by Claudia De Martino. An expert on Political Thought for Colonization and Decolonization at the Coris department of Sapienza University
All wars, perhaps, seem useless in hindsight. And in this latest conflict that pits Israel against Hamas and Islamic jihad, it is impossible to see a winner. After 11 days of war, a ceasefire between the parties was declared, but the new truce will not substantially change any of the facts of the conflict: neither the tight blockade to which the Gaza Strip has been subjected for fifteen years, nor the continuous Israeli expansionism in the Old City and in the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem — such as the Temple Mount and Sheikh Jarrah, from which the Palestinian revolt against the usurpations of Israeli settlers began. Also unchanged are the distance and the asymmetry that distinguishes the positions between the two parties, cyclically fighting each other, but with an evident disproportion of victims to each conflict: the last operation, Protective Edge in 2014, was mutually discontinued with 70 Israeli and 2,310 Palestinian victims.
It is therefore legitimate to ask the question about what objective the Palestinian side pursued with the launch of its latest offensive, which coincided with the ultimatum—launched last May 10 by Mohammed Deif, head of the ʿIzz al-Dīn al-Qassām Brigades, the military arm of Hamas—about the violence of the Israeli police against Palestinian demonstrators at the Temple Mount. Hamas has led the battle for resistance to the continued expulsion of Palestinians from Jerusalem, and also the protest against the progressive marginalization of the “Palestinian question” from the international agenda. Hamas claims that the people of the Gaza Strip were already strangled by unsustainable living conditions – no drinking water, partial electricity supply, open-air garbage piling up, a 70% unemployment rate, 80% of the population dependent on donations from foreign countries, and the spread of COVID-19 in the face of the administration of a few vaccines. Further complicating these difficult conditions is the sudden absence of prospects for change, given the indefinite suspension of the Palestinian elections announced on 30 April, including those for the renewal of representation of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In conclusion, the approximately 2 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip have nothing to lose because they have nothing positive to expect from the future.
The political calculation of Hamas has been, therefore, that it would have been possible to reach a “point of no return” for the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip, already penalized by the ban on the elections, if it had silently tolerated the latest series of arrogant gestures carried out by the Israeli security forces. Those offenses began on May 8 with an order to block the Muslim faithful traveling from the Occupied Territories to the Temple Mount to celebrate of the end of Ramadan, and lasted until the entrance of armed Israeli police forces into the Al-Aqsa esplanade itself on May 9th. This series of abuses should have ideally ended on May 10 with the annual “nationalist flag parade” through the alleys of the Arab quarter of the Old City led by Itamar Ben Gvir, deputy of Otzma Yehudit—the Israeli nationalist extreme Right represented in Parliament. At that point, the Palestinians would have felt a sense of profound helplessness and frustration in the face of external events that continually overwhelm them, denying their collective existence and fundamental aspirations in the face of the complicit silence of the Palestine National Authority and al-Fatah, the largest faction of the confederated multi-party Palestine Liberation Organization. The decision of Hamas to take action through the usual launch of rockets—even if, militarily speaking, an end in itself—is therefore consequential, even if it does not amount to eventual conquest or a military advantage. But it advances a symbolic statement on the part of a political leadership confronted with painful internal choices, interested in alleviating the feelings of defeat and abandonment borne by the Palestinian public, whose opinion is still orphaned of representation, which no longer feels “protected” by any political force or supported by the international community.
The calculation made on the Israeli side is completely opposite. For Interim Premier Benyamin Netanyahu, Hamas’ rocket launch intervened as a “providential” intervention at a difficult time when his exploratory mandate had run out. At the same moment his main rival, Yair Lapid, obtained on May 5th the task of setting up a “government of change” which would have had the main objective of replacing Netanyahu in power, which he has held continuously since 2009. The 3,000 rockets from the Gaza Strip certainly did not represent a threat to the Jewish state and to the IDF—the twentieth army in the world supported by the United States superpower—but rather a double opportunity. The outgoing Premier recognized the possibility of diverting the attention of Israeli public opinion from his three trials, directing the trend of public support toward the Right, a position presented once again as Israel’s only “shield”; and for the IDF, the incidents constituted an ideal testing ground for its Iron Dome missile defense system, without risk of significant human losses, as the operation was exclusively focused on air strikes.
The immediate political result was clearly positive: it nullified any prospect of building a “coalition for change,” since Yamina’s Naftali Bennet approached the outgoing Premier from a perspective of superior national interest, as did Netanyahu’s former rival Benny Gantz and the divisive Likudnik leader Gideon Sa’ar, who had established a new party (ha-Tikvà ha-Hadashà—New Hope) precisely around the opposition to Netanyahu. The sudden outbreak of the war favored Netanyahu from all points of view: he could obtain a new mandate starting the day after June 5, the date of the expiration of Yair Lapid’s current office, or in any case extend his interim government in view of a fifth electoral round, given the failure of the other party to create a majority. The war also met with the strong support of the Jewish public opinion which, for the most part, feels a strong indifference towards the Gaza Strip, with only partial knowledge of the living conditions there, and considers itself the victim of thousands of rockets—an explosion of sudden, irrational violence. In the Israeli public consciousness, as well as that of many international actors, including Egypt, the US and the EU, the Palestinian attack is branded as “terrorism,” that is, dangerous and illegitimate.
The script is thus repeated, unchanged, and yet there are new elements that, with each further clash, radicalize the positions of the parties: first of all, the Arab-Jewish clash that took place inside Israel between May 10 and 12, particularly in mixed cities like Lod and Haifa, but also in places like Bat Yam on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. These clashes have seen the most radical segments of the two communities face each other, but also those most ignored by their respective ruling classes. They revealed to the Israeli public that there are fanatical elements within the Jewish community who are not afraid to incite racial hatred by shouting “death to the Arabs” and lynching, as well as the existence of a repressed rage and violence deeply widespread in Arab side and which can explode at any moment. This fact originates in the marginalization of part of the Arab community in Israel, which suffers approximately 93 murders per year that are treated with general impunity: though violence is deplored by the Arab minority of Israel, and it is also systematically ignored by the Israeli police. Finally, the clashes between Arabs and Israelis in mixed cities could lead to the cancellation of all the progress made up until 10 May regarding the possible establishment of a ruling Arab party or its partial legitimation through external support to the ruling coalition. The deepest scars will therefore also be seen on the Israeli side: not only in the fraying of the internal social fabric, but also in the lack of development that the more progressive (or pragmatic) segment of the two communities hoped for.
Hamas and Netanyahu represent the most backward portion of the two national groups that face each other: both, unable to cancel each other out, must necessarily find a formula of coexistence, and they find it in transitory truces alternating with repeating asymmetrical cycles of war that give a minimum of political legitimacy to Hamas, but at the cost of many civilian casualties, and guarantee the uninterrupted continuity of power of the Israeli Right.
Is it possible to imagine a different scenario in which in 2028—or perhaps even earlier—a new ephemeral dynamic of military conflict like the one we are currently witnessing will not be repeated? Yes—but it is necessary to reformulate the perspective through which the conflict is interpreted to realize that it is no longer a clash between “two or three states,” or rather between a David-state against a Goliath-state, but of a Palestinian people with no lasting leadership or political representation that fights for its own survival against a powerful state that is increasingly emphasizing an ethnic character. Israel boasts of being the largest democracy in the Middle East, but it increasingly reveals its fragility—to use the words of Samy Cohen–and which—as revealed by a recent report by the NGO Human Rights Watch–is even at risk of apartheid.
Ph © Jakob Rubner / CopyLeft