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It is not uncommon for violence to break out between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. It usually goes like this: Hamas launches rockets over the Gaza border into Israel, most of which are intercepted by Iron Dome – Israel’s highly sophisticated missile defense system. The impact in Israel is generally downplayed.
Israel then responds with airstrikes on the densely populated Gaza Strip.
But what happened last weekend was unprecedented in its scale and coordination.
The militants attacked Israeli communications towers with improvised explosives, crossed the Gaza-Israel border within minutes and took control of several Israeli communities. They paraglided across the border and shot civilians at a music festival.
Hamas killed 1,200 people in the attack and took dozens of hostages, including women, children and the elderly – while the Israeli army was slow to respond. It was the deadliest attack Israel has seen in decades.
In retaliation, Israel besieged Gaza with hundreds of airstrikes that killed at least 950 Palestinians and displaced more than 200,000 people. It cut off electricity, food and fuel supplies.
Addressing mayors of southern border towns hit by the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s response “will change the Middle East.”
Troops are now gathering for a possible ground invasion of Gaza – most recently in 2014 and resulting in the deaths of at least 2,000 Palestinians, and more than 70 on the Israeli side. It is the biggest escalation in the decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in recent years.
But experts who closely follow the region point to key developments over the past year in Israel and the Palestinian territories that set the stage for this explosion of violence.
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Israel has been distracted by political unrest
Netanyahu was re-elected less than a year ago and formed a government aligning himself with ultranationalists and religious conservatives.
Tal Schneider, political and diplomatic correspondent of THE Israel Timestold NPR that Netanyahu’s appointment of two controversial figures to his cabinet has heightened tensions within Israeli politics.
“He named someone who has been convicted eight times for inciting violence against Arabs,” Schneider said, referring to Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national security minister. “He is someone who was an outlaw, who was for us Israelis someone who was not supposed to be in government. Netanyahu made him a strong leader and someone who fully engage in politics.”
Ben-Gvir, alongside Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, has pushed for more settlements in the occupied West Bank, increasing tensions with the Palestinians.
“Netanyahu’s war cabinet was completely dysfunctional with them,” Schneider said.
Then there is Netanyahu’s plan to reform Israel’s justice system, which was delayed, but not abandoned thanks to the support of far-right politicians, after mass protests erupted for months as Israelis rejected the proposal to weaken the country’s Supreme Court.
“They want to change the balance of power in Israel, the way Israel functions as a democracy. People here are angry, especially those who perform reserve duties in the army. They came out to demonstrate and some of them announced that they would no longer serve under the military regime. “A dictatorship. So obviously the army was very weakened,” Schneider said, adding that all of this contributed to Hamas’ perception of a weaker Israel.
Hamas responds to Palestinian despair
With the most far-right, ultranationalist and religiously conservative government Israel has ever seen, Hamas saw an opportunity as conditions deteriorated for Palestinians – not just those in Gaza, who have lived under blockade for 16 years. years, but also for the West Bank. well, according to Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor of Peace and Development at the University of Maryland.
There has been an increase in violence between Israeli settlers and Palestinian villagers over the past year, leading to the displacement of hundreds of Palestinians, according to the United Nations. Israeli police have also increasingly carried out raids in cities including Jenin and Nablus and on the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem – a flashpoint in the conflict.
“There is an increase in settler violence, an encroachment on East Jerusalem, which is really critical,” Telhami said. “People don’t understand how important Jerusalem is to the Palestinians, to many people in the Arab and Muslim world. That’s why, in fact, Hamas named this operation Al Aqsa Flood, after the holy mosque in Jerusalem. I try to capture this atmosphere.
Telhami, who was in the West Bank last week, said he observed utter despair after 56 years of occupation by Israel.
“At first (the Palestinians) were counting on Biden to do something after Trump. That didn’t happen. Then they were counting on the Arab states to do something. Instead, the Saudis and Israelis are trying to make peace without them, in a way,” he said.
Telhami said Hamas, designated as a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and European countries, saw it as “the perfect political opportunity, in a horrible way, to reshuffle the cards” and also neutralize the influence of Hamas. Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, led by Mahmoud Abbas.
Netanyahu has emboldened Hamas over the years
Another common thread that contributed to this moment was Netanyahu’s treatment of Hamas during his years in power.
“He didn’t have a clear policy and the prime minister denies it in hindsight,” Schneider said. “But we know, as journalists who have been following this for many years, that they wanted to weaken the Palestinian Authority.”
Netanyahu’s goal, according to Schneider, was to avoid the construction of a future Palestinian state at all costs. And he did so by approaching Hamas, allowing money to flow into Gaza, which is run by Hamas, and striking deals with the militants through Egypt.
“Netanyahu, in order to reduce Mahmoud Abbas and humiliate him politically, they managed to give Hamas some kind of leverage,” Schneider said.
No military victory for both camps
While the conflict is expected to further intensify in the coming days, the long-term strategies of Hamas and Israel remain to be determined.
For now, Hamas considers itself to have the upper hand.
“They think they have undermined Israeli deterrence. They have shown that Israel is weaker than it claims,” Telhami said. “They are becoming more and more popular in Arab and Muslim countries, and we can see people rallying behind them in countries like Morocco, which has already made peace with Israel and Egypt.”
But in the short term, Hamas’ ability to survive and resist an Israeli response is in question. And even with its military superiority, Telhami and Schneider see no winning military strategy for Israel.
“I mean, the Israelis could win and destroy Hamas and destroy Gaza. So what? So what?” Telhami said, adding that the Biden administration, which has focused on brokering a deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, also needs to rethink its approach.
“If I were in the Biden administration’s shoes, I would already start talking knowing that there is going to be an impasse,” he said. “Even if there is a military outcome that ends the military part of the conflict, it will take a radical political change, much more than they were planning, and they need to plan for it now.”
“The war is not taking place outside Israel. It is taking place inside Israel,” Schneider said. “I don’t remember that in recent history. And I have to tell you, we’re wasting a lot of time. They’re wasting a lot of time. It’s a vicious cycle of blood with no end in sight. A complete lose-lose situation- loser… And it’s just horrible.