued the reconciliation deal with Fatah on unfavorable terms. Even that did not ease the pressure, particularly with the continued non-payment of salaries in Gaza.
When the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is written, Israel’s four wars (and counting) in Gaza following its 2005 disengagement may assume a significance greater than was obvious at the time. Taken together, the Israeli operations of 2006, 2008, 2012 and 2014 may signal the demise of the two-state solution with the decisive reinforcement of the separation between Gaza and the West Bank. Those two territories had once been viewed as the basis of a Palestinian state; today Gaza is well on its way to becoming an enclave of enduring unclear political status and an island of permanent Palestinian misery, while Israel deepens its grip on the West Bank amid a growing chorus in its political class demanding annexation of much or all of the territory.
Squaring the conflicting Israeli and Hamas tactical goals in the current confrontation would be challenging but doable, were it not for two additional complicating factors – Egypt’s hostility to Gaza’s Hamas rulers, and Western as well as regional timidity.
Having deposed the Muslim Brotherhood and pursued a relentless and often violent campaign against its members, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El Sisi views the movement’s Palestinian progeny, Hamas, through the lens of his own domestic power struggle. And Cairo’s anti-Hamas agenda has shaped Egypt’s cease-fire efforts. Palestinian analyst Mouin Rabbani suggested last week that “there is widespread Palestinian suspicion that Egypt [had] released a proposal it ensured would be acceptable to Israel but rejected by the Palestinians, in order to help Israel legitimize an escalation of attacks against the Gaza Strip.”
The second factor militating against a truce is the heightened sense of impunity among Israel’s leaders resulting from the absence of Western pressure for restraint, and of the merciful lack of any significant casualty count on the Israeli side, as well as the changed regional dynamic.
The diplomatic cover provided by the U.S. in such moments has long encouraged Israel’s more bellicose tendencies, and there is currently no serious Western effort to secure a cease-fire. European leaders meeting in Brussels last week offered a tepid call for de-escalation, ending their statement with an invitation to Israel, somewhat bizarre under the circumstances, to join a Special Privileged Partnership and to share in prosperity with Europe.
Western timidity on Israel is nothing new, but the protection offered to Israel’s cities by the Iron Dome system is. The fact that hundreds of rockets being fired at Israel’s population centers are causing only negligible casualties is to be welcomed. By diminishing the deterrent power of Hamas’ arsenal, however, it has also allowed for a more protracted Israeli operation.
And a changed regional political equation has diminished the priority sometimes accorded by Arab leaders to the Palestinian plight, removing another restraint on Israeli action. The Fatah-Hamas divide is framed by regional fault lines that set the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies against an anti-Brotherhood coalition, as well as the ongoing strategic competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. That’s why there are currently two cease-fire initiatives in play: one emanating from Egypt; the other from Qatar and Turkey – each driven by different goals. All of which leaves Israel with a much freer hand.
But if Israel has greater freedom of action now than during any of its previous Gaza offensives, what will it try to achieve? Under growing pressure from his ultra-nationalist rightwing allies, that may be a question Prime Minister Netanyahu would prefer to avoid. In the West Bank, he’s under pressure to annex; in Gaza, to restore total control on the ground. But Netanyahu prefers to advance Israeli controlby increments rather than through dramatic changes. He has also made clear that he has no interest in pursuing a political settlement based on creating an independent Palestinian state.
Of the three Israeli options for Gaza currently under consideration – prolonged reoccupation, Palestinian control under a unified authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas or continued control by a weakened Hamas amid Palestinian division – Netanyahu’s statements and actions signal that his preference is for the latter option.
The dynamics, however, may shift.
Despite his caution, Netanyahu may be tempted to make a more permanent statement. He opposed Ariel Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal in 2005, and proposed that Israel retain control of the so-called Philadelphi route, the narrow strip along the border between Gaza and Egypt. The current operation will raise the temptation to do that now, as well as to expand the “buffer zone” inside Gaza adjacent to Israel, to which Israel (illegally) prohibits access and which is already a source of tension. A more far-reaching option would be to maintain a military presence deep inside Gaza along arterial routes to separate Palestinian cities – much as Israel does in the West Bank, albeit without reintroducing settlements. Such schemes remain unlikely, but the longer the current operation continues, the more they will come under consideration.
Hamas’ calculations are different, and militate against it accepting the Israeli idea of “quiet for quiet,” in which Palestinians refrain from firing at Israel but Gaza remains under blockade. The requirement under previous truce agreements for opening the crossings into Gaza have not been implemented by Israel, or indeed by Egypt. And regional and Western powers have failed to insist that cease-fire terms are congruent with the goal of reintegrating Gaza into any wider political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The mounting Palestinian body count is raising pressure to end the latest round of bloodletting, and United Nations mediation may overcome the Egypt problem, but even then, the tectonic plates of the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict are shifting. With the denouement of the two-state peace process, Netanyahu is betting that the status quo can continue. But without the promise of an independent Palestinian state and an end to the occupation, he has effectively brought the conflict full circle, back to the lines of 1948 when the majority of Gaza’s current population and their forebears were first driven from their homes and land inside Israel.
Israel claims security needs and likens itself to any other Western democracy under external threat, but what a growing body of international public opinion sees is a different narrative: Other Western democracies are not involved in the occupation of another people that strips them of their rights, dignity and humanity. Israel’s actions in Gaza, in concert with those in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and even inside Israel itself, are seen less like an act of self-defense and more like an attempt to further marginalize Palestinians. That was the scenario U.S. Secretary of State Kerry briefly referenced earlier this year when he warned that Israel’s leaders risked facing the same international isolation as was directed at apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.