What Netanyahu and Hamas Are Really Fighting for in Gaza

New Yorker, Editorial

This past weekend in Gaza saw the heaviest Palestinian rocket attacks and reciprocal Israeli bombing since the 2014 war. A ceasefire was announced on Monday, though it may prove short-lived. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said in a statement that “the campaign is not over.” He is deep in negotiations to form a governing coalition, including with the hawkish leader Avigdor Lieberman, who is likely to return to the Defense Ministry, and who, in the past, has advocated for a full-scale invasion of Gaza to topple the Hamas regime. A spokesperson for Hamas, Sami Abu Zuhri, said that “the conflict will not end until we regain our rights.” In typical fashion, Zuhri left ambiguous whether by “rights” he meant the easing of the blockade or “return,” the banner under which youthful, and often fatal, border demonstrations for Palestinians’ “right of return” to their homelands have been mounted for the past year. Netanyahu wants Hamas to think that an invasion is possible; Zuhri wants Israelis to think that the price for such an action would be unacceptably high. Both men defaulted to vendetta banalities; the numbers presumably tell you who should be more afraid of whom.

Hamas, with its ally and rival group Islamic Jihad—which apparently started off the latest round of hostilities—fired six hundred and ninety missiles into southern Israel, including the city of Ashkelon, killing four Israeli civilians. Hamas claimed to concentrate its fire to get through Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system. State exams for graduating high-school seniors were cancelled in communities within forty kilometres of the Gaza border. Hamas thus claimed that it was now in a position to force Israel to fulfill concessions pledged in past exchanges, such as opening the border for deliveries of diesel fuel, and an increased range of fishing grounds. As a sweetener for the ceasefire, which Egypt brokered, Qatar announced a four-hundred-and-eighty-million-dollar aid package for Palestinians, a significant portion of which will go to humanitarian projects in Gaza.

Netanyahu claimed that the I.D.F. attacked three hundred and fifty “targets” in Gaza—leaving twenty-five Palestinians dead. According to the I.D.F., Israel also destroyed a cross-border “attack tunnel,” and the Iron Dome intercepted two hundred and forty missiles. Israel thus claimed to have reëstablished “deterrence,” by degrading the “terrorist infrastructure.” Netanyahu might have added to his list the more than two hundred and sixty Palestinians killed and the sixty-four hundred injured in the border demonstrations.

What seems clear in this fog of euphemism, polemic, and callous score-keeping is that Gaza has become ground for a war of attrition. And the question of whether the war should be thought inevitable depends not on the truths that each side tells about the other but on the half-truths that each tells about itself.

Yahya Sinwar, the current head of Hamas in Gaza—which violently expelled the Fatah leaders of the Palestinian Authority there, in 2007—claims, plausibly, to voice the plight of the besieged. Unemployment is nearly sixty per cent; the water is largely undrinkable; electricity is intermittent. One study revealed that almost seventy per cent of adolescents have a form of post-traumatic disorder—forty per cent have depression. But Sinwar, who served twenty-two years in Israeli prison for kidnapping and murdering two Israeli soldiers, and who must know that Israel will not be defeated militarily, refuses to recognize the state, renounce terror, or adhere to former Palestinian obligations under the Oslo Accords, three conditions that—since 2006, as set by Ehud Olmert, who was then the acting Prime Minister—would lead to recognition by, and direct negotiations with, Israel.

People who sympathize with Gazans’ plight might well claim that the P.A. under Mahmoud Abbas followed that path, and wound up being stonewalled by successive governments under Netanyahu. But it was Hamas’s campaign of suicide bombings in Israeli cities during the al-Aqsa Intifada, from 2000 to 2005—which killed a thousand Israelis and some four thousand Palestinians—that, more than anything else, accounts for the hard right turn of the Israeli electorate. Mutual recognition is the beginning of a peace process, not its culmination.

Besides, Gaza, a hundred and forty square miles of land just forty-four miles south of Tel Aviv, can’t hope to develop a viable economy without Tel Aviv’s investment capital, technology resources, service jobs, and, perhaps, Israelis’ return to Gaza’s incomparable beaches. Nor, in this context, will Sinwar concede that the Office of the Quartet, the multinational group established, in 2002, to assist with what peace process there was, has already gained approval from critical Israeli security officials for a gas pipeline from Israel to Gaza, which would power an electric plant and a desalination facility. What’s holding up this and other “humanitarian” aid is Hamas’s unwillingness to disarm, or at least to send its approximately thirty thousand cadres to their barracks, while accepting the Palestinian Authority’s leadership in pursuit of a regional deal.

The demand to disarm and engage in peacemaking, in other words, is coming not just from Israel but from the P.A. itself, which wants Hamas to accept reunification of the Palestinian territories under the P.A.’s authority. And polls show that, although it spikes during times of war, Hamas’s popularity has been dropping since 2007. This is true even in Gaza, where Hamas used violence to break up demonstrations against it in March and charges of sketchy uses of import taxes have raised charges of corruption. “Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’s political bureau, is personally popular in Presidential polls,” the opinion researcher Khalil Shikaki told me. “But only about thirty-nine per cent of Gazans support Hamas.” The movement appeals to perhaps a third of the Palestinian population over all—not a small number, but hardly a mandate for endless war.

Netanyahu evidently wants observers to believe that, given such an enemy, his government has no choice but to manage periodic outbreaks of violence—to “mow the grass,” as the common military metaphor has it. But he is also seeding the grass—spreading resentment from which Hamas’s support grows. Abbas negotiated seriously through much of 2008, but, since Netanyahu gained power, in 2009, the Israeli Prime Minister has either brushed Abbas aside or sought to undermine him.

Indeed, political coöperation with the P.A.—as distinct from security coördination between the P.A. police and the Israeli army on the ground (which is itself increasingly uncertain)—is precisely what Netanyahu resists. It would signal to his own Likud Party and its potential rightist partners in a new government a willingness to compromise on the West Bank—“Judea and Samaria”—which matters far more to them than Gaza.

For the Israeli right, then, Hamas in Gaza is convenient proof of Palestinian disunity and untrustworthiness, and support for its claim that Palestinian independence means more Hamas victories—including missiles coming from the West Bank, too. Actually, support for Hamas in the West Bank is only around twenty-six per cent. Still, if increased Hamas violence can be made to seem unavoidable, then Israel’s annexation of the West Bank can be presented as inexorable.

None of this portends the “quiet for quiet” formula that Israeli governments have fallen back on since the 2014 war—a formula that Hamas categorically rejects. Indeed, a war of attrition may be the only feasible option that Sinwar and Netanyahu have left themselves, but this style of engagement also makes each side hostage to the other’s opportunism—or recklessness. Next week, Israel will host the Eurovision song contest, and hundreds of millions of eyes will be trained on Tel Aviv. Hamas may suppose that it can extort a great deal in the days ahead, to keep those eyes from watching missiles landing. In an interview with Al Mayadeen, the Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese television channel, the Islamic jihad leader Ziyad al-Nakhalah claimed that, hours before the last round of fighting ended, his group was set to launch rockets toward Tel Aviv.