Israel and Palestinians, in Gaza, are currently engaged in a conflict, which has every chance of escalation. The Hamas, which controls Gaza, backed by Iran, Qatar, and Turkey, while considered a terrorist organization by most western nations including the US and EU, is launching rockets into Israel.[i] In retaliation, Gaza is facing Israeli air and artillery strikes. Israel has also amassed forces along its borders with Gaza, through land operations do not appear imminent. Within Israel, for the first time in decades, in some cities, riots have broken out between residents belonging to both, Jewish and Arab communities, adding to concerns. Neither side appears to be willing to back down. The world is concerned as the conflict could escalate, and apart from heavy civilian casualties, it could draw in other nations and organizations into the conflict.
The Hamas controls Gaza, while the Palestinian Authority, the West Bank. The ideology of both is different. While the Palestinian Authority recognizes the right of Israel to exist, Hamas does not.[ii] The Palestinian authority almost no control over Gaza, ruled by Hamas. It is possible to prevent Hamas from expanding its hold onto the West Bank that elections for Palestine are not being permitted to be held by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, further distancing the two organizations.[iii] Israel’s continued blockade of Gaza only enhances the power of Hamas.
Added to this is the principle of application of disproportionate force by Israel, mainly determined by its political mold. Currently, both contenders for the PM post, Netanyahu and Gantz, display the same view of, ‘application of full force.’ The reason appears to be to project a strong Israel unwilling to bend to attacks by Hamas, considered by Israel as a terrorist organization. [iv] Hence, the movement towards ceasefire and peace will not be easy. This also implies that any Israeli government, formed in the coming days, will not initiate talks with Hamas, which remains undoubtedly, a major player in the region.
There is also a policy difference between the two warring sides. Israel aims to suppress the growing power of Hamas by imposing a strong blockade on Gaza, while Hamas seeks to cement its power and pressure Israel to lift the blockade by employing violence against it. For Israel, easing of restrictions on Gaza could permit expansion of the power of Hamas onto the West Bank as also induction of weapons into Gaza, which could add to its dangers, while for Hamas regularly attacking Israel is a display of its strength, capability as also enhances local support.[v]
Casualties and violence are also exploited by both sides. Hamas projects Palestinian casualties as use of excessive military power by Israel and Israel exploits the launching of rockets by Hamas as a threat to the security of its population by a terrorist organization, thereby giving it authority to retaliate by force. The end result is an unending cycle of violence that causes suffering to innocents. Since Hamas came to power in Gaza, three major wars have already been fought. While currently, the conflict is restricted in area, it has implications across a wider region.
Iran, a sworn enemy of Israel, which backs Hamas, could be dragged into the conflict by taking this opportunity to counter recent Israeli actions of targeting its ships carrying oil and weapons.[vi] Iran has also accused Israel of launching cyberattacks on its nuclear installations.[vii] Similarly, Israel has accused Iran of targeting its ships in the Gulf of Oman.[viii] Israel media reports that rockets were also fired towards its territory from Syria and Lebanon.[ix] These could have been fired by Iranian proxies. If these attacks continue there is bound to be retaliation by Israel enhancing the scope of the conflict and dragging in countries and terrorist organizations supported by Iran into the conflict.
Other Muslim nations are also attempting to exploit this conflict. Turkey’s Vice President, Fuat Oktay stated, ‘Everyone who does not display a clear stance against this is a party to this torment. Unfortunately, when we look at the Muslim countries that do not display this unity and togetherness, everyone there who does not display a clear stance is a party to this.’[x] Turkey is seeking to divide the Muslim world and challenge Saudi power over the OIC as also expand its control over Hamas, which it supports.
Since the fighting began, Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has spoken to leaders of Malaysia, Qatar, Kuwait, and Jordan, seeking to draw them into its fold.[xi] Pakistan and Turkey have joined hands to mobilize support against Israel.[xii] Turkey’s call for an OIC meeting on Israel received Pakistan’s support. Pak foreign minister, SM Qureshi, stated, ‘Pakistan fully supports Turkey’s call to convene an emergency meeting of the OIC and the United Nations (UN) on the increasingly dire and oppressive situation in Palestine, against the storming of First Qibla of Islam Masjid Al Aqsa.’[xiii]
To counter the Turkish initiative, Saudi Arabia called for a virtual foreign ministers meeting of the OIC to discuss ‘Israeli acts of violence against Palestinians and the Israeli police’s use of force against protesters at al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.’[xiv] The OIC meeting, held on 16th May, called an immediate halt to what it described as Israel’s barbaric attacks on Gaza. It also called on Israel to respect Muslims’ access to Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest shrine in Islam, as well as stop settlers from forcibly evicting Palestinian families from their homes.[xv] There was no criticism of Hamas for its rocket attacks. The meeting also displayed divisions within the group as countries turned their ire on those which have recently established diplomatic ties with Israel.
The Abraham accord[xvi] involving the US, Israel, and the UAE, leading to the UAE establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, and subsequently, with Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan is likely to face hurdles. The accord had two major ingredients, both of which Israel violated, unhindered access to the Al-Aqsa complex and construction colonies in East Jerusalem by evicting Arab residents. It was breaking these two major agreements which led to an escalation in the current crisis.[xvii]
It will now become difficult for Middle East nations, which had established some rapport with Israel to continue with it. Pressure is already mounting on nations that signed the Abraham accords.[xviii] Saudi Arabia, which had virtually recognized Israel amidst an undeclared meeting between its crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, and Israel PM, Benjamin Netanyahu[xix], would come under pressure. The OIC’s human rights body has already condemned Israel for attacking Palestinians at the Mosque.[xx] In case, Saudi-Iran talks, in progress in Iraq,[xxi] move well, Israel may well be the loser, as the only reason for reproaching between the Middle East nations and Israel is a common threat of Iran.
The US is seeking to broker peace in the region while attempting to display an even-handed approach. Its secretary of state, Anthony Blinken stated, ‘We strongly condemn the rocket attacks coming out of Gaza that are targeting innocent Israeli civilians, and Israel has a right to defend itself. Palestinians have a right to live in safety and security, and the most important thing going forward now is to take down the violence, to de-escalate, and that’s exactly what we’re working toward.’[xxii] It did not display open support for Israel.
The UNSC has held three meetings over the current crisis, the last being on 16th May. They urged Israel not to make demographic and territorial changes in the occupied territory and immediately cease its hostilities. They also called upon Hamas to immediately stop rocket attacks into Israel, reminding both sides that nothing could justify targeting civilians. No statement was issued, though China blamed the US for supporting Israel and blocking the issue of a statement.[xxiii]
India has close ties with Palestine and Israel, however, within Palestine, it is NOT with Hamas but the Palestinian Authority. India is also receiving medical aid from Israel for battling the pandemic. The Minister of State for External Affairs, V Muraleedharan, tweeted on the killing of an Indian caregiver in Israel, ‘We have condemned these attacks and the violence in Jerusalem, and urged restraint by both sides.’[xxiv] At the UNSC meeting, the Indian permanent representative to the UN condemned Hamas for its rocket attacks and Israel for its strikes and stated, ‘We urge both sides to show extreme restraint, desist from actions that exacerbate tensions, and refrain from attempts to unilaterally change the existing status quo. We believe that every effort should be made to create conducive conditions for the resumption of talks between Israel and Palestine.’[xxv] India is staying away from supporting either side, though it stated that it backs a two-state solution.
Globally, leaving side the members of the OIC, support to either side is dependent on whether Hamas is considered a terrorist organization or legitimate representatives of Gaza. The next factor to determine support is the belief in the right of Israel to defend itself and their principle of application of full force and strong blockade of Gaza. Simultaneously, is the view of Hamas exploiting the civilian population as shields for obtaining global sympathy, disregarding casualties.
How long would global powers take to broker peace is a mute question. Currently, calls for a ceasefire from Egypt and Jordan, with close ties to both sides, have been ignored. Israel is considering this as an opportunity to degrade the capability of Hamas, which may not succeed as the high-handed and force-driven approach may lead to enhanced local support for Hamas and enlarge its foot soldiers, rather than reduce it.
In 2004, Israel killed Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, and subsequently his successor, to no avail.[xxvi] Organizations like Hamas strive for local support, either earned or enforced. Increased civilian casualties in Gaza due to excessive force employed by Israel would only enhance support to Hamas. However, its trained cadre and holding of rockets would be impacted, only to be rebuilt with the passage of time, supported by nations and organizations inimical to Israel. There would be a period of relative peace before Hamas recreates its arsenal of rockets. There is no possibility of any other political force, strong enough to challenge the Hamas, rising in Gaza in any near timeframe, with whom Israel could consider negotiating for long-term peace.
Without Israel moving towards talks and reducing the blockade on Gaza there is unlikely to be any resolution and this state of tensions would remain. Stating unwillingness to talk to terrorist groups is not a solution. Israel did achieve some success when Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo agreement with Yasser Arafat, then head of Palestinian Liberation Organization, which was considered a terrorist group, in May 1994, despite objections from many on either side. However, both began regening on their promises leading to the ‘second intifada in 2000. The further strain came into the relationship when Hamas, with an opposite ideology, came into power in Gaza in the 2006 elections.[xxvii]
There are multiple occasions when peace has succeeded after discussions with terrorist groups. India achieved peace after negotiations with designated terrorist groups in Nagaland and Mizoram. The US is currently talking to the Taliban, without any letdown in violence levels. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, who signed the Oslo peace accords had stated, ‘We can continue to fight. We can continue to kill – and continue to be killed. But we can also try to put a stop to this never-ending cycle of blood. We can also give peace a chance.’[xxviii]
For both sides, options are limited. They must put sentimentality and determination to eliminate the opposite aside, open doors to talks, or else this cycle of violence will continue to rise and fall. History has shown that neither has the capability to crush the other militarily. Further, if levels of violence continue to grow, it would draw in countries or terrorist organizations from outside, only increasing instability in an already volatile region.