How to prevent another Gaza conflict
14 Jul 2021|

The Israel–Hamas conflagration of 10–21 May, the fourth such conflict since 2008, has been over for almost two months.

Diplomatic drama and manoeuvrings continue in its aftermath: incendiary balloon attacks from Gaza sparking Israeli retaliation, ceasefire talks mediated by Cairo including discussion of possible prisoner exchanges, intra-Palestinian unrest, and ongoing negotiations on arrangements for international efforts to reconstruct the damaged areas of Gaza.

It seems appropriate to now review the conflict and its aftermath, with an eye to preventing the civilians of Israel and Gaza from having to suffer through yet further rounds.

Both sides claimed victory. Israel says it killed around 215 Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad fighters, including 25 commanders, and destroyed countless military assets, including rockets, launchers and other equipment, offices and headquarters, about 100 kilometres of military tunnels, and much more.

Hamas claimed victory because it could still fire rockets up to the ceasefire on 21 May and because it caused significant damage and injury in Israel, including 13 deaths. Hamas also hoped to achieve some broader strategic aims in the context of its overall goal to ultimately see Israel’s demise.

One was to sour relations between Israel’s Jews and Arabs just when they were warming to the extent that it seemed, for the first time, an Israeli Arab political party would join a governing coalition.

Hamas also sought to drive a wedge between Israel and the Arab countries with which it normalised relations under the Abraham Accords and to stop more joining. And Hamas wanted to establish dominance in Palestinian politics, as the party that stands up for Jerusalem.

On the first two, it appears to have largely failed. The Islamist Ra’am party joined the new Israeli government, and the Abraham Accords remain intact, as evidenced by Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s historic visit to the United Arab Emirates last month.

However, on the goal of strengthening Hamas’s status in Palestinian politics, both polls and the unrest directed against Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas suggest the group’s efforts largely succeeded.

Hamas would also no doubt have also drawn satisfaction and comfort from the condemnation of Israel in much international media and from many political and other public figures, despite Hamas being the party committing a double war crime by firing more than 4,000 rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilians while hiding behind those in Gaza.

Despite the mixed results, Hamas felt it had good reasons for initiating the conflict, first using a long-running and complex property dispute in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of Jerusalem to incite Palestinian worshippers at the al-Aqsa Mosque to arm themselves with rocks and petrol bombs and riot, and then using Israel’s countermeasures to justify firing hundreds of rockets, to which Israel had to respond.

I haven’t included the civilians tragically killed in Gaza as a negative for Hamas, because, horrifyingly, Hamas regards civilian deaths as a positive. Every civilian death puts pressure on Israel, despite the Israel Defence Forces’ efforts to avoid them by warning people to flee before bombing buildings and often aborting raids when civilians were in the area.

The tallies of alleged civilian deaths in Gaza being widely bandied about should be taken with a healthy dose of salt, given the source is the Gaza Health Ministry run by the same Hamas terror organisation that deliberately put them in harm’s way. It’s also important to note that at least 650 Hamas rockets fell short, landing in Gaza and often killing civilians.

To be clear, Israel was legally entitled under the laws of war to target Hamas military assets to stop it firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel, wherever they were situated, provided it only used the force necessary to achieve its legitimate military objectives.

The damage to Gaza must be repaired, but only by sidelining Hamas which after past wars has diverted aid funds into weapons and diverted reconstruction materials, such as concrete, into its military infrastructure, including tunnels.

The oft-cited means to end all violence, a two-state peace, is currently unattainable. Polls show a majority of Israelis support a two-state peace as an eventual outcome. But their faith in such an outcome has been shattered by many factors, including the Second Intifada, the rejection by the Palestinian leadership of statehood offers in 2000, 2001 and 2008, the refusal to negotiate in good faith since, and the insistence of the Palestinian Authority on paying generous pensions to terrorists in Israeli jails and to the families of terrorists who were killed.

A further concern is that Hamas turned Gaza into a terror enclave after Israel fully withdrew in 2005. Were the same to happen in the West Bank, adjacent to Israel’s population and industrial centres, the whole country could easily be held hostage.

Contrary to widely circulated claims, Israeli West Bank settlements are no more a major impediment to peace today that they were in 2008, when then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered a proposal which met all the criteria for a two-state solution envisioned by the international community. Settlement boundaries haven’t expanded for 20 years and construction within them has actually slowed over the past decade, not even keeping up with natural growth.

The key to preventing yet another Gaza conflict is for the international community to make it abundantly clear to Hamas that it will never again benefit or be protected if it initiates conflict with Israel. If this is not done, Hamas will simply start another outbreak at a time which suits its maximalist goals.

Crucially, Hamas wouldn’t have its rocket arsenal without Iran, which is behind everything Hamas does. Iran and its proxies are responsible for most Middle East conflicts, so any US negotiations to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal and lift sanctions must be conditional on Iran ceasing to sponsor terror and undermine its neighbours. Otherwise, it’s not a matter of whether there will be further Israel–Hamas fighting, but when.