The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no stranger to those familiar with the Middle East and remains one of today’s most polarising and divisive issues. In recent days, over 200 Israelis and Palestinians have been killed, with thousands more injured. Rioting has taken place in Israeli cities, protests have broken out across the West Bank, and have spread to a number of Arab states and worldwide. Social media has bifurcated into “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestine” spheres, and hostile action emanating from neighboring states to Israel threatens a regional escalation of violence.
Domestic unrest: Rioting and the fear of ‘Civil War’
The recent unrest can be traced back to the last fortnight, during the final days of the Islamic month of Ramadan, the holiest month of the year for Muslims worldwide. In mid-April, the imposition of restrictions on worshippers gathering at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, when the Israel Police put up barriers preventing people from sitting in the plaza, the most popular public area during the month of Ramadan. From this, Jerusalem descended into becoming the scene of clashes between Palestinian worshippers and Israeli police. These clashes were further fuelled by the threatened expulsion of Palestinian residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, and the storming of the Al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli security forces on the Islamic holy night of Laylat-ul Qadr.
The recent outbreak of violence has placed Israel in a unique position of facing multiple types of threats on different fronts. On the domestic front, religious-nationalist violence in Jerusalem and rioting in mixed Jewish-Arab communities have created fears of ‘civil war’ between the countries’ Jewish and Arab communities. The flames of the recent violence continued to be fanned through deliberately inciteful and provocative actions by far-right political individuals and organisations. Recently, Kahanist MK Itamar Ben Gvir was accused by an Israeli police chief of continuing to incite Jewish-Arab violence across cities in Israel. Members of the Israeli government are seeking to shift the blame for the domestic unrest onto Hamas, with the Israeli ambassador at the UN accusing Hamas of inciting violence amongst Palestinians living in Jerusalem. Outside of Israel’s borders, renewed violence in Gaza involving the IDF and Hamas, and unrest at Israel’s borders with neighboring Arab states increases the possibility that this recent bout of violence may further escalate, and involve a number of armed nonstate groups across the region.
On the domestic front, this recent crisis has exposed two ground-breaking realities; firstly, the interconnectedness of Arab-Israelis in relation to the events which transpire in the Occupied Territories, and the existence of legitimate political and economic grievances which can be exploited by individuals and organizations seeking to destabilize Israel from within. Today, a general strike was proclaimed across Israel and the Occupied Territories by Palestinians, who continue to express their anger and opposition to Israeli action in the West Bank and Gaza. This was a unique occasion in which Palestinians across the political spectrum, both living inside and outside of the Palestinian Territories, supporters of Hamas and Fatah, all came together to express their discontent with the actions of the Israeli government in recent weeks.
In addition to this, it is abundantly clear that Arab-Israeli discontent with the Israeli government transcends the realms of Israel’s conduct in the Occupied Territories; to this day, there are clear economic, social and political disparities between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Whilst the Declaration of Independence in 1948 stated that Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture”, in recent times, this has struggled to materialise in real terms. The actions of recent governments led by incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have undermined the social fabric of liberty, equality and justice for all citizens, regardless of race or religion. Actions such as the Nation State Law which reinforce a stark social disparity between Jews and Arabs, and the accommodation of far-right supremacist organisations such as Otzma Yehudit in the Knesset have amplified the grievances held by many Israeli Arabs, grievances which can be exploited by Hamas in inciting individuals to violence. Whilst restoring order in Israeli cities is the immediate priority, the Netanyahu administration must seek to decisively address the long-standing disparities and grievances held by Israeli Arabs, in order to prevent such unrest from manifesting in the future.
Operation Guardian of the Walls: An Analysis
In response to Hamas’ rocket fire at Jerusalem following the group issuing an ultimatum for all Israeli forces to withdraw from the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Israel began launching airstrikes at what it termed ‘Hamas terror targets’ in the Gaza Strip. Since the beginning of Israel’s aerial campaign in Gaza, over 213 Palestinians, including 61 children, have been killed since airstrikes first began on May 10, with another 1,442 have been injured. 11 Israeli civilians have also been killed by rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, including the death of one soldier from an anti-tank missile and one child.
Israel has sought to claim that its aerial campaign has been a success, arguing that airstrikes dealt extensive damage to Hamas’ tunnel network within the Gaza Strip, neutralising a high number of militants. Critics have labelled the actions as disproportionate, pointing to the high number of civilian casualties, and highlighting the extensive damage done to civilian infrastructure and residential areas. Merely a few days ago, the Israeli Air Force levelled a tower which housed multiple international news outlets, including Al Jazeera and the Associated Press, drawing widespread condemnation, with some going insofar to label the action as a war crime. Hamas claimed that its choice to launch rockets at Israel was done in response to the eviction threats for residents of Sheikh Jarrah and the actions of Israeli security forces at the Al Aqsa Mosque. Whilst the actions have been argued by some to be reactive, it is clear that Hamas has capitalized on a political opportunity – Israel’s actions in Jerusalem provided Hamas with a chance to increase its political capital and reputability with the Palestinian population, especially in light of the fact that Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, recently announced a delay to the Palestinian elections, citing the fact that Palestinians in East Jerusalem would be barred from taking part, a move widely regarded as unpopular and a continuation of Fatah seeking to monopolize control over the Palestinian Authority, fearing a potential Hamas electoral victory.
Moreover, the recent violence between Israel and Hamas has demonstrated the latter’s ability to learn from previous military engagements with Israeli forces, and incorporate new and advanced technological capabilities in their offensive arsenal. Reports are indicating that Hamas have deployed a new kamikaze unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) nicknamed “Shehab”, built by Hamas’ militant wing, Al-Qassam Brigades. The UAV also bears many similarities to an Iranian drone used extensively by Houthi forces in Yemen. Additionally, the IDF recently thwarted an attempted autonomous submarine attack launched by Hamas, allegedly aiming to target Israeli naval assets. The emergence of autonomous technology within Hamas’ military assets is a notable advancement in the group’s conventional capabilities. While the IDF remains an undisputed superior military power, possessing arguably the most advanced military in the region, Hamas has been able to learn and adapt its mechanisms and further enhance its conventional sophistication and expose shortfalls Israeli defensive capabilities. Israeli analysts have stated that intelligence sources had indicated Hamas had significantly improved its weaponry to the extent that it could “pierce the Iron Dome shield”, the Israeli air defense system intercepts rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. In this round of violence, there has been an increase in the number of Israeli deaths and casualties from rocket attacks. This demonstrates the adaptational capacity of Hamas, and sets a precedent that future conventional engagements in the Gaza Strip may involve increasingly advanced technology, resulting in far higher military and civilian casualty numbers.
Evaluating the situation: Considerations for the future
The recent escalation has once again highlighted the lack of a coherent, long-term security strategy on the Israeli side vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip; whilst military engagements may deliver short-term victories and pushbacks against Hamas and other Gazan militants’ conventional capabilities, it is clear that through every engagement, Hamas learns and adapts its methods to capitalize on shortfalls within Israeli defensive tactics, and is able to replenish its arsenal in large quantity. Over 3000 rockets have been fired into Israel over the past week, and without a ceasefire this number could easily increase. Furthermore, should Israel choose to escalate its approach in Gaza through a full-scale deployment of troops on the ground, this risks escalating the violence on a regional level through providing both a motivation and opportunity for groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, or fringe groups operating in Syria and other neighbouring Arab states to launch attacks on Israel, further complicating the security picture and potentially resulting in highly destructive violent engagements. In order to fully eliminate the threat from the Gaza Strip, Israel must not remain over-reliant on military measures and instead seek to explore both political and diplomatic avenues. Particularly in light of US President Biden currently facing increasing pressure from individuals within his party to take a tougher stance on Israeli action, it is less likely that in the future that measures employed by the Israeli military which result in high civilian deaths, and/or are politically incendiary, will simply go unignored.
Additionally, there appears to be a minimal sense of discomfort on the part of Israeli military and political officials over the significantly high number of non-combatant fatalities due to Israeli airstrikes and military action. Civilian infrastructure has been critically damaged by continuing air raids, which not only threaten drastic humanitarian consequences for the residents of the Gaza Strip, but also pose a great risk of destabilizing and undermining order, potentially enabling more radical armed groups within the Gaza Strip to capitalize on Hamas’ damaged status, yielding to further disorder and more complex security challenges which Israel will be obliged to address in the future. Peace within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to remain elusive, and as violence continues to transpire within Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. As there remains no immediate indication as to when hostilities will end and calm may be restored, the situation may continue to deteriorate in the immediate future.
The Editor: Ali Drabu
Ali Drabu is a postgraduate student studying an MA at King’s College London in Intelligence and International Security, and completed his Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the University of St Andrews. His academic interests focus on foreign policy and regional security issues in the Middle East. He has had previous experience in exploring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and engaging in voluntary work in the West Bank.