Gaza and Israel: What's Next?
My new piece for GOOD AUTHORITY, plus some suggested readings for context.
Source: Literally Everywhere
Hamas’s shocking breach of the Gaza border fence has upended regional politics. At last count, over six hundred Israelis were killed, many of them civilians murdered in horrifying fashion. A comparable number of Palestinians have already been killed, also in horrifying fashion, by the initial stage of the furious Israeli response. With Israel poised for a ground invasion, I wrote a short piece for Good Authority about where things might go. None of them are good.
1. Israel is going to decimate Gaza – again.
Since its unilateral withdrawal in 2005, Israel has had one consistent response to provocations from Gaza: massive bombing campaigns. The first Israeli bombing campaign against Gaza commenced in June 2006 following the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier. In December 2008, just weeks before Barack Obama took office in the United States, Israel launched a 22-day air campaign that killed at least 1,400 Palestinians. In the summer of 2014, Israel launched a seven-week war that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians.
Israel’s bombing campaigns tend to be extraordinarily destructive since the Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world – and its people have nowhere to go since the borders are effectively sealed by Israel and Egypt. A U.N. Commission of Inquiry led by Richard Goldstone concluded in 2009 that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes through the indiscriminate targeting of civilians. At a minimum, expect Israel to kill thousands of Palestinians as it bombs every target in sight – a process that has already begun..
But will Israeli forces invade and occupy, and attempt to destroy Hamas once and for all? Past bombing campaigns and endless blockade have done little to erode Hamas’s control over Gaza, and it’s unlikely that anything would change this time. Netanyahu will come under pressure from an angry public to authorize a ground invasion of Gaza to attempt to end Hamas rule and destroy the organization once and for all.
At least some ground offensive seems likely, but a full-scale invasion would be both costly and risky. Hamas surely anticipates such an assault, and will be prepared. Intense urban combat would likely cause high casualties on both sides, could turn into a protracted exercise, and would have no palatable endgame. Israel left Gaza in 2005 in part because it no longer wanted to bear the costs of directly occupying Gaza, and it would find no warmer welcome this time. What’s more, Hamas is reportedly holding about 100 hostages seized during the Saturday attack, which could inhibit Israel’s response.
2. This did not come out of nowhere. And there’s nowhere obvious to go.
The Hamas attack came at a time when the prospects for a negotiated two-state solution have long since disappeared. In its absence, Israel’s extreme right-wing government has been dramatically increasing the seizures of land and dispossession of Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Violence has steadily escalated, from the 2019 clashes in Jerusalem to the 2022 IDF incursion into the Jenin refugee camp. The border with Gaza was less protected than usual in part because a significant portion of the Israeli Defense Forces had been deployed in the West Bank to protect the settlers who have been aggressively moving against Palestinians.
Nor is there any effective political alternative. The moribund Palestinian Authority still exists in name, but retains little legitimacy or capacity for action. Past crises would end with an internationally brokered ceasefire and ritual calls for a return to negotiations. While there will be calls for a return to diplomacy, those are more ritual than reality. There is no two-state off-ramp under today’s conditions.
The attack also reflects the sheer desperation in Gaza. A generation of Palestinians have grown up in Gaza knowing nothing but Israeli blockades and Hamas rule, and see no prospect for a negotiated solution. In 2019, the attempted Great March of Return – an initially nonviolent mass march towards the fence enclosing the Gaza Strip – was met with live Israeli fire that caused hundreds of deaths.
3. It might not end with Gaza.
Hamas started this round of conflict with its shocking breach of the Gaza border fence. Its attacks were notably not limited to settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories – Hamas targeted towns and kibbutzim within Israel’s 1948 borders. This erasure of the Green Line (the armistice lines from 1948) reflects a longer ongoing evolution of the conflict towards what has been called a “one-state reality.”
That could have repercussions for the West Bank. In 2019, many Palestinian citizens of Israel joined the protests over the Israeli seizure of homes in Sheikh Jarrah. And over the last several years Israeli settlers – often under military protection – have pushed Palestinians out of territories under their jurisdiction since the 1993 Oslo Accords. Should the conflict spread to the West Bank – or even if it doesn’t – extreme right-wing Israelis may seize the opportunity to seize even more territory or even attempt to expel Palestinians from the West Bank.
Conflict could also spread beyond the Israeli-Palestinian theater. Hezbollah will be the key group to watch. Thus far, it has expressed solidarity but declined to open a northern front against Israel in support of Hamas. Israel has been making active deterrent threats to keep it that way. Should Hezbollah decide to enter the fray, whether through a coordinated strategy or under popular pressure, it would dramatically increase the threat to Israel and could potentially widen the scope of the war.
It could get even worse. There have been reports, as yet unconfirmed, of an Iranian role in planning the attack. Of course, Hamas is far more than an Iranian proxy, and has its own reasons for this dramatic move. But many in the region will read the unfolding crisis as part of the conflict between Iran and the American-led regional order that has long defined regional politics. Israel could decide that attacking Gaza or bombing Lebanon isn’t enough this time, and seek to target Iran directly. If so, we are looking at a potentially uncontrollable regional war that could directly impact Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the flow of oil.
4. The Abraham Accords won’t help.
The Biden administration has focused nearly its entire Middle East strategy on brokering a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, building on the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords. This push for normalization was premised on the assumption that the Palestinian issue no longer mattered – or that the Arab states would no longer let it stand in the way of strategic alignment with Israel. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) in part justified its 2019 normalization with Israel as a way to restrain and influence Israeli behavior towards the Palestinians.
Those assumptions will all now be put to the test. While the normalizing states may try to hedge, they will face serious domestic political pressure. Arab media such as Al Jazeera have been heavily covering the Hamas attack. The images of captured armored vehicles and dead or fleeing Israelis seem to have had a galvanizing psychological impact across the Arab world as much as among Israelis. The inevitable Israeli retaliation will generate familiar images of Palestinian deaths and destruction that could mobilize even greater Arab solidarities. A protracted ground invasion would be even more provocative. Arab leaders seemed happy to ignore Palestine when it was off-screen, but will they be able to sustain that posture under such conditions?
These events could do more than just set back efforts on normalization agreements. It’s been more than a decade since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, but most Arab regimes still fear little more than uncontrollable mass mobilization. Egypt and other Arab nations outside the Gulf are currently facing extreme economic distress. The autocratic restorations of the last decade have largely eviscerated the possibilities for democratic participation. There’s not much more that these regimes can do by way of increasing repression. The possibility that protests over Palestine and Israel could mutate into domestic regime challenges can’t be far from Arab leaders’ minds.
5. Leaders on all sides will, as always, put their own survival first.
The effects of this crisis will be felt at the domestic level across all of the major players. In Israel, Netanyahu has brought the country to crisis and provoked months of massive protest mobilization out of his determination to change the political system to ensure his hold on power. He will almost certainly continue to prioritize his own political survival over notions of the national interest.
Opposition leaders have signaled their willingness to join Netanyahu in a government of national unity to conduct the war. Whether they would join a government that retained its extreme right-wing parties is another story. Israel’s democratic future may rest on whether Netanyahu opts for a national unity government that requires major policy and personnel shifts or sticks to his narrowly based extremist coalition.
Meanwhile, Palestinian politics will also likely be fundamentally changed by this crisis. It seems likely that Israel will attempt to destroy Hamas and prevent a return to the status quo in Gaza. It is less clear that it can succeed. The astonishing scenes of military victory over a seemingly omnipotent Israel will likely galvanize support for Hamas, even among Palestinians who dislike its Islamist program. This will also put tremendous pressure on Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, which will be forced to navigate between a mobilized Palestinian public and demands by the United States and Israel to keep the West Bank under control. The PA’s days may be numbered – though what might follow it remains profoundly unclear.
I published a piece entitled “Gaza’s Ongoing Moral Atrocity” almost exactly one damn year ago. I think it helps put the current crisis into perspective, and offers some useful additional reading suggestions.
You can read the analysis at the link; here are the reading suggestions:
If you’d like to read up on Gaza beyond the crises, here’s a few books and other publications for your reading list. There’s an enormous volume of human rights reports and outstanding journalism about Gaza, of course, but here I focus on the scholarly side of things.
Sara Roy’s classic book The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-Development remains a classic starting point for the systematic effects of Israel’s occupation. Originally published in 1995 and updated for the final time in 2016, Roy shows in detail how occupation and then blockade deformed Gaza’s economy and society. Her lifetime of research on Gaza has included several other books worthy of attention, including Failing Peace: Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict (2014) and Unsilencing Gaza (2021). All of her work centers the human reality of the Palestinians living in Gaza, beyond the abstractions and pointedly rejecting any suggestion of timeless or inexplicable poverty or radicalism.
Tareq Baconi, Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance (2018), gives a sharply analytical, thoughtful and rich account of the politics of Hamas within Gaza. He shows clearly how Hamas has adapted the blockade of Gaza, instrumentalizing the conflict to sustain its own power and strategic objectives. Baconi’s recent article “Gaza and the One State Reality” did an especially outstanding job showing how the steady exclusion of Gaza from diplomatic discussions of two state possibilities lay at the core, not periphery, of the conflict. His ongoing work with the Crisis Group and other essays are always essential reading.
Open Gaza approaches the question of Gaza from an entirely different direction. Michael Sorkin, Deen Sharp and Sara Roy assemble an eclectic group of architects, social theorists, and students of urban politics to examine life in Gaza as it is actually lived. The book abounds with evocative descriptions and acute observations, neither pathologizing nor romanticizing the adaptations made by Gazans living under siege.
On Hamas within Gaza, Somdeep Sen places the discussion of Hamas and Palestinian resistance within the context of colonialism and postcolonialism in his recent book Decolonizing Palestine (2020). Through a mix of ethnography and postcolonial theory, Sen advances a controversial rethinking of the nature of Hamas’s “resistance” and its place within the Palestinian national movement. Jeroen Gunning’s 2008 analysis of Hamas in Gaza continues to be an exceptionally acutely observed analysis of the movement.
The young Gazan scholar Imad Alsoos has written several outstanding recent articles assessing the strategy, organization and ideology of Hamas - when that book is published, it should make a real impact and major contribution. And from a broader lens, Dana el-Kurd’s recent book shows how international support for the Palestinian Authority has insulated elites from public accountability, contributing to their long political paralysis.
Finally, here’s a couple of pieces on Israeli strategy towards Gaza:
Zeev Maoz, “Evaluating Israel’s Strategy of Low-Intensity Warfare,” Security Studies (2007): “The study is based on a historical survey of these policies and on quantitative analysis of a dataset of the use of limited force by Israel over the 1949–2003 period. The findings suggest, first, that limited force strategies were occasionally used to foster escalation. In other cases, the mismanagement of limited engagements resulted in inadvertent escalation to full-blown wars. Second, domestic political and social considerations had important effects on the nature and intensity of Israeli uses of limited force. Third, Israeli reliance on offensive strategies has not only consistently failed, but produced adverse military and diplomatic side effects.”
Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir, “Mowing the Grass: Israel’s Strategy for Protracted Intractable Conflict,” Journal of Strategic Studies (2014): “The use of force in such a conflict is not intended to attain impossible political goals, but a strategy of attrition designed primarily to debilitate the enemy capabilities. Only after showing much restraint in its military responses does Israel act forcefully to destroy the capabilities of its foes, hoping that occasional large-scale operations also have a temporary deterrent effect in order to create periods of quiet along its borders.”
Amit Loewenthal, Sami Miaari, and Alexei Abrahams, “How civilian attitudes respond to the state’s violence: Lessons from the Israel–Gaza conflict,” Conflict Management and Peace Science (2022): “States, in their conflicts with militant groups embedded in civilian populations, often resort to policies of collective punishment to erode civilian support for the militants. We attempt to evaluate the efficacy of such policies in the context of the Gaza Strip, where Israel's blockade and military interventions, purportedly intended to erode support for Hamas, have inflicted hardship on the civilian population. We combine Palestinian public opinion data, Palestinian labor force surveys, and Palestinian fatalities data, to understand the relationship between exposure to Israeli policies and Palestinian support for militant factions. Our baseline strategy is a difference-in-differences specification that compares the gap in public opinion between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank during periods of intense punishment with the gap during periods when punishment is eased. Consistent with previous research, we find that Palestinian fatalities are associated with Palestinian support for more militant political factions. The effect is short-lived, however, dissipating after merely one quarter. Moreover, the blockade of Gaza itself appears to be only weakly associated with support for militant factions. Overall, we find little evidence to suggest that Israeli security policies toward the Gaza Strip have any substantial lasting effect on Gazan support for militant factions, neither deterring nor provoking them relative to their West Bank counterparts. Our findings therefore call into question the logic of Israel's continued security policies toward Gaza, while prompting a wider re-examination of the efficacy of deterrence strategies in other asymmetric conflicts.”
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