Hugh Lovatt
Last updated: 2 July, 2014

“Destroying Hamas infrastructure and removing its leaders could also lead to de-centralisation”

The abduction and killing of three young Israelis has brought to the fore painful memories for Israelis of the second Intifada. But in spite of their horrendous fate levels of violence on both sides have actually remained relatively low over past years. Nor has Palestinian society shown any real appetite for a new uprising against Israel’s occupation.

While hopefully a one off, the killing of the young settlers is a symptom of deeper issues caused by Israel’s policy of occupation. For Israel it also represents an attack on the sense of normality that it has sought to instil in the occupied territories.

With the dwindling prospects of achieving a long sought after two-state solution and an increasingly disenfranchised Palestinian society, there is little doubt that the status quo has been unsustainable for quite some time.

“There is little doubt that the status quo has been unsustainable for quite some time”

In the absence of any diplomatic breakthrough or significant improvements in the lives of Palestinians in the OPTs a far more serious escalation will occur, whether tomorrow, next year or in a decade’s time. The question then is not if, but when and where. If developments witnessed over the last 48 hours become a trend, odds are that it could be sooner rather than later.

Israeli punitive actions, although ostensibly aimed at Hamas and its supporters, risk a serious wave of unrest in both the West Bank and Gaza which once unleashed will prove difficult to control, and even harder to predict. Justice minister Tzipi Livni as well as IDF officers such as Chief of Staff Benny Gantz are well aware of this and have advocated more “measured” military action in response to the killings. But emotions are running high amongst Israelis and it is unclear whether more rationale voices in the security cabinet will be able to prevail over hardliners such as Israel’s Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett.

So far Israel’s reaction has been textbook, deploying overwhelming and disproportional force to collectively punish Palestinians and “mow the lawn” in Gaza and the West Bank. Beyond the stated objectives of retrieving the missing settlers and destroying Hamas infrastructure the IDF has sought to restore Israeli deterrence capacity against future Palestinian violence by reminding Palestinians of Israel’s overwhelming military might with one simple message: resistance is futile.

Israeli reactions have also been guided by ideological concerns. Even before funeral services had been held supporters of the settler movement such as Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Communications Minister Gilad Erdan had begun calling for the expansion of Israeli settlements.

The current situation also gives Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu the opportunity to fulfil his ambition of derailing Palestinian reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and wreaking the recently announced Palestinian unity government. Despite having initially received US and EU backing, the veneer of international legitimacy is fast fading from the new Palestinian government. Meanwhile President Abbas is coming under increasing pressure to renege on his deal with Hamas, or risk be painted as an accomplice to the kidnappings and face Israeli punitive measures against the Palestinian Authority. Either way, the national unity government’s days seem numbered.

Neither side though will be looking for a serious military escalation. Hamas finds itself more isolated and vulnerable than ever. Many regional states will be quietly encouraging an Israeli crackdown on Hamas, in particular Egypt and the UAE while the capacity of Hamas’ traditional allies to act will be severely constrained – Turkey is embroiled in domestic politics, Iran has its hands full in Syria and Iraq, and Qatar will be able to do little more than offer to mediate and pick up the pieces afterwards.

Despite his rhetoric, Prime Minister Netanyahu is risk averse and not known for starting wars, especially not outside of an electoral season. A serious military escalation such as an all-out campaign against Gaza, or a re-occupation of the West Bank would engender only costs for Israel. And with both Hamas and Fatah set to emerge from this situation weakened Prime Minister Netanyahu could attempt to appease right wingers by claiming that Israel’s objectives have been accomplished once it catches the murderers of the Israeli teens.

Yet the above is occurring against a backdrop which has witnessed the failure of yet another round of peace talks and the entrenchment of Israel’s occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Palestinians are becoming alienated from traditional political parties and increasingly demanding a rethink of their national liberation strategy. Israeli society meanwhile has swerved to the right, with calls to annex areas of the West Bank becoming increasingly mainstream. All the elements are therefore present for a major upheaval.

“Neither side will be looking for a serious military escalation”

Provided rational voices on both sides prevail, the real risks lay in unintended consequences. While a spark could come in any form (such as a stray Palestinian rocket, the massacre of Palestinians by Israeli settlers, or the assassination of a high ranking Hamas figure), it is worth keeping an eye out for the following factors which could lead to instability over the medium term.

* We will undoubtedly see price tag attacks in retaliation by Jewish extremists, and there have already been reports of attempted lynchings of Palestinians as well as a possible revenge killing. If such actions are not brought under control or should Israeli security services turn a blind eye, we risk seeing increased spiralling levels of inter-communal violence between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Israel proper. 

* Provocative Israeli raids in Area A of the West Bank (including in Ramallah) and the mass arrest of Palestinian has put President Abbas in an unpopular position over continued PA security cooperation with Israel. There is a real risk that Palestinian backlash could be directed not only at Israel but also at the Palestinian Authority, potentially leading to the suspension of Israeli/Palestinian security cooperation or even the collapse of the PA – two elements which have been vital ingredients in managing the status quo since the 1993 Oslo Accords and preserving Israeli security.

* In the absence of a political route through Palestinian reconciliation and with its back against the wall, Hamas may well decide that its best bet is to go toe-to-toe with Israel in order to bolster its flagging popularity amongst Palestinians. As a result, Israeli airstrikes against Gaza and retaliatory rocket fire from Palestinian militants would risk perpetuating a circle of violence on both sides. With Egypt unlikely to be able to play its traditional role of mediator due to its strident anti-Muslim Brotherhood rhetoric, the situation could easily spin out of control and risk a repeat of 2009’s Operation Cast Lead.

* Destroying Hamas would remove a bulwark against more radical Islamist groups. Jihadi groups have been conspicuous by their absence in the West Bank. Even in Gaza, such groups are still relatively weak with Hamas keeping them in check through periodic crackdowns. As in Egypt the perceived failure of political Islam to achieve change has given rise to concerns that many will now move towards more radical groups. Destroying Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank and removing its leaders could also lead to de-centralisation and an increase in actions unsanctioned by Hamas’s top leadership, including “lone wolf attacks” as seems to have been the case in this instance. The alternative to Hamas will be far worse, and it will be of Israel’s making.

Much will therefore depend on the ability of the US and its partners to manage the situation and contain events over the coming days and weeks. The US has already vowed to stand by Israel and its right to defend itself, and as long as Palestinian casualties remain low there will likely be no public criticism of a limited Israeli military operation against Hamas. But as Palestinian casualties grow and the likelihood of things spinning out of control increases, so too will US uneasiness and pressure on Israel. This is not the summer of 2006, and President Obama will not write Israel a blank check like President Bush did during Israel’s last destructive war in Lebanon with Hezbollah.