In Gaza, an Impasse Cannot Be Mistaken for Stability

24 May 2021 11:50:37 - Last updated: 25 May 2021 12:37:06

By Steve Coll

In early May, Palestinians protesting the pending eviction of six families from their homes in East Jerusalem clashed with Israeli police. For many Palestinians, the eviction cases evoked a long history of dispossession while presenting evidence of continued efforts to remove them from the city. These protests and others regarding Palestinian rights in Jerusalem devolved into street fights, and Hamas, from its redoubt in the Gaza Strip, warned that it might “not stand idly by.” On May 10th, its forces fired a fusillade of rockets and missiles at Israeli villages and cities, and the Israel Defense Forces responded with air strikes on Gaza, inaugurating a mini-war of depressingly familiar dimensions—the fourth in a dozen years between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Last Thursday, after eleven days of destruction and loss of life, and behind-the-scenes mediation by the Biden Administration and Egypt, the combatants declared a ceasefire. The conflict and its announced termination had a ritualized aspect: Israel and Hamas both knew from the start that international diplomacy would offer an exit ramp whenever both were ready, and although past ceasefires have not always held initially, neither side seemed to want a prolonged war. For the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu—who is facing corruption charges and has struggled to hold on to power after several indecisive elections—thumping Hamas, even briefly, offered a reprise of his self-mythologizing role as the unbowed protector of Israel. For Hamas, a limited battle in the name of Jerusalem allowed it to advance claims to Palestinian leadership at a time when the group’s main rival, the Fatah Party, appeared weak, after its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, recently postponed long-awaited elections.

It was, as usual, always clear who the losers would be: Gaza’s two million people, who were trapped in a humanitarian crisis even before the bombs fell. Israel and Egypt maintain a blockade on the enclave, where high rates of poverty have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. In more than a thousand air and missile strikes, Israel said it targeted Hamas commanders and military “infrastructure,” but although Israeli forces adopted rules of attack designed to protect noncombatants, Palestinian civilian casualties mounted. Even the use of relatively precise aerial firepower against a region as densely populated as Gaza is all but guaranteed to kill innocents. Israeli attacks claimed more than two hundred and thirty fatalities, including more than sixty children, and destroyed or damaged hospitals, residences, sewer systems, and the electric grid.

Suhaila Tarazi, who has run Gaza City’s Ahli Arab Hospital for about twenty-five years, found herself once again admitting scores of patients, this time with “broken limbs—lots of them,” she said on Wednesday. Diesel supplies for generators, her facility’s only reliable source of electricity, were running low; Tarazi had to ration power to keep operating theatres and X-ray machines functioning. Her medical director couldn’t come in that day, because an Israeli attack had struck his neighborhood, and he needed to take care of his elderly sisters, who had evacuated their home. Not far from the hospital, a section of the busy thoroughfare Wahda Street lay in ruins, after an Israeli strike on May 16th brought down buildings and killed forty-two people, including sixteen women and ten children. Israel acknowledged these civilian casualties; a military spokesperson said that a strike had crumpled a tunnel used by Hamas, unintentionally causing the collapse of nearby houses. For its part, Hamas fired more than four thousand rockets and missiles in indiscriminate attacks, killing at least twelve people in Israel.

As images of the dead and the injured in Gaza coursed across the global media, President Joe Biden did not criticize Israel in public. Last week, a narrative emanating from Washington emphasized the contrast between the President’s back-channel diplomacy and the willingness of progressive Democrats in Congress, such as Representative Rashida Tlaib, to openly accuse Israel of committing war crimes. Biden was surely influenced by his experiences dealing with Israel as Vice-President during the Obama Administration, including during the last major conflict in Gaza, in 2014, when Israeli ministers directed scorn at then Secretary of State John Kerry for, in their view, pushing a ceasefire prematurely.

Netanyahu famously embarrassed and snubbed Barack Obama. Not incidentally, Obama and some of his advisers lost faith in the possibilities for peace in the Middle East. In his memoir, “A Promised Land,” he recounts how, in 2010, he hosted a dinner with Netanyahu, Abbas, then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and King Abdullah of Jordan, before reflecting, later that night, on “all the children, whether in Gaza or in Israeli settlements” who would know “mainly violence, coercion, fear, and the nursing of hatred because, deep down, none of the leaders I’d met with believed anything else was possible.” There is little reason to think that Biden’s view today is much sunnier, yet his traditional, art-of-the-possible diplomacy seems to have helped to halt devastating violence.

The latest crisis in Gaza cannot be set aside as just another passing episode in Hamas’s forever war against Israel’s existence. The fighting coincided with shocks inside Israel’s recognized borders, where mob violence and attempted lynchings sundered ties between Jewish and Arab citizens and neighbors. An Arab mob pulled a driver presumed to be Jewish from his car in Acre and severely beat him, while Jewish extremists organized vigilante squads in dozens of WhatsApp groups and attacked Arab citizens and businesses in Bat Yam and elsewhere. Israel imposed states of emergency in several towns and cities, quelling the violence, at least temporarily.

Israel is the longest-lived democracy in the Middle East, and by many measures the most successful nation in the region, yet its continued occupation of the West Bank and its harsh blockade of Gaza have undermined its constitutional ideals and worsened internal fault lines that threaten its future. Netanyahu has been in power continuously since 2009, but his accommodations of far-right political parties and millenarian settler movements, coupled with his rejection of reconciliation with Palestinians, have failed to deliver durable security. It is easy to mistake an impasse for stability. However long the announced ceasefire in Gaza holds, there will be even less reason than before to confuse that state of quiet with peace.