Middle East

Israel’s war of attrition with Hamas delivers another bloody stalemate

A Palestinian policeman controls the traffic in Gaza City following a ceasefire reached after an 11-day war between the Palestinian enclave's Hamas rulers and Israel on May 21, 2021.
A Palestinian policeman controls the traffic in Gaza City following a ceasefire reached after an 11-day war between the Palestinian enclave's Hamas rulers and Israel on May 21, 2021. © Khalil Hamra, AP

An uneasy ceasefire between Israel and Hamas came into effect on Friday after a deadly 11-day conflict, with both sides claiming victory and experts warning that the seeds of another bloody confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians have already been sown.

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The truce brokered by Egypt brought a tentative end to the fourth war between Israel and the Islamist militant group since 2008. Like the three previous conflicts, the latest bloodshed ended with both sides landing blows but failing to secure a knockout. 

Israel claimed to have inflicted “unprecedented” damage on Hamas with hundreds of bruising airstrikes, though it was once again unable to halt rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. Hamas and its smaller ally the Islamic Jihad also claimed victory, despite the horrific toll for families and businesses in the impoverished Palestinian enclave.

“Both sides exhausted each other,” Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow at the London-based Chatham House, told FRANCE 24. “Both tried to prove their points and strengths, but their vulnerabilities and weaknesses were also exposed.”

Publicity for Hamas, a lifeline for ‘Bibi’

More than 200 people – the vast majority Palestinians – have died in the 11-day conflict, which began on May 10 when Hamas militants in Gaza fired long-range rockets towards Jerusalem. 

The barrage followed days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police at the flashpoint Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, where heavy-handed police tactics, coupled with the threatened eviction of dozens of nearby Palestinian families by Jewish settlers, had inflamed tensions.

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Hamas and other militant groups fired over 4,000 rockets at Israel throughout the fighting, showcasing a vastly expanded and improved arsenal as they launched projectiles from civilian areas at Israeli cities. Dozens of rockets flew as far north as Tel Aviv, the country’s commercial capital.

“The whole world should know that our hands are on the trigger,” Hamas warned on Friday as Palestinians took to the streets in Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank to celebrate the ceasefire, boosting the Islamist group’s standing in areas controlled by its weakened rivals in the Palestinian Authority.

Israel, meanwhile, has carried out hundreds of airstrikes targeting what it said was Hamas’s military infrastructure, including a vast tunnel network and – in a first that sparked global alarm – a tower block housing the offices of international media Al Jazeera and the Associated Press.

"Hamas can't hide anymore,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised address, claiming that the Israeli military had destroyed the group’s extensive tunnel network, its rocket factories, weapons laboratories and storage facilities, and killed more than 200 militants, including 25 senior operatives.

According to Agnès Levallois, a senior fellow at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, Friday’s early-morning ceasefire “comes at the right time for both sides”. 

“Hamas got what it wanted: to cast itself as the protector of Jerusalem, when it had so far been confined to the Gaza Strip,” she explained. “At the same time, Hamas knew very well that the vehemence of Israel’s riposte meant it had no choice but to accept a truce.”

On the Israeli side, an embattled Netanyahu was determined to inflict maximum damage on Hamas in a war that could help save his political career. But he too had come under intense pressure over the conflict’s horrific toll on civilians, particularly children, Levallois added.

“Netanyahu realised he had scored enough points on the ground to buttress his standing as Israel’s ‘strongman’ and thereby save his political skin – which was always one of the main motives for this operation,” she explained, referring to Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial and failed attempts to form a new government following inconclusive elections.

The Israeli prime minister “‘didn’t orchestrate the whole thing – it’s bigger than him,” added Mekelberg. “But the conflict certainly threw him a lifeline.”

‘Hamas won’t just disappear’

The 11-day war has effectively scuppered attempts by Netanyahu’s rivals to form a coalition without him, significantly boosting his chances of extending his 12-year rule. But the ceasefire also carries a cost for the prime minister, who is facing angry accusations from his hawkish, nationalist base that he halted the fighting too soon.

Gideon Saar, a former ally who now leads a small party opposed to the prime minister, called the ceasefire “embarrassing”, while Itamar Ben Gvir, the virulent head of the far-right Jewish Power party, described it as “a grave surrender to terrorism and the dictates of Hamas”.

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As local daily Haaretz observed on Friday, Israeli authorities have once again been caught up by the discrepancy between the concrete military objectives of deterrence and the impossible aspirations raised by each new confrontation with Hamas.

“Once every few years, Israel initiates a new operation in the Gaza Strip or finds itself involved in one,” the newspaper read. “The disparity between the limited goals that the army wants to achieve, and the crushing victory that the majority of the public wants to see, will remain large.”

Ultimately, Netanayhu’s government “accepted the Israeli military’s advice that there was no more to achieve with air strikes and that if you aren’t going to expand, now is the time to retreat,” said FRANCE 24’s Jerusalem correspondent, Irris Makler. 

As Levallois and Mekelberg point out, the latest conflict in Gaza followed an all-too familiar pattern of inconclusive wars that lead to further bloodshed down the line. Meanwhile, peace talks remain off the table.

“In recent years, Israel has carried out several operations to eliminate the military capabilities of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Despite inflicting massive damage, each time they come back,” said Levallois. “Israel cannot make Hamas disappear, because the problem is not a military one – it’s political.” 

Failure to seek a political solution will inevitably lead to another flare up in the near future, Mekelberg added, stressing the need for international brokers to get involved.

“It’s like ‘Groundhog Day’, we’ve been in this situation so many times, with exactly the same pattern,” he said. “It’s not just about Israel and Hamas; it’s the whole issue of the relation between Israel and the Palestinians that needs to be addressed, in all its aspects. If they don’t go back to the negotiating table, the war will come back again.”

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