It seems that a spooky Faustian pact exists between the two sides: Hamas needs enemies like Netanyahu, just as Netanyahu needs enemies like Hamas.

London: So, a cease-fire has been agreed between the two enemies—for now at least. But don’t hold your breath. The Jerusalem Post put it succinctly back in 2014 during the last major Palestinian uprising: “those who forlornly ask when is it going to end have psychological difficulties digesting the fact that there is no solution to this protracted intractable conflict”. Outbreaks of intense fighting will occur every few years, the Post claimed, and all Israeli bombers and artillery have to do is “mow the grass”, a chilling euphemism when high explosives kill children as well as “terrorists”. “It’s simply something you have to do every now and then, as a chore”.
After eleven days, the end came not because the Palestinians ran out of rockets, or the Israelis ran out of targets. No, it was because the two protagonists and enemies, Hamas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had achieved their aims.
With war in Gaza having returned with its stubborn, periodic insistence, the Israelis once again found themselves two weeks ago “mowing the grass”. This round of Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting followed a familiar script—Hamas fired rockets indiscriminately and Israel retaliated disproportionately. The US supported Israel’s right to defend itself, while Europe wagged a finger at Israel. Hamas fired more than 4,000 crudely made rockets into Israel, killing a dozen people, while the precision guided missiles from Israeli aircraft and shells from guns killed at least 243 Palestinians, including 66 children and 39 women. Merely collective punishment, according to the Israeli leadership, as both sides cleared the rubble, buried their dead and prepared for the next round.
This time it started during Ramadan in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest places. Claiming that they were facing a demonstration by young Palestinians throwing rocks, armed Israeli police entered the Mosque throwing stun grenades, creating images that reverberated around the Muslim world from Morocco to Indonesia and beyond. This gave an opening to Hamas, eager to wrest control of events and claim the mantle of defender of Al-Aqsa. Starting with a massive rocket barrage into Israeli cities and towns, Hamas surprised Israel not only with its appetite for conflict, which was never doubted, but also with its improved military capabilities. The first barrage demonstrated greater range than in the past, putting most of Israeli’s population under concerted fire. The cluster of rockets meant that some even penetrated Israel’s Iron Dome defence systems, killing a handful of Israelis and causing millions to take shelter.
In parallel with the familiar war, there has also been an unusual outbreak of violence in Israel, not seen in previous uprisings, with groups of Jewish and Palestinian citizens fighting in the streets and torching vehicles and buildings. Some see the acts of destruction as symmetrical—Jewish and Arab mobs hunting each other down. But for Jews and Arabs the rationales are vastly different. The Palestinians were expressing a long history of despair, following social and economic marginalisation over the past seven decades.
The current crisis is not similar to any of the previous rounds of violence inflicted on Palestinian and Israeli civilians by their increasingly feckless and bankrupt political leaders. This was not another 2014 or another Second Intifada, five years during which 4,973 Palestinians were killed, among them 1,262 children. More than 5,000 Palestinian homes were demolished by the Israeli army, with another 6,500 damaged beyond repair during that period. This was something new.
Last week, Palestinians in Israel, East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank went on strike in a rare show of unity among Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up 20% of its population, and those in the territories Israel seized in 1967. The general strike and expected protests could again widen the conflict after a spasm of communal violence and protests across the occupied West Bank.
Before the Al-Aqsa incident, it was the Israeli authority’s attempt to evict Palestinian families in East Jerusalem from homes they had occupied for 70 years which led to the sharp deterioration in relations two weeks ago. The attempted eviction had been accompanied by highly provocative demonstrations by the extreme right Jewish settlers, Lehava, a Ku Klux Klan-like posse of racial supremacists, running through the streets chanting “death to Arabs”.
Under the Oslo Declaration of 1993, there was supposed to be an independent Palestine by 1999, but all the Palestinians have seen is a fast expansion of Israel’s illegal settlements on their territory. Immediately after the Declaration, the number of settlers rose from 200,000 to 400,000 between 1993 and 2000, designed to ensure that there wasn’t going to be an independent Palestinian State. Tensions and the frustration among Palestinians also rose after the failure of the Camp David Peace talks in July 2000, where then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak failed to reach a peace pact because of disagreements over the status of Jerusalem, territorial contiguity and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
After these events, it became obvious to the Palestinians that the Israeli leaders simply wanted to force them to accept still more Israeli expansion of illegal Jewish settlements and Jewish population in the West Bank, placing severe restrictions on the ability of Palestinian residents there to live lives free of structural violence. Although the International Court of Justice in 2004 found the settlements to be illegal, and the United Nations has repeatedly upheld the view that Israel’s construction of settlements constitutes a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel shrugs its shoulders and continues to ignore such rulings. The ultra-right-wing Israelis were encouraged by Donald Trump turning the US position on its head when he declared in 2019 that Israel’s position was not inconsistent with international law. By recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump also destroyed the vision of a two-state solution and the hopes of the five million or so Palestinians living between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Snubbing pressure from the international community to discontinue, Israel continues to expand its provocative settlements in the West Bank, creating doubt that it has any interest whatsoever in achieving peace with the Palestinians.
So why did the two sides agree a ceasefire now? Many questions surround Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempts to cling on to power, as his trial for corruption wends its way through the Israeli court system. He needs to stay in power in order to secure parliamentary immunity from prosecution and a possible jail sentence. Following the fourth inconclusive election in two years, there is growing suspicion that Netanyahu inspired the current fighting just at the time that an opposition coalition was poised to assemble the parliamentary majority to oust him from power after 12 years in office. But this coalition required the cooperation of an Israeli Arab Islamist party, Raam. Even if Raam didn’t formally enter the government, its participation in a partnership agreement would have represented an historic breakthrough for Arab political parties in Israel, whose mainstreaming was one of the major outcomes of the most recent Israeli elections. Had the coalition proceeded, Raam’s new found leverage to perhaps improve the quality of Israeli Arabs’ lives would have provided a powerful alternative to Hamas’ narrative of armed resistance to Israel as the only means of advancing the Palestinian cause; a possibility that unnerved Hamas.
Although Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant group both appeared to have suffered significant losses in the war—20 fighters according to Hamas, 160 according to Israel—they will be delighted with the outcome. Having been upset by the cancellation of Palestinian elections in which Hamas hoped to extend its influence to the West Bank, its leaders consider the latest war to be a strategic shift in their favour, becoming the sole defender of all Palestinians living in historic Palestine. In their view, by showing strength against the Israelis, Hamas has assumed leadership of Palestinians from the weak, corrupt and divided Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority.
The convenient timing of the outbreak of hostilities was therefore no coincidence, suiting the purposes of both parties. It saved Netanyahu’s skin by torpedoing the coalition agreement, putting Israel back on track to call yet another election. Netanyahu is betting that a forceful response to Hamas will have boosted his approval ratings and shored up his support among right-wing Israelis, as well as moderates who are concerned by the violence. Hamas will also have consolidated its leadership of the Palestinians by claiming victory over Israel.
It seems that a spooky Faustian pact exists between the two sides: Hamas needs enemies like Netanyahu, just as Netanyahu needs enemies like Hamas.
The elephant in the room is yet again Iran, which continues to brandish the Palestinian cause to shore up its anti-imperialist credentials and project power in the region, posing to be the only true defender of the Palestinians. It was Teheran that provided Hamas with arms support and components for its rockets, and it was Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who called on Palestinians to respond to Israel’s “brutality”, saying that Israelis “only understand the language of force”. Such inflammatory language was designed to inspire Iranian proxies in Syria and Lebanon to future action, adding yet another dimension to the conflict and a headache for Israel. Some observers argue that Iran even helped to instigate the war in order to gain more leverage in the region, offering a contrast to Arab countries that either signed peace deals with Israel, such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, or cozied up to it, such as Saudi Arabia. As a result of Israel’s violence against Arabs, those countries’ leaders could come under domestic pressure to scale back some aspects of their planned engagement with Israel, causing the Abraham Accord to collapse just months after its birth; a potential huge win for Iran.
Few are in doubt that the events of the past few weeks could haunt the region for many years to come, but currently no happy end is in sight. It’s only a matter of time before the next outbreak of violence.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.