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Israel and Hamas have engaged in fighting each other since 2006 when Hamas emerged victorious in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections and forcibly took control of the Gaza Strip a year later.

The latest fighting between Israel and the Islamist militant organization Hamas, that controls the Gaza Strip, has caused the death of 227 Palestinians, including 64 children, and resulted in 11 Israeli civilians losing their lives. In addition, more than 1,600 Gaza residents and nearly 114 Israelis have been injured. This is the worst fighting between Israel and Hamas since 2014, when the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) had launched Operation Protective Edge leading to the 50 days of violent conflict in which nearly 2,200 Palestinians and 70 Israelis had lost their lives. The war had come to an end after Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire due to mounting international pressure and Egyptian mediation.

Israel and Hamas have engaged in fighting each other since 2006 when Hamas emerged victorious in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections and forcibly took control of the Gaza Strip a year later. Earlier, in 2005, Israel had relinquished control of the Strip to reduce its military commitments in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The first major war between Hamas and IDF occurred in 2008-09 when after months of tit-for-tat attacks Israel launched the Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 leading to serious fighting causing death of an estimated 1,200-14,00 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. After a few years of relative calm and low scale fighting, violence re-escalated in 2012 when Israel launched the Operation Pillar of Defence in which more than 150 Palestinians had lost their lives.

The latest round of escalation goes back to the protests in April 2021 by Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, a historical locality in East Jerusalem, who were facing eviction from their homes. This led to counter protests by Jewish extremist groups sparking violence and rioting in and around the city. The violence spread to Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount area on 7 May, the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, when clashes erupted between Muslim worshipers gathered in Al-Aqsa mosque and Jewish groups who had thronged the Old City to celebrate the Israeli takeover of Jerusalem in 1967. In trying to control the situation, the IDF entered the area, managed by Jordan and holy in both Judaism and Islam, further escalating the violent clashes.

As violence continued for two days, on 10 May, Hamas launched rocket attacks in southern Israel provoking IDF bombing Hamas’s hideouts in Gaza Strip. The rocket attacks from Gaza have intensified since then with Hamas and Islamic Jihad launching a barrage of rockets deep inside Israel including Tel Aviv. Rockets have also landed in northern Israel from southern Lebanon causing panic and threatening a wider conflict.

Both Hamas and Israel have now come under intense international pressure, including from the United States, to de-escalate and work toward a ceasefire. Egypt and France have taken lead in mediation efforts while the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has also taken note of the situation urging an immediate end of fighting. The world is divided with many regional and international countries, such as China, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, blaming Israel for targeting civilians and children and using disproportionate force while others, especially the US, UK, Germany, Brazil and Canada backing Israel’s right of defines. Israel considers disproportionate force as a legitimate deterrence against Hamas despite international condemnation.

Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the US and UK, has on its part thrived on being the main armed Palestinian movement against Israel. The organization traces its root to Muslim Brotherhood and emerged during the First Intifada (1987-1993). The group rejects Oslo Accords and was instrumental in derailing of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process by launching violent attacks inside Israel including suicide bombings during the Al-Aqsa Intifada between 2000 and 2005. After gaining control of the Gaza Strip, Hamas has emerged as the main challenger to Fatah-led Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in steering the Palestinian Authority (PA) led by Mahmoud Abbas since 2005. With support from Iran and Turkey, the group has emerged as a strong fighting force challenging the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

The current spate of fighting comes at a time when Israel has been facing a prolonged domestic political stalemate and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival. Between April 2019 and March 2021, Israel has witnessed four Knesset (parliament) elections with the Netanyahu-led Likud party failing to gain enough adequate support each time to form a stable government. After the March 2020 elections, Netanyahu stitched a coalition with his principal opponent, leader of Blue and White and former IDF chief Benny Gantz, who assumed the role of “alternate prime minister” and Defence Minister.

The coalition government could not continue for long with differences emerging over various issues, most importantly over defines budget. Fresh elections were held in March 2021 in which Likud re-emerged as the largest party but Netanyahu failed to bring together a coalition under his leadership. Days before the conflict started, Yair Lapid, the leader of second largest Yesh Atid party was tasked with the responsibility of forming the government by President Reuven Rivlin and reportedly was on the verge of a breakthrough to muster support of smaller right-wing, left-wing and Arab parties. But with the escalating violence the chances of Lapid succeeding have become bleak.

Significantly, this time the fighting between Israel and Hamas has not remained confined and has spread to the West Bank, East Jerusalem and among the Arab citizens of Israel with reports of protests, clashes and rioting coming from several towns in the Occupied Territories and Israel. This in a way changes the Israeli calculation of isolating Hamas and gives credence to Hamas which seeks wider support among the Palestinian communities.

With mounting international pressure, the fighting between Israel and Hamas is expected to come to an end in the coming weeks, if not days, but this is unlikely to be the last round of the endless battle between Israel and Hamas and reminds the international community of the need to revive the Middle East Peace Process.

Note:  This article was originally published in Financial Express on 20 May 2021 and has been reproduced with the permission of the author. Web Link

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy