Only a few weeks ago, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to get away with it all. He rebuffed the Obama administration’s peace overtures, expanded illegal settlements in the West Bank, and reneged on his agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by refusing to release the last batch of prisoners, the 26 longest serving political prisoners in Israeli jails.
Even the dramatic turn of events in the Middle East seemed to work in Israel’s favour, as its nemeses grew ever more preoccupied, if not paralysed by their internal problems.
As for Hamas, it was on a downturn and growing increasingly unpopular. It was financially bankrupt and unable to pay salaries to its own rather big bureaucracy running the Gaza Strip. It was under siege, and under pressure to do something, anything to ease life in the sprawling Gaza prison camp.
The election of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as president of Egypt after a military coup, tightened the noose around Hamas and Gaza. The general, having risen to power by ousting the Muslim Brotherhood, loathed the Islamist Hamas no less.
As a result, the weakened Islamist movement moved to form a national unity government with Fatah under the tutelage and according to the conditions of Abbas. Indeed, the new government was committed to new elections and “honouring all of the conditions imposed by the international community”, and there was nothing Hamas could do about it.
Worse for Hamas, Abbas maintained his commitment to diplomacy, and vowed to maintain security cooperation and coordination with Israel, referring to it rather bizarrely as “sacred”, when even the pretensions of a “peace process” evaporated.
But as if there is no limit to its arrogance, the Netanyahu government still condemned the formation of the new Palestinian government and warned world governments not to recognise it or deal with it, all the while it began to undermine it in every possible way, including by force.
The logic of violence
Although Israel was enjoying a rather undeserved break, Netanyahu decided to exploit the killings of three young Israelis at the hands of unknown assailants to launch a war on Gaza in order to “defeat” Hamas, humiliate Abbas and break the national unity government.
Israel boasted of its technological military superiority and lampooned the cowardice of Hamas. But there is no pride in killing people using the latest and most lethal US gadgets. By bringing its wrath to bear on the people of Gaza, Israel has lost much of its deterrence capability, as Hamas’s rockets shook it to the core.
Despite belated attempts at blaming Hamas for the escalation, there is little or no doubt Netanyahu has instigated the violence. “Israel provoked this war”, wrote Henry Siegman, president of the US/Middle East Project and former director of the American Jewish Congress. “The notion that it was Israel, not Hamas, that violated a cease-fire agreement will undoubtedly offend a wide swath of Israel supporters. To point out that it is not the first time Israel has done so will offend them even more deeply.” Alas, such is the reality.
To add insult to injury, Netanyahu revealed his true intentions in a July 11 press conference, when he ruled out future Palestinian sovereignty. He went as far as ridiculing Washington’s approach to Israeli security even when the Obama administration has gone out of its way and compromised its own credibility to defend him. To no avail.
As the onslaught continues and Israel warns of more of the same over the coming days, the mounting civilian deaths and destruction of public services, schools, and entire communities can be explained in three ways:
By default: Urban wars are messy, and mistakes are bound to happen when Israel tries to destroy Hamas’ capabilities in the midst of populated areas. It’s all “collateral damage”, a despicable term meant to mystify the suffering of war
By design: Israel’s military recognises the danger to civilians but persists, illegally, in bombing countless locations it suspects of harbouring weapons, militants, or their supporters. Then, rather disingenuously, it blames Hamas for using people as human shields.
By strategy: The Israeli government exploits the security pretext in order to cripple the Gaza Strip once and for all, by destroying its civic and economic infrastructure. And then, it will insist that any rebuilding or lifting of the siege be conditional on demilitarising and de-Hamasising the strip.
Which of the three explanations is most plausible? It remains to be seen as more is revealed about the thinking from within the inner circle of the Israeli security establishment. To be sure, it doesn’t have to be either/or, indeed it could be all three combined: The war is messy, and its motivations are cynical and strategic.
And it could be even worse: “We are in the midst of a colonial story. Not the oppression of a nation but its elimination as a political entity”, so wrote Yitzhak Laor, the editor of the Hebrew journal, Mitaam.
If the spread of the confrontations to the West Bank including Jerusalem continues, it could be a game-changer.
The intensification of the clashes throughout Palestine would break the isolation of Gaza and expand the landscape of conflict towards Israeli-populated areas, including Jerusalem and the settlements.
This will give momentum to a new popular uprising, and possibly one that could be far from peaceful depending on the attitude of the Palestinian Authority’s security forces.
All of which leaves the door wide open for whole new scenarios that are no less dramatic. On the one hand, it could lead to internal strife among Palestinians on the West Bank, leaving both Abbas and Hamas weakened.
Or inversely, it could galvanise the Palestinians around the resistance, a situation that could either undermine the Israeli government, or provide the pretext for Netanyahu to destroy the PA institutions as Ariel Sharon did in 2002.
Any which way, a return to the status quo ante is no longer possible. Nor can US allies impose another ceasefire arrangement on the Palestinians without taking into full consideration their legitimate demand to live free of military siege and occupation.
It’s clear that Israel could break up Palestine into miserable enclaves, but it cannot break its resistance or its passion for freedom from occupation.
Israel’s most ardent enemy, Hamas, was getting marginalised; now it’s central to any future arrangements in Palestine. And Israel’s most reliable ally and security partner in the history of the conflict, Abbas, has been terribly weakened and might not be able to recover without massive western and Egyptian intervention to impose him on the Palestinians.
Netanyahu was flying high just a few weeks ago, now he’s flying low, even crawling towards a ceasefire.
Arrogance all too often breeds stupidity.
Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.