Rapid Escalation Leads to Rapid Ceasefire in Gaza

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

November 16, 2018

A ceasefire between Israel and Hamas has come into effect after a chaotic and violent twenty-four hours. Israel launched a covert intelligence-gathering operation in Gaza that turned violent, which Hamas responded to by firing a barrage of missiles into Israel. The ceasefire agreement, which among other things would see Hamas putting an end to protests and rocket attacks in exchange for gaining access to a port of its own and a relaxation of Israel’s economic embargo, has been received with suspicion by critics of the government in Israel, triggering the resignation of an important government minister and raising the prospect of early elections.

In an attempt to explain the abrupt escalation in violence, Dan Feferman suggests in an op-ed for The Jerusalem Post that Hamas is engaged in a game of brinkmanship that it appears to be winning: “While Hamas’s leadership has begrudgingly accepted that they will not be able to defeat and destroy Israel in the conceivable future, they are also acutely aware that Israel will do almost anything to avoid a full-on invasion of Gaza that would result in toppling Hamas’s rule…. why risk a major escalation now that could cancel all the significant gains Hamas made? Simple. The 460 rockets fired into Israel, including an anti-tank missile that hit a bus (that just minutes before was full of young soldiers) are Hamas trying to gain an upper hand in the game for escalation control. An Israeli military operation deep in Gaza that ends up killing a senior Hamas leader equals hundreds of rockets, and Hamas wants to make sure Israel thinks twice before trying that again.”

One of the more intriguing questions arising from the equally abrupt de-escalation is why Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu opted for a less confrontational path. For his critics on the Israeli right, including Yedioth Ahronoth’s Nahum Barnea, the answer is clear: “The time has come for us to understand what every child in Gaza already knows: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants Hamas to stay in power. Because the alternatives to Hamas do not suit him, he prefers Hamas to stay in charge…. Netanyahu is responsible for the failure of Israel’s policy in Gaza. Not just this week, but in his nine years as prime minister. It’s not true that Netanyahu has no policy, he does have one: he is a devout believer in perpetuating the present situation—saying yes to Hamas, and no to rehabilitating Gaza. Unfortunately, the recurring fighting rounds are part of the existing situation.”

This sentiment is echoed by Yoran Meital in a recent op-ed for the Times of Israel, who adds that Israel may not be the only party interested in maintaining the status quo: “The situation between Israel and the Palestinians, not just Hamas, is very fragile. The sides are on the edge of an abyss. The leaderships of Israel and Hamas are not interested in reaching a war, although each side has elements that support a full-fledged military confrontation already…. Diffusing the conflict is highly complex as the two parties are not interested in the war now, but both sides are holding demands that prevent a ceasefire that can last a long time. In other words, even if the current cycle of violence is halted by Egyptian and international mediation, the conditions that cause the conflict continue, and, unfortunately, the renewal of violence and perhaps a deterioration into a broad military confrontation may only be a matter of time.”

The Palestinian website Al Wafa quotes former U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross as saying that a military defeat of Hamas by Israel would have opened the door to even more radical organizations: “He reportedly said that Israel has the military might to defeat Gaza, but the question is what happens when it does…. He pointed to the convergence of interests between Hamas and Israel in avoiding the slide into an all-out war and seeing Gaza ruled by radicalized groups…. It is for this reason, he said, that in spite of the intensity of the exchange of fire between Hamas and Israel in the last two days, both sides left room for Egypt and the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov to continue to mediate an extended period of calm.”

But Arab News’s Joseph Dana says the ceasefire agreement betrays the real aspirations of the Palestinian people and underscores Hamas’s instrumentalization of those aspirations for personal gain: “The Great March of Return demonstrated the power of popular mobilization to break the status quo. Or at the very least it had the potential. It has also highlighted the degree to which Israel understands how to quell protests through military action; the coercion of Palestinian political platforms; the maintenance of its sophisticated matrix of control over Palestinian life; or a combination of all three. Israel’s position of power has never been stronger, and the suffering of the Palestinian people never more pronounced.”

Daoud Kuttab, writing for Jordan Times, laments the fact that the agreement demonstrates Israel’s willingness to engage with Palestinian demands only when those demands are expressed by way of violence: “The latest round of violence has produced some unsavory conclusions. It has proved, once again, that peace cannot be reached unless the Israelis feel the pressure from a security point of view. By accepting a ceasefire with Hamas, the Israelis are once again proving that might is right and not that right is might. They are disproving the path of negotiations and non-violence and are encouraging Palestinians to use force as a means of attaining their legitimate rights. Gaza may have shown that what works is the balance of terror. This is not a good omen for those who believe in non-violence and peace through negotiations. That is a sad outcome.”

Meanwhile, Yedioth Ahronoth’s Yuval Karni points out that Netanyahu’s domestic troubles may have only just begun, as Avigdor Lieberman resigned from his post as defense minister in protest of the PM’s handling of the crisis: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want to give Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned his post as defense minister on Wednesday, what he wants—early elections…. as soon as Lieberman’s decision to resign was announced, Netanyahu was quick to declare he had no interest in calling early elections, and that he wanted to maintain the stability of the government and the coalition even in its current makeup. The prime minister is trying to erode the political capital Lieberman could gain from resigning—a move the former defense minister would present to voters as his insistence on assertive right-wing policy against Hamas in the face of Netanyahu’s conciliatory move, agreeing not to fight in return for another ceasefire, which no one knows how long it would last.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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