An Old Conflict in the New Middle East

An Old Conflict in the New Middle East

The Implications of the Recent Israeli–Hamas Clash

06/2021  | Reading time: 10 minutes

The fighting between the Jewish state and the terrorist organisations ruling the Gaza Strip showed how the Middle Eastern order had changed while it also shaped the regional balance of power. The tussle in May shed light on the current capabilities of both Israel and Hamas, also highlighting other regional actors’ interests and strategies.

The fighting in May 2021 between Israel and the Palestinian terrorist organisation ruling the Gaza Strip, Hamas—and, to a smaller extent, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad—was a textbook example of how conflicts escalate. Both the Israeli and the Palestinian political arena had been tense for months before the conflict arose, due to the hardships of forming a government in the former’s and postponed Palestinian elections in the latter’s case.

There were also a number of coincident events and processes, namely the end of Ramadan, the Jerusalem Day, which is the celebration of the 1967 reunification of the city by the Israelis, the final stage of the trial over the expulsion of the Arab inhabitants from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, and the so-called “TikTok attacks” (which denotes those incidents when Arab youngsters attacked ultraorthodox Jews and shared the footages recorded by their mobile phones on the popular video-sharing and social-networking site).

The last layer of the backdrop to the present conflict was a regional realignment in which not only Israel managed to establish peaceful relations with four Arab states last year, but also Iran, Turkey, and the Saudi–Egyptian-led Sunni Arab bloc wanted to negotiate on some sort of de-escalation and cooperative relations between themselves. All these processes were highly dangerous for the survival of Hamas, for its path to total power over the Palestinian arena through elections had been blocked, while the regional realignment threatened it with reduced funding and arms transfers, as its importance for regional players seems to reduce. The Hamas leadership, therefore, turned the above circumstances to its benefit with great tactical (but not necessarily strategic) sense by issuing threats against Israel and, then, launching rocket attacks against Jerusalem, which led to an all-out armed conflict on 10 May.

A bus struck by a rocket in the Israeli city of Holon
Source: Roman Yanushevsky/Shutterstock

The fighting demonstrated that Hamas’s weapons arsenal had undergone revolutionary development. Around four thousand rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip at Israel, but combined figures like this hide a complex reality. These projectiles included not only low-quality, home-made armaments—of which many fell back onto the Gaza Strip, causing damage there—but also highly sophisticated rockets developed (and probably build) by Iran, which threatened more distant Israeli cities such as Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem.

On the other hand, Hamas could not take advantage of its terrorist infrastructure such as the tunnel system (the so-called “Gaza Metro”) below the Gaza Strip or its infiltration forces, as Israel was able to protect its land borders successfully. It could do so, avoiding a ground invasion, as precision strikes by artillery and aerial attacks, which have gone through significant development in recent years, had the main role on their side. The Jewish state developed these capabilities precisely to avoid ground manoeuvres in urban environments, which would cause significantly larger civilian casualties. It is difficult to assess the military achievements of the Israeli actions, coined as Operation Guardian of the Walls, but it can be confidently assumed that Hamas’s rocket arsenal and other military infrastructure was thrown back by years.

Highlighting the most significant processes, we have to consider three factors to interpret the conflict: How did Israel’s partners and the international community react? How did Israel’s enemies manoeuvre? And what will be its implications for Israel and the Palestinian factions? Regarding the first question, it is important to start by mentioning that the world—including Israel’s closest ally, the United States—waited for a few days after 10 May without taking a firm stance on the conflict until it was clear what the nature of the fighting between Israel and Hamas would be.

After that, however, the international environment turned favourable to Israel: the US and Israel’s Western allies supported the Jewish state confidently and mostly avoided equating a state with a terrorist organisation. In some countries, such as Austria, Czechia, and Hungary, there was even stronger support for Israel, which manifested in acts like flying the Israeli flag on governmental buildings in Vienna or in Hungary’s not supporting the EU statement that put the blame on Israel for the conflict.

After the fighting, a number of countries, such as the US, the UK, Germany, Greece, and Hungary, showed their support through a visit by their foreign ministers. Israel’s regional allies and partners naturally condemned Israel rhetorically, while giving it almost two weeks to deal with Hamas. Moreover, the Abraham Accords signed last year also stood their first test. The biggest threat to Israel would have been a multi-front war if Iran and Hezbollah had opened another front in the north, exploiting the opportunity. However, the opposite happened, as their reaction to the conflict was quite modest, which means that they practically abandoned Hamas during the fight. Both Iran and Hezbollah have too much to lose currently, so they have to avoid facing the Israeli Defense Forces attack capabilities. To sum up, while Israeli deterrence against Hamas proved to be lacking in the south, it held out against much stronger opponents in the north.

The Israeli Iron Dome rocket defence system in operation
Source: Israeli Defense Forces/Twitter

What will the current round of fighting bring for the future, especially for the Israeli and Palestinian sides? Hamas was successful in putting itself back at the centre of the international and Palestinian political arena, portraying itself as the sole champion of armed struggle against Israel. The terrorist organisation will receive significant financial assistance through direct and indirect channels as a result of the conflict regardless of how the international community vows to give the funds for only civilian reconstruction.

The fighting exerted enormous pressure on the divided Fatah, which has to show now that it serves development, while Hamas only brings destruction to the people under its rule. Insufficient attention was given during the conflict to Fatah’s efforts made by its security forces to suppress a potential intifada against Israel in the West Bank. If an eastern front and a further escalating internal Israeli Arab revolt (which was presented by the media in an exaggerated way, as it is important to note that it only involved a few thousand hooligans from the almost two-million-strong Israeli Arab community) had been added to the fighting against Hamas, calculations on opening a northern front by Iran and Hezbollah would also have been very different, potentially posing a serious threat to Israel.

Hamas will continue to call for further uprisings in the West Bank and Israel proper even if the truce holds in Gaza. Egypt, which has managed to broker the ceasefire, will aim at utilising its renewed prestige to exert more pressure on the Palestinian factions to come together, which can also help promote its national diplomatic interests.

From the perspective of the Jewish state, the conflict arrived at a peculiar moment, as, just before the conflict occurred, intensive negotiation had been conducted in Jerusalem on creating a governing coalition, which was interrupted by the fighting. Today, there are revolutionary political transformations in Israel: as a result of the last elections, the intensive cooperation between Jewish and Arab political forces which has already worked on municipal and governmental committee levels can now rise to the national level. This process seems to be unstoppable, as both the right-wing Likud and the parties left to it are open to this historic turn. As a result of Hamas’s agitation, internal revolts resulted in heightened suspicions among Jewish and Arab citizens but could at the same time unify all Israeli political leaders from the far right to the Islamists to call for peaceful cooperation and coexistence.

From a military perspective, Israel managed to weaken Hamas’s military infrastructure significantly, which means that Gaza cannot mean a significant military threat for the next three to five years even in the case a multi-front war starts. However, the organisation’s destabilising political and terrorist activity must be blocked in the future, too.

On the regional level, Israel’s role as a strategic pillar of the Middle East is currently unshakable. Its partnerships hold firmly, and its enemies, apart from Hamas, neither can nor want to launch an open attack against it. These circumstances are creating a favourable external environment to the internal social and political transformation through which Israel may set up a new regime which can support national power and capabilities more effectively.

Parallel to the Israeli transformation, it is not clear how the Palestinian side—or rather sides—could exit the political quagmire. Hamas, however, will certain do everything to use this last round of fighting and undermine Fatah’s old guard. It is in the interest of most countries in the region to help the Israeli transformation and reap the economic, political, diplomatic, and security benefits. Meanwhile, Israel’s enemies, Iran and its allies, will be waiting for their moment to come. The Jewish state, however, could prove now that it is unbreakable even when its internal politics flounders.

 

The opening pic is by Roman Yanushevsky/Shutterstock

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