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Hamas and Israel Are in a Perilous Cycle. Is War a Miscalculation Away?

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military calls it “the campaign between the wars” — short but increasingly harsh operations against the Hamas rulers of Gaza that are meant to warn off the Islamist militant group and postpone, if not prevent, the next major conflagration.

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Isabel Kershner
, New York Times

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military calls it “the campaign between the wars” — short but increasingly harsh operations against the Hamas rulers of Gaza that are meant to warn off the Islamist militant group and postpone, if not prevent, the next major conflagration.

The problem is that each round of escalating violence may instead bring the next war closer.

For the second time in a week, Israel and Hamas battled across the Gaza border Friday. Israeli warplanes fiercely pounded about 60 Hamas military sites after Palestinian gunmen from Gaza fatally shot an Israeli soldier.

Both sides then quickly stepped back from the brink.

Hamas, which lost three of its members, said Saturday that it was resuming the cease-fire that ended the last war with Israel in 2014 after intensive mediation by Egypt and the United Nations. Calm was mostly restored but once again, none of the underlying issues fanning the tensions had been resolved, leaving the two sides in a dangerous paralysis.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in the last decade and many on both sides think a fourth is inevitable. With all the dangers of miscalculation, any number of mishaps could spiral into a war of no choice that neither side actually wants.

In the latest iteration of this asymmetric conflict, the high-tech Israeli air force bombed Hamas’ military infrastructure to drive home the message that the group must halt its inexpensive but destructive new tactic of floating incendiary kites and balloons across the border into southern Israel. The flaming kites have set hundreds of wildfires and unnerved Israeli civilian communities close to Gaza.

This month, Israel has also imposed additional economic sanctions on the already impoverished and isolated Palestinian coastal territory.

“The trouble is that Israeli public opinion is demanding that something be done about the incendiary kites,” said Nathan Thrall, director of the International Crisis Group’s Israeli-Palestinian project and author of “Averting War in Gaza” a new study by the group.

“It has been proposed that if Hamas stops the kites, the situation can go back to what it was half a year ago,” Thrall added. “The problem is that Hamas doesn’t want to go back to where it was half a year ago, or a year ago or two years ago.”

The deterioration in the Gaza situation comes against the backdrop of years of impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The Israeli government has shifted to the right, empowered by the ascendancy of the Trump administration, which applies much less pressure on Israel than its predecessors to make any concessions to the increasingly divided and, some say, ineffective, Palestinian leadership.

In what the Palestinians considered another poke in the eye this year, the Trump administration moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to the disputed holy city of Jerusalem.

The hostilities began to heat up again Thursday when Hamas vowed to avenge the death of a militant killed by Israeli shelling in the city of Rafah in southern Gaza.

Then the Israeli soldier was shot Friday, the first soldier killed in combat in the Gaza border area since the last war ended four years ago. Israel’s overnight blitz against Hamas was the most intense campaign during the same period.

“Hamas was worried that it was facing a new situation,” Thrall said, “that the rules of the game had changed and that Israel could bomb with impunity. So Hamas wanted to make it clear that that was unacceptable and that it would retaliate.”

That, he said, has been the main dynamic and source of the current cycle of confrontation.

Another crucial element in the Gaza morass is the recurring failure of reconciliation efforts between Hamas, which has controlled Gaza for 11 years, and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, a more moderate body that exercises limited authority over parts of the West Bank.

The International Crisis Group says that the only way out of another full-fledged war is a reconciliation pact that would allow the Palestinian Authority to take over governance of Gaza. But a unity agreement, reached in the fall, has faltered.

Nobody seems to want responsibility for governing the enclave of 2 million Palestinians, more than half of whom live below the poverty line and who face an unemployment rate of nearly 50 percent.

Hamas would likely want to give up the burden of governance but without giving up its weapons. The Palestinian Authority, led by Hamas’ main rivals, doesn’t want the job. Nor do Israel and Egypt, the neighboring countries that impose tight restrictions on the movement of people and goods in and out of the territory, citing security imperatives such as preventing the smuggling of more weapons into Gaza.

Tensions have been mounting over the past three months since Hamas began orchestrating mass, often-violent protests along the fence dividing Israel and Gaza. Israeli snipers have killed more than 140 mostly unarmed Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials, while the military says it has been acting to prevent breaches of the fence and to fend off attacks by Gaza militants like the one Friday.

That friction has morphed into escalating exchanges of Palestinian mortar and rocket fire against Israeli military positions and civilian border communities, and waves of Israeli airstrikes. Each side has maneuvered to try to restore a balance of deterrence against the other.

“We have all seen in the newspapers that you don’t go to war over kites and fires,” Israel’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said during a visit to the Gaza border area Friday. “We are operating with responsibility and restraint, though the true problem is the erosion of deterrence, a change in the equation and of course in the feeling of security, which is no less important than security itself.”

Shortly before the latest cease-fire came into effect, Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, insisted on his group’s right to continue resistance, as he put it, “to defend the people of Gaza.”

“It is the national duty of the resistance to deter the Israeli occupation from imposing its own rules of engagement upon innocent civilians,” he said. Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political scientist at Birzeit University in the West Bank, said, “I think the catch here is that the situation in Gaza is unsustainable. It has to explode in one way or another. Hamas is trying to manage the situation in different ways, including trying to channel the anger outward.”

Another complication is the argument between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Egypt and the international donor community over how to get massive aid and development projects into Gaza.

Israel wants all assistance to go through the Palestinian Authority. The authority has, in the meantime, been imposing its own sanctions on Hamas and is not eager to offer it a lifeline. Donors are wary of handing aid directly to Hamas, which could divert it for military purposes.

In an op-ed published in The Washington Post on Thursday, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman — the Trump administration’s top team dealing with the conflict — argued that the situation for Gazans would vastly improve if Hamas would dramatically change course.

“Until governance changes or Hamas recognizes the state of Israel, abides by previous diplomatic agreements and renounces violence,” they wrote, “there is no good option.”

Sami Abu Zuhri, another Hamas spokesman, dismissed the three as having adopted the Israeli narrative and called the administration “silly.”

Israel, for its part, lacks a clear strategic goal for Gaza.

“The dilemma for Israel is what happens in Gaza without Hamas?” said Gabi Siboni, director of the Military and Strategic Affairs Program at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “If Israel collapses the Hamas regime, what comes after? Every alternative is awful.” Yet another strand in the Gaza Gordian knot is the fate of two Israeli civilian hostages as well as the remains of two Israeli soldiers, all believed held by Hamas in the enclave. Israel says it will not allow any significant humanitarian concessions for Gaza unless Hamas returns the remains and frees the hostages.

Hamas says it will only give up its bargaining chips in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Israelis have little stomach for a major prisoner swap, given the continuing hostilities.

“Hamas,” Siboni said, “is fighting for its goals, but its goals are so high they will never achieve them. They want to build up their arms and be allowed to bring whatever they want into Gaza. That’s a fantasy.”

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