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Saturday, October 16, 2021

Could the cycle of vengeance between Israel and Hamas spark the third intifada?

At the time of writing the death toll on the side of Hamas has reached an unacceptable level of 166. Meanwhile, there are no causalities on the side of Israel. 

Israel has one of the most sophisticated missile defence systems in the world, which they used as a shield to protect their population from rocket attacks from the Gaza strip: the Iron Dome missile defence system, which is a US-funded, Israel-developed, missile shield. So far, it has intercepted three quarters of the rockets Hamas pummeled on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the commercial and political capital of Israel respectively. 

Israel and Hamas are two mortal foes, with a long history of conflict between the two. Whenever problem erupted, Israel deployed repressive and brute force to annihilate the group. But time and time again they have failed to accomplish their goal. Hamas emerged stronger, and more determined to wreak havoc on Israel.

The last intifada (uprising by Palestinians against Israeli occupation) was in 2000.  The death toll on the side of Palestine was 3,000. Israel registered 1,000 casualties. The trigger of an intifada can be very easy. The last one was caused when the late Ariel Sharon as prime minister of Israel visited the Temple Mount, which is seen by Palestinians and many Sunni Muslims as the third holiest site in Islam. Palestine Muslims took to the streets pelting Israeli Forces with stones, who in returned used tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons to repel them. What ensued was wanton destruction galore. 

In 2009, the terms of the ceasefire agreed in Egypt between the two states was violated. Israel launched Operation Cast Lead to “disrupt, destroy and de-legitimize” Hamas. The operation, like Operation Pillar of Defence before it, failed. During lull in hostilities, the two camps used it to build-up their military, and to replenish their lost stock of arms and ammunitions. That is the reality of one of the most prolonged perennial conflict of our time. 


The cause of this year’s violence  

The escalation of the violence this time emanated from the killing of three Israeli teenagers. Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gi-lad Shaar were first thought to be kidnapped by Hamas in the occupied West Bank whilst hitchhiking. The IDF sent soldiers to find the teenagers. What followed was a brutal crackdown on Palestinians. Homes were ransacked, suspects rounded up, properties vandalized, and four Palestinians dying from the search-related incident. 

The following Monday the bodies of the teenagers were found death in a field in Hebron. News of their death sent shockwaves through the government of Israel and its population. The official reaction was that “the people responsible will be hunted, prosecuted and brought to book. The group responsible will pay a heavy price for these despicable vile murders”. 

On Wednesday, in a pure act of revenge, three Israeli youths took the law in to their own hands, apparently devastated by the death of their loved ones. They also kidnapped and burned a Palestinian teenager, Mohamed Abu Khdeir, alive. The charred body of Khdeir was found in a forest at the outskirt of Jerusalem, prompting one of the worst riots ever seen in the West Bank. Blood-curdling messages were issued by Palestinians, as he was being buried. They vowed revenge against the Israelis.  In the pandemonium that followed the burial of Khdeir, his cousin, Tariq Abu Khdeir, fifteen years old, was snatched from protesters by some IDF forces and whisked away. When he re-appeared his face was shallow, with bold oozing out of his mouth, which indicated that he was badly beaten.     

Pressed by the international community, Israel investigated the killing of Mohamed Abu Khdeir. Three extremist Jews were arrested over the killing. The panel that was constituted by the Israeli government to look into the motive of the perpetrators of the killing found that the intentions of the three Jews was driven more “by nationalistic sentiment than criminal proclivity”. 

Incensed and infuriated, Hamas, which has suffered during the search of the slain Jewish teenagers, as they were seen as the prime suspect, started to launch rockets at Israel. Violence is violence, and should be condemned unreservedly no matter who committed it. The very fact that Israel stopped short of denouncing the motive of the arrested Jews as “criminal” deeply hurt Hamas. 

A joint statement by Israel’s outgoing president , Shimon Peres, and the incoming president, Reuben Rivlin, on one of the biggest newspapers in Israel, Yedioth Ahronoth, promising to get to the bottom of the issue, did nothing do placate an already irked Hamas.


The broader issue 

Like many problems in the Middle East, to put events into proper context, one has to look at deep-seated problems to identify the root causes of what ignites conflicts. While the repugnant killings of teenagers could be seen as the real cause of violence, in actual fact it is tangential to the broader issue.  

In April Hamas and Fatah, the other political faction in Palestine based in Ramallah led by Mahmoud Abass, formed a unity government. In Palestine this was seen as a great victory. But in Israel, which regards Hamas as a terrorist organization, it was seen as a massive setback. The move was interpreted by Israel as a power-grab. They suspected that Hamas wanted to spread its octopus-like tentacles within Palestine government by taking key important positions. 

With the strong footprint of Hamas on the Palestine government, it will be difficult for Palestine to make any consensus to Israel in the peace talks. They are seen as radicals and terrorist, whilst Fatah is seen as moderate and progressive. Intense talks were made behind-the-scenes between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Abu Mazen, the sobriquet of Mahmoud Abass, before the deal was sealed. Netanyahu was strongly opposed to the deal, and he made no efforts to feign his feeling. A statement was issued by him condemning the move.

The Hamas political leader, Khalid Mashal, the ultimate political tactician struck a deal with Fatah to bring an end the combustible rollercoaster fortune of the group since the Arab Spring started. The group is having 40,000 people on its payroll. Since the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power in Egypt, the main source of income of the group from tax collected on goods plying the Sinai and Rafah crossing   were closed. The economy of the Gaza strip took a turn for the worst. A plan was devised by Khalid Mashal for the group to join Fatah before the armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam brigade – which is firing on Israel – will turn against him.


Arab reaction 

For decades Palestine was the touchstone of Pan-Arab solidarity, but since the 1973 war, that has meant little more that posturing. Partly, because of the hostility of Saudi Arabia and Egypt towards Hamas. Jordan has attacked what it called “barbaric aggression” against Gaza, but, like Egypt, is unlikely to jeopardise its peace treaty with Israel. Turkey, has warned Israel that escalation could lead to ‘chaos in our region”, while further afield, Iran lambasted “savage aggression by the Zionist”. 

When aggression broke out between Israel and Palestine, Egypt leads the way to broker truce. This time, the new Egyptian government and Hamas are at loggerheads, inter-Arab division is rife, and hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood (to which Hamas is affiliated) is a defining faultline and mediators are scare – all of which may embolden Israel. 

Iran, which is the main backer of Hamas in the region, is sucked up in Syria devoting its time and resources to prop up the floundering President Bashir al-Assad regime. Hamas is left to slug it out alone. For how long can they continue to withstand Israel air strike? 

Israel said preparations were under way for a possible ground invasion, with tanks and artillery massed along the border and 33,000 reservists mobilised out of 40,000 approved by the government. For how long is the international community going to wait before intervening to end the bloodletting? Children are dying, as Israel is flagrantly violating international humanitarian law. The Israeli military policy of “call on the roof”, which alerts Palestine civilians to evacuate buildings by hitting projectiles on rooftops, is not working. The death toll is rising unabated.


Netanyahu: invertebrate risk-taker 

To address seemingly humdrum difficulties can open a Pandora’s Box of intricate details. Netanyahu is fully aware of this, as he is attacking Hamas. At the time of writing, the P5 + 1 (US, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany) are meeting the Iranian nuclear negotiators to secure a nuclear deal with Tehran. This explained why Israel response to rocket attacks from Hamas this time around is measured, targeted, and arguably proportionate. The main strategic objective of Israel is to defang Iran in the Middle East. Prime Minster Netanyahu is doing everything not to endanger the talks. While reading his briefs on progress over the campaign in Gaza, in his office in the Knesset, the Israel parliament, he will be furtively following events in Vienna, Austria, where the nuclear talks are taking place. 

That is why he shrugged off attempts by far-right wingers in his government to use full force against Hamas. Avigdor Lieberman’s ultranationalist party, Ysrael Beitenu Party, withdrew from his Likud led government as a result of differences over response to Hamas. These are all risks Netanyahu is willing to take, as he once again showed that he is more a pragmatist than an ideologue. His ability to avoid military adventure has more to do with risk-aversion than Solomonic wisdom.

The dispute over the Israel-Palestine has claimed the lives of many leaders. Not least among them the then Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by Islamic Jihad during a military parade in Cairo on 6 October, 1981. Yitzhak Rabin, as Israeli prime minister was gunned down on November 4, 1995 for making peace with Palestine. The demised of Yasser Arafat is linked to the same issue, and soo that of Ahmed Jabari, the former leader of Hamas. True to the word of the US secretary of state, John Kerry, who visited both Israel and Palestine more than 54 times to push for the Israel-Palestine peace process, leaders on both sides should be willing to take “tough decisions” for peace to be achieved. 

On the road to justice, said Martin Luther King Jr, there will be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. And there will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair.  Can the buoyancy of hope return to the Middle East peace process?


Amadou Camara read political science at the University of The Gambia.


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