Gaza Conflict 2021: Why Now, Who Gains?
Col Rajeev Agarwal

The guns have fallen silent, fighter aircrafts are back to their bases and the two sides, while counting their losses, are trying to hold onto their nerves as the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip has come to a halt after declaration of unconditional ceasefire on 21st May 2021. It started off with the Hamas firing a barrage of rockets on 11th May across Israeli territory, which was promptly retaliated by the Israeli Defence Forces launching precise and punitive attack by missiles and airstrikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip. The final tally of losses reads more than 200 Palestinians killed including 60 children while on the Israeli side, 13 lives were lost. In midst of the COVID-19 pandemic raging across the globe, the people in the region hope that this fragile ceasefire holds and that this latest conflict spurs the stakeholders into finding a peaceful resolution to the Palestine issue, simmering since the birth of Israel in 1948.

While a lot is being written about the current conflict, how it unfolded and its effects; this piece would focus on ‘Why Now’ of it and who gains more out of it.

The trigger to the current conflict is attributed to a number of factors. There is the issue of Israeli police barricading the Damascus Gate in the old city of Jerusalem on 13th April, preventing Palestinian Arabs from offering prayers at the Al-Aqsa-Mosque on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan. This mosque is considered the third most sacred place for Muslims and the barricading drew widespread anger and protests. There were continued and sporadic protests/clashes thereafter too throughout the holy month. Again, on 07th May, the last Friday of Ramadan, Israeli police and the Palestinians clashed after the evening prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque with Israeli police entering the mosque and hundreds of Palestinians getting hurt. On 10th May, Hamas gave Israel a warning to withdraw its forces from the Al Aqsa Mosque area as well as Sheikh Jarrah. The firing of rockets by Hamas into Israel on night 10/11 May thereafter ignited the war.

Another issue which triggered the conflict was a property dispute in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem in Israel where a number of Palestinian residents were agitated over possible eviction from their homes. What was the reason? A case over land-ownership between few Palestinian families and Israeli Jewish settled there since 1967. The case was scheduled to be heard in the Israel’s Supreme Court on 10th May 2021. On 07th May, there were clashes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood between the Palestinian residents and right wing Israeli over the land-ownership case. The case hearing was postponed due to the unrest but the damage had already been done.

Let us know explore and analyze the ‘Why Now’. The issue of land ownership in Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood is not new. It goes back to the time when Jordan in 1956, after its capture of old city of Jerusalem earlier, leased the captured property in Sheikh Jarrah to 28 Palestinian families. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel passed a law permitting Jewish families who had been forcefully evicted by Jordan or Britain before 1967, to claim property rights by placing forth proof of original property ownership. So, this issue was not new. Why it was slated for a hearing by Israeli Supreme Court on 10th May could be an interesting coincidence.

The first clashes started when Israeli police prevented Palestinians from offering prayers at their holy place on 13th April, the first day of holy month of Ramadan. Again, this was a curious coincidence. The second major clashes and entering the mosque by Israeli forces on 07th May, the last Friday of Ramadan again projects another interesting choice/coincidence of dates. For any Muslim, two things are beyond debate; the holy month of Ramadan and the significance of Al-Aqsa Mosque. Is there an argument that Israel wanted to provoke a violent reaction?

The US Israel relations too are a significant factor. With Joe Biden as the President, Israel was feeling unsure of the unflinching support earlier it enjoyed under President Trump. The readiness of Biden administration to commence Iran nuclear talks and delink monetary aid to Palestine from the Israeli equation hurt Israel. BBC News reported on 07th April that “US President Joe Biden's administration plans to provide $235m (£171m) of aid to Palestinians, restoring part of the assistance cut by Donald Trump. Two-thirds will go to the UN's agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, which has suffered a financial crisis since it lost $360m of US funding in 2018. Mr. Biden wants to "restore credible engagement" by the Palestinians in long-stalled peace talks with Israel”.1 This announcement interestingly was exactly one week before the first trigger to the present conflict.
The Iran factor too is interesting in relation to the conflict. The talks on the possibility of revival of JCPOA or the Iran Nuclear deal were on in Vienna between the EU and Iran during this period. While nothing concrete had materialised out of it yet, there were reports of a massive explosion at the Natanz Nuclear Plant of Iran on 11th April, which Iran blamed on Israel2. While Iran did not retaliate militarily, the opportunity presented to Hamas in Israel must have been more than welcome. Obviously, with Iran presidential elections scheduled on 18th June, a conflict in Israel works well with the top leadership and the hardliners in Iran.

There is also the issue of elections to the Palestinian Legislative Assembly which were scheduled on 22nd May. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas abruptly called it off on 29th April. Hamas thought that it had the upper hand and the cancellation therefore was sabotage against its political interests. Again, the timing of it and Hamas’s eagerness to exploit this situation militarily looks quite obvious. Therefore, the clashes on 07th May and storming of the mosque by Israeli forces was a perfect opportunity for Hamas.

There are also the larger issues of the Abraham Accords, which brought Israel closer to the Arab worldas well as the resolution of GCC crisis earlier in the year and coming back of Qatar in the folds of GCC. Both these threatened the dilution of Palestine cause in the larger Muslim world. Coupled with it, reports of talks between Egypt and Israel in March 2021on expanding their ties in the region3, would have served no good purpose to the Palestine cause.

On the Israeli front, there was an important political interplay i.e. the national elections. In four elections over one year, Prime Minister Netanyahu had failed to secure a majority. On 04th May, he failed to meet the deadline to conjure up numbers to form a government4, just three days before the Israeli forces stormed the Al Aqsa Mosque on 07th May. Should it again be called a coincidence?

Next, let us discuss the objectives and outcomes. In Netanyahu’s own words, Netanyahu said that he was "determined to continue this operation until its objective is achieved: to restore quiet and security to you, citizens of Israel."5 Have the Israeli military operations before the ceasefire achieved those objectives? Has Hamas been so degraded that it poses no military threat in near future to Israel? Has the top leadership of Hamas been taken out? Sadly, to most of the questions, answer may be a ‘No’.

Lastly, who has gained and how much? Israel and particularly Prime Minister Netanyahu has clearly demonstrated the will to take punitive military action when threatened and have succeeded in shoring up national support. Wars are always a close rallying point for national leadership and Israel is no different. Hamas too, on the other side has gained in its standing among the Palestinian and Arab leadership. In a future election to the Palestine Legislative Assembly, it may emerge victorious. Also, the conflict did not result in a ground invasion or capture of Gaza, as was initially feared, is a positive for Hamas. Iran, playing its role quietly in the background, has avenged the Natanz attack (maybe) and its open support to Hamas cause has won it important stakes in the Muslim world where many of the other important Muslim countries offered very feeble support to Palestine.

Few hundreds of lives lost and thousands of families rendered homeless, can it be a result of so many curious coincidences over such a short period of time? When the dust settles over this conflict, the manner of its escalation and timing will always be a point of debate.

Endnotes
  1. Biden administration to restore $235m in US aid to Palestinians, BBC News, 07 April 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-56665199

  2. Iran vows revenge for 'Israeli' attack on Natanz nuclear site, BBC News, 12 April 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-56715520
  3. Egypt, Israel hold talks to boost cooperation, Anadolu Agency News, 10 March 2021, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/egypt-israel-hold-talks-to-boost-cooperation/2170998
  4. Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu misses deadline, political future in question, Business Standard, 05 May 2021, https://www.business-standard.com/article/international/netanyahu-misses-deadline-political-future-in-question-121050500060_1.html
  5. Israel's Netanyahu 'determined' to continue Gaza operation after Biden calls for 'significant de-escalation', CNBC News, 19 May 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/israel-gaza-fighting-rages-diplomatic-pressure-ceasefire-builds-n1267894

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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