The Israel-Gaza War of 2021 | What Really Led to the War?

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The Israel-Gaza War of 2021 | What Really Led to the War?

The sharp escalation over the past 36 hours between Israel and Gaza was triggered by riots that have taken place in Jerusalem over the past week on the Temple Mount Compound / Al-Haram al-Sharif / Har Ha Bayit.

The riots themselves were triggered by issues such as a property dispute between Jews and Arabs in the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem (the case is now being appealed to the Supreme Court). Palestinians also allege that there have been many Israeli provocations, such as disconnecting loudspeakers at the mosques in the Temple Mount Compound during Muslim prayers. But all of these are excuses.

The real reasons for the escalation are elsewhere. And they mainly lie in the inner-Palestinian arena. The Palestinians are experiencing a deepening internal crisis emanating from a variety of factors:

The Palestinian cause – known in Arabic as Al Qadiya al-Filastiniya – has plummeted on the political agenda of the Arab countries. This is a result of a process that has unfolded over the past few decades.

One reason is the inner-Palestinian split.  In 2007 Hamas launched a coup, violently overthrowing the Palestinian Authority who had governed the Gaza Strip since Israel evacuated Gaza in 2005. Since the coup, the competing governments – Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank – have been unable to reconcile. Arab leaders – specifically Egypt and Saudi Arabia – have tried to resolve the split. All efforts failed because neither Hamas nor the Palestinian Authority honored the numerous Arab-brokered reconciliation agreements they signed. Their behavior insulted the most important leaders of the Arab world. The Arab world is frustrated with the split between Fateh and Hamas and with the Palestinians inability to define a common, constructive path. And in addition to refusing to reconcile their own inner differences, the Arab world increasingly saw that the Palestinians did not want to compromise with the Israelis either.

When it comes to Hamas in particular, the Arab world is angry about the destruction Hamas’s governance has brought to the Gaza Strip. And they are resent Hamas’ alliance with Iran and Turkey – both of whom present a threat to the Arab world.

In addition to becoming increasingly frustrated with the Palestinians, the Arab world has become increasingly focused on its own domestic and regional challenges. Domestically, countries throughout the region are facing increasing economic, political, and social challenges – all of which have been exacerbated because of COVID-19.  Regionally, the leading Arab powers – namely Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – are increasingly focused on the threats Iranian and Turkish aggressive actions and policies – driven by Tehran and Istanbul’s hegemonic ambitions – pose to their individual counties and the region as a whole. As Iran and Turkey’s hegemonic ambitions increasingly grow and expand, confronting this challenge has increasingly taken center stage for the dominant Arab powers.

The combination of these two factors – the mounting challenges in the Arab world and the Palestinian recalcitrance – has alienated Arab leaders, caused resentment and eroded Arab support for the Palestinian cause.

The evidence for the devaluation of the Palestinian issue in the political agenda of the Arab world is clear. Here are some examples: In 2018, Arab diplomats and officials, as well as the Arab street were virtually silent when the Trump administration moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem. In 2020, the Arab world tacitly accepted Trump’s “Peace To Prosperity” plan as a basis for negotiations. In late 2020, the Abraham Accords and the normalization agreements were signed between Arab countries and Israel.

And the Palestinians are disappointed, frustrated, and angry with the Arab world for abandoning them and their cause.

In January 2021, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas signed a presidential decree announcing Palestinian elections. The elections were to begin in late May. On April 29, Abbas canceled the Palestinian elections on the grounds that Israel had refused to allow Jerusalemite Palestinians to vote in the elections.

Abbas is nearing the end of his career. This is causing a power struggle within the ranks of Fateh (the largest political party within the Palestinian National Authority that governs the Palestinians in the West Bank). The real reason Abbas canceled the elections was because he was afraid that the growing split within Fateh would result in Hamas winning the elections. Aware of this possibility – Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates pressured Mahmoud Abbas to cancel the elections – and the US sent signals to Abbas that the timing was not right for elections.

Given the deep split between Fateh and Hamas, and estimations, Hamas might win, some Palestinians are relieved that the elections have been canceled. Others – and particularly the younger generation – are frustrated and angry.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and particularly Al-Quds (the Arabic word for Jerusalem) and Al-Haram al-Sharif – are cards local and regional players often use to divert attention from domestic issues, promote their own political agendas, and further their own ambitions. Given the deepening and escalating frustration within the Palestinian community – the Palestinian leadership chose – and not for the first time – to stoke the flames in Jerusalem.

Why did they choose to set Jerusalem on fire?

Because it serves the interests of the two main Palestinian political actors – the Palestinian Authority who governs the Palestinians in the West Bank and Hamas, the Palestinian government in the Gaza Strip.

For the Palestinian Authority, it helps them, because it diverts people’s attention and energies. Fanning the flames in Jerusalem – against Israel, mitigates the mounting criticism of the Palestinian Authority within the Palestinian community over the fact Abbas canceled the elections. Moreover, focusing their anger on Israel allows the Palestinians – and especially the younger generation – to vent their anger and frustration about their economic, political, and social challenges.

For Hamas, the largest and strongest political and military entity that rules the Gaza Strip, the flare-up in Jerusalem provided a golden opportunity on several levels. Since 2007 Hamas has been criticized for the violent coup it perpetrated in the Gaza Strip when it wrestled authority from the Palestinian Authority. The 2007 coup itself was violent and bloody – Hamas slaughtered its Palestinian brothers – members of the Palestinian Authority, in cold blood to take over Gaza. And since taking control of Gaza, Hamas has dragged Gaza and the people of Gaza into a grim reality with no hope and no future. This – along with its relationship with Iran and Turkey – has brought Hamas under increasing criticism by Palestinians as well as Arabs who view Iran and Turkey as a threat to the Arab world.

The flare-up in Jerusalem provided Hamas with a golden opportunity to rehabilitate its status and image both among the Palestinians and in the broader Arab street. Hamas defines itself as the branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine. One of the core pillars of the Muslim Brotherhood is al-muqāwamah al Mussalaha“- the “armed resistance.” In the contemporary Middle East vernacular al-muqāwamah is the call to violently fight against Israel until it is destroyed.

By positioning itself as the “military that is defending the Palestinians” and the “military that is defending Jerusalem on behalf of the Palestinians and Muslims around the world,” Hamas gains popularity and credit among many Palestinian – as well as the Arab street. By positioning itself as the “defenders of Jerusalem,” Hamas softens the criticism and at the same time shows that its way – the way of violence and al-muqāwamah – is the right path. This helps Hamas’ gain support among Palestinians, and it helps Hamas in its political and ideological struggle with Fateh. 

When it comes to its struggle against Israel, Hamas made a decision to take advantage of the flare-up in Jerusalem to create a new equation in the balance of power with Israel.  Hamas is now not only the defender of the Palestinians – Hamas is the military defender of Jerusalem. Hamas demonstrated this shift in tactics by giving Israel an ultimatum. Evacuate Israeli police from the Temple Mount Compound and evacuate Jewish settlers from the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, or we will attack Jerusalem. And they did. On Monday, May 10 – on “Jerusalem Day” that celebrates the unification of the city of Jerusalem when Israel won the 1967 War, Hamas attacked Jerusalem with rockets and missiles.

Until Hamas sent missiles and rockets towards Jerusalem, Hamas’ political and marketing success was primarily in the battlefield of narratives and images. From the moment Hamas launched an attack on Jerusalem, Hamas entered what I will call a “gambling” phase.

I estimate Hamas’ gamble was based on two assumptions.

One was that Hamas believed it would be able to sustain an Israeli retaliation – even a severe attack. This was compounded by the belief that the attack would not minimize over overshadow Hamas’ achievements.

Two that Israel’s response would be confined to a short period of time. The reason for that assumption was that the month of Ramadan ends on Thursday, May 13 – and then the Muslim holiday of Id al-Fitr begins. Hamas apparently estimated that Israel would not conduct a military operation over the holiday. As of now, this assumption seems to have been wrong. The course and trajectory of events in the field – from both Israel and the Palestinians – less than 24 hours before the start of the holiday points to an increasing escalation. Hamas reportedly wants a ceasefire before the holiday begins. At the time of writing this article on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 12, Israel does not want a ceasefire.

Hamas does not want an escalating military round with Israel during Id al-Fitr or after Id al-Fitr for a number of reasons.

One, the accumulating – and intensifying Israeli military blows will significantly damage Hamas’ military capabilities.  

Two, as the fighting goes on and the destruction of Gaza increases, the impact of Hamas’ achievement (the shooting of Jerusalem) will fade both in Arab public opinion in general and among the Gaza people particularly. The “winning shot” will fade, and the people of Gaza will confront increasingly more difficult living conditions. The high probability that the people of Gaza will mark ‘Id al-Fitr under war instead of enjoying the traditional centerpieces of the holiday – shopping, eating, celebrating, visiting friends and family, going to the beach, and having fun, etc. – will add to the sense of frustration. Indeed, as of May 12, the criticism in the Arab world towards Hamas has already resumed.

Three, the chaos, damage, and destruction that will be inflicted on the people of Gaza as an outcome of a wide and intense military round with Israel will help Fateh – Hamas’ bitter rival. Fateh and Hamas are political and ideological rivals with competing ideologies. One of the core differences between the two – and one of the key criticisms Fatah – and the major Arab states wage against Hamas – is that its extreme policy only brings destruction and devastation to Gaza.

There are two very important things for decision-makers and public opinion leaders in the West to understand in the context of Israel and Gaza.

The first thing is Hamas, and Islamic Jihad (the two major and military powers in Gaza) are resolutely ideologically and politically committed to an extreme agenda of death and destruction. They do not want a compromise with Israel and will not agree to a compromise with Israel. Therefore, it is necessary to resolutely deter both organizations. This is not about “revenge” or “punishment.” This is the strategy anyone who rejects the path of violence and wants to promote a process of dialogue and compromise must implement. The decisive deterrence of Hamas and Islamic Jihad is not just in Israel’s interest. It is in the Palestinian interest, in the interest of the region’s key Arab states, and in the interest of the international community. Deterring Hamas and Islamic Jihad is in the interest of moderate and pragmatic Jews and Arabs who reject the violence and look for constructive and productive solutions.

The second thing is the fact that Iran supports both Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Iran supports them financially. Iran trains them and provides them with weapons and comprehensive and sophisticated military know-how to produce their own missiles and rockets. For Iran, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are effective and important proxies that serve and further the Iranian regime’s hegemonic vision. Therefore, it is in Iran’s interest to perpetuate and escalate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is steadfast in its efforts to perpetuate the conflict and works tirelessly to ensure the flames of the conflict escalate. As the Iranian regime deepens its grip and influence in the region, the odds (which are very low in any case) of any positive progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict further diminish.

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Avi Melamed
Avi Melamed
Avi Melamed is an expert on current affairs in the Arab & Muslim World and their impact on Israel & the Middle East. A former Israeli Intelligence Official & Senior Official on Arab Affairs, Fluent in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, he has held high-risk Government, Senior Advisory, Intelligence & Counter-Terrorist intelligence positions in Arab cities & communities - often in very sensitive times - on behalf of Israeli Government agencies. He is the Founder & CEO of Inside the Middle East | Intelligence Perspectives - an apolitical non-partisan curriculum using intelligence methodology to examine the Middle East. As an Author, Educator, Expert, and Strategic Intelligence Analyst, Avi provides Intelligence Analysis, Briefings, and Geopolitical Tours to diplomats, Israeli and foreign policymakers, global media outlets, and a wide variety of international businesses, organizations, and private clients on a range of Israel and Middle East Affairs.

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