The Israeli-Palestinian crisis: A distressing déjà vu

Posted on Thursday 17th July 2014

The most depressing aspect of the current round of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, beyond the death toll and the human suffering, is the sheer predictability of this crisis. As far as contemporary armed conflicts go, few could match the intensity, inevitability and perpetuity of the ongoing struggle between the militant group Hamas and the Israeli government.

Twice before in the past five years Hamas blindly fired rockets into Israel and in response the Israeli air force pummelled suspected terrorist targets in the Gaza Strip. The end result of these episodes, Operation Cast Lead of 2008-2009 (which also involved an Israeli ground operation) and Operation Pillar of Defence of 2012, was depressingly similar: hundreds of Palestinians killed, many of them innocent civilians; a humanitarian crisis in Gaza; life brought to a halt in many Israeli cities; and an Egyptian-mediated cease-fire that could only delay the next round of violence.

This time is no different. Since Israel launched its Operation Mighty Cliff on July 8, more than 200 Palestinians had been killed, about a third of them women and children. More than a thousand rockets hit Israeli cities, resulting so far in only one death, thanks to Israel’s immensely effective Iron Dome missile defence system. The international response has so far been equally predictable: criticism of Hamas’s deliberate shelling of civilian targets inside Israel on the one hand, and condemnation of Israel’s heavy handed response in Gaza. There is criticism at home too: Ibrahim Khraishi, the Palestinian ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, acknowledged that Hamas’s actions constituted a crime against humanity, while the Israeli President Shimon Peres conceded that the killing of Palestinian civilians by Israeli air raids was a moral problem, though he admitted that there may not be a better alternative to stop the incessant firing of rockets.

Just like in 2009 and 2012, once again the Egyptian government, being the only credible mediator in this conflict given its peace treaty with Israel and its control of Gaza’s southern Rafah crossing into Egypt, proposed a ceasefire that was supposed to come into effect within 12 hours. Israel accepted the plan however Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Gaza’s second militant group, flatly rejected it and continued almost immediately to fire rockets. Embarrassed by this turn of events, Israel resumed its air raids against Gaza and hinted that a large-scale ground operation could soon follow.

Often depicted by the international press as a blood-thirsty hardliner, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far emerged as exactly the opposite. His critics at home remind him that his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, did not hesitate to order a large scale military operation against Hamas in 2009, whereas he, for the second time in two years, has failed to protect the citizens of Israel and has been too scared to order a ground operation. His eagerness to accept the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire without any tangible military achievements, only for Hamas to reject it hours later, has also been the subject of hundreds of memes in social media.

But Hamas has not come out of this crisis any better either. Despite its vigorous rhetoric about its continued struggle against the Israeli air, land and sea blockade of the Gaza Strip, it has nothing to show for in the current round of violence: the Iron Dome has managed to reduce Israeli casualties to the bare minimum, whereas the Palestinian death toll and the burgeoning humanitarian crisis in Gaza are seen by many observers, including in the Arab world, as direct results of Hamas’s irresponsible actions.

It becomes increasingly evident that neither side is interested in further escalation, but some kind of a face-saving formula must emerge for the next cease-fire to last longer than the previous two. Hamas is reported to demand ten conditions from Israel in exchange for a ten-year truce, including the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the border, the lifting of the blockade over Gaza, and the release of Palestinian prisoners. Israel, on the other hand, is unlikely to agree to any meaningful truce that would see Hamas keeping control of its Iranian and Syrian-imported stockpile of tens of thousands of rockets.

The ending of this crisis – a matter of days rather than weeks barring an Israeli ground operation – will almost certainly resemble previous formulas: a tepid agreement to stop hostilities, some easing of restrictions on Palestinian movement into and out of Gaza, and the setting an implementation mechanism of the cease-fire. Both Hamas and the Israeli government will declare themselves victors, but the next round of violence is already around the corner. The losers of this crisis, as ever in this conflict, are the people of Israel and Palestine.

Dr Asaf Siniver is a Senior Lecturer in International Security, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham