Author : Kabir Taneja

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on May 18, 2021
Israel, Palestine and the complication of a non-state actor in Hamas The latest flare up between Israel and the Islamist militant group Hamas, which over the past few years has almost completely co-opted and militarised the Palestinian struggle, has led to an intense military retaliation by Israeli forces. The latter have been targeting buildings inside one of the most densely populated and walled-off pieces of land on the planet, the Gaza strip, home to nearly two million people. The crisis point began in Sheikh Jarra in Jerusalem’s Old City, as tensions between Jewish and Palestinians over claim of property and land spilt over from the courts into the street. While civil society and others were attempting to defuse the situation, some actors resorted to violence, which led to a response from the Israeli police that included storming the Al-Aqsa Mosque, considered to be Islam’s third-most sacred site. The reaction to the Sheikh Jarra escalation was Israel and Hamas exchanging hundreds of rockets across the Gazan divide. While the West Bank has remained largely peaceful in previous such exchanges, such as in 2014, the Sheikh Jarra issue was ripe to be absorbed into a larger narrative. This also comes at a time when Israel’s domestic politics has gone through a tumultuous period with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holding on to power over a series of four, mostly inconclusive, general elections. In March, an Islamist political party, United Arab List, was reportedly pitted to become kingmaker in a Jewish-Arab coalition government in Israel as the country’s lawmakers rushed to avoid a fifth election. Such a coalition would have diluted Netanyahu’s power and fragmented his right-wing support base. And it goes without saying, that such an arrangement was inherently opposed by actors such as Hamas. In short, Hamas today may have only helped Netanyahu come back to majority power, once again setting up escalatory politics in the conflict’s future. While the long-standing territorial dispute of Israel and Palestine is at the centre of the crisis, the co-option of the Palestinian cause over the past years by Hamas has complicated things even further. Hamas’ increased role led to the weakening of the Palestinian political ecosystem including the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), stalling electoral and negotiation processes, and using civilian population areas such as Gaza to conduct militarised operations against Israel. This has led to disproportionate responses from Israel’s military, which ends up largely affecting only the general population of Gaza. The Organisation of Islamic Council (OIC) has strongly condemned the bombing of Gaza by Israel, and demanded a “complete and immediate stop”. For the longest time, the Palestinian cause had been central to the Arab world’s politics in the Middle East; however, this has arguably now changed. Interestingly, the OIC today includes members such as the UAE and Bahrain, countries that normalised their relations with Israel via the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020. The OIC also includes Iran and Qatar, both blamed, directly and indirectly, for supporting Hamas by the likes of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, while another member, Turkey, has even suggested constituting a ‘protection force’ at the OIC in support of Palestine. Meanwhile, support for Israel has also not been in short supply. US President Joe Biden spoke to both Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, with the former leading Israel’s charge, and the latter largely politically defanged and left to the devices of Hamas and its military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades. Biden put his weight behind Israel in fighting against Hamas and other terror organisations, as have other countries both in the West and the East. While there is no doubt that Hamas and others such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) are terror groups that need to be addressed in a kinetic manner by Israel as a state, the costs for Israel in the ongoing crisis are also escalating and will be playing out in the international arena. The fight against Hamas today has also broken the levee and spilt over to previously relatively peaceful areas such as the West Bank and other towns in Israel having a mixed Jewish and Arab population, with Israelis and Palestinians resorting to mob violence on the streets, arguably further opening another area of concern. Israel, going forward, will have to weigh in on the costs of its counterterrorism actions much more significantly than it may have done previously. While countering prevailing threats from actors such as Hamas is going to be a continuing policy, the Israeli security and political establishment will have to weigh the balance of power regarding the military challenges that it faces. The challenge against Hamas is not expected to decrease, considering the commonalities seen by other groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, and smaller militias in Iraq and Syria that have moved closer towards Israeli borders as part of the larger Israel–Iran covert wars being fought. These geopolitical factors, by design, are bound to push Israel–Palestine confrontations even more in the time to come. The spill over of Israel’s larger security concerns may start with Gaza today, but they certainly do not end there. This means Israel’s calculations over the challenges of militarisation with balance of political, strategic, and kinetic power will require immense nuance and acumen that goes much beyond its traditional security issues regarding Palestine. While normalisation with the UAE and Bahrain had its limited merits, the fundamental political crevasses of the Middle East’s conflicts, most of which involve the Israel–Palestine faultline in one shape or form, remain largely intact. India’s response to the ongoing crisis is, perhaps, a very good example of how a state that has no direct stakes in the conflict, but multiple indirect ones, balances the various facets of the same. As a recently elected non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), New Delhi walked the fine line between its traditional support for the state of Palestine, promoting an eventual two-state solution, highlighting its strong opposition to any kind of terrorism (hence indirectly offering some weight behind Israel’s retaliation and condemning Hamas, strengthened by the fact that an Indian citizen, Soumya Santosh, was killed by a Hamas rocket), and finally pushing for an immediate cease-fire. The Gaza strip is only 12–kilometre-wide and 40 kilometre in length, and the challenge to fight a non-state actor within this geography, for Israel, poses more of a tactical challenge than a strategic one with thin margins of narrative management. Traditional strategies of precision strikes in counterterror and counterinsurgency actions do not necessarily apply in the case of Israel’s actions against Hamas, where geographic and population constraints are boundless. For Israel, tactical operations here come with immense human cost in Gaza, and a lack of tactical response to Hamas comes with an immense political cost amongst a large section of the Jewish population not just in Israel, but world over.
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Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...

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