It is a myth that the war between Hamas and Israel was triggered by the murder of several children, Israeli and Palestinian, in recent weeks. It is also a myth that Palestinian fighters alone are to blame for the ongoing military offensive in Gaza.
The current war is a logical consequence of the frustration over failed negotiations and anger over the crippling siege of the overcrowded Gaza strip, the continuous building of settlements, the uprooting of Palestinian trees, and confiscation of land and houses.
Israel fights simply because it can. As it steps up its war against Hamas with a ground invasion, it looks unstoppable. What happens next will depend on the readiness of Hamas, which has declined an Egypt-mediated truce that would have neither lifted the siege on Gaza nor given it political manoeuvrability to negotiate all Palestinian matters with the international community as an equal to Fatah.
Israel’s offensive on Gaza happens at a time when international diplomacy is distracted by the escalation of conflicts in other areas (e.g. Ukraine and Iraq). Besides, a great deal has changed since the last war in 2012 when Cairo had a government sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Hamas has since lost that support and, like the Muslim Brotherhood, counts among Arab states more foes than friends.
Indeed, Israel knew it was an opportune time to strike.
Back in 2012, when Israel launched a military assault on Gaza, then-President Mohamed Morsi could and did play a role in defusing the conflict. In fact, Egypt sent not only humanitarian aid to the strip, but also sent then-Prime Minister Hesham Qandil, who visited for three hours. At the time, Cairo manoeuvred as a mediator to broker a ceasefire with the diplomatic backing of regional and global powers. Hamas and other Palestinian groups in Gaza were brought into the bargaining process.
Now, the situation has certainly changed. There is no longer an alignment of regional and global interests which could support a serious campaign to defuse the current violence. Furthermore, the regime in Cairo, led by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is openly hostile towards Hamas.
Being no longer welcome in the capital of the largest Arab state in the region, Hamas has been politically marginalised once again. Losing support in Cairo has meant that Hamas no longer has a mediator through whom to engage the EU and the US. And since the overthrow of the Morsi government in July 2013, Egypt has tightened the blockade on Gaza even further.
The Egyptian foreign minister’s remarks condemning Israel’s actions last week were finally transformed into an effort to initiate a ceasefire to end the conflict. Tony Blair’s encouragement of Sisi to take a more active role appears to have been the impetus behind the recent diplomatic overture. Blair has taken to shuttle diplomacy between Sisi and Netanyahu but the end result was a ceasefire that was not going to break the political impasse or Gaza’s siege.
Israel’s initial agreement was simply Netanyahu’s government going through the motions to gain greater international legitimacy. However, the exclusion of Hamas from ceasefire negotiations has served to illustrate the incapacity or unwillingness of the Sisi government to engage with all political players involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is a must, if Cairo is to be perceived as an honest broker for peace.
Hamas’ other regional options are no longer viable. Iran’s financial support has dwindled markedly and military aid has completely petered out. Hezbollah is neither a friend nor exactly a foe. And all ties with Syria, which used to host its external leadership, are severed.
Can the war be stopped?
The two warring parties are not “rational actors”, as war theorists would assume in a calculation of costs and benefits. The expected gains for either party are not worth the current escalation in terms of loss of human life and destruction, yet both have proceeded.
Both Israel and Hamas are seeking political gains. Israel is hoping to avoid international isolation after the failed negotiations and US-Iran rapprochement. Hamas, on the other hand, is seeking international legitimacy to fight an unstoppable coloniser that kills indiscriminately and disproportionately.
Yet avoiding the savagery of Israel’s war machine is the best the Palestinians can do given the inauspicious Arab-Arab relations (not to mention Palestinian-Palestinian divisions) marked by a deep chasm over the role Islamists may play in politics. As for Israel, if the ground invasion is planned to grab territory in the Gaza Strip or remove Hamas’ rocket-making and launching capacity, this might be a gamble the gains of which could be outweighed by the costs incurred.
The costs are too high for the Palestinian side to reject any kind of truce that offers Gazans, including traumatised children, relief from the Israeli offensive. For Netanyahu and his government there is also a significant risk that excessive use of force will significantly diminish its ability to justify it as a “legitimate response” to the international community, and the US, specifically.
In these circumstances, Israel seems unstoppable, as its political leadership does not deem the risk of a Gaza invasion high enough to deter it. At the same time, the Palestinian side has no military parity to deter aggression when facing an overwhelming offensive by ground, sea and air.
Israel’s strategy of disproportionate use of military power against a defenceless civilian population, in total disregard for human loss, appears to be winning, since it is drawing only limited condemnation from the international community.
The response of the Obama administration to the Israeli offensive against Gaza was weak at best. “The tragic event makes clear that Israel must take every possible step to meet its standards for protecting civilians from being killed,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who went on to condemn Hamas for firing rockets at Israel.
Without any pressure from the US and the West in general, Israel will continue to bomb Gaza and take Palestinian lives with impunity.
Likewise, for as long as Arabs fight each other brutally as in Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and do little or nothing to stand up for Gaza, Israel will in the foreseeable future keep attacking on a whim. Hapless Gazans will continue to suffer the biggest moral and political tragedy of our time in the Middle East.
Larbi Sadiki is a specialist in Arab democratisation, revolution and transitions, and has been an academic at Australian National University, Exeter University, Westminster University and Qatar University.