It started with the TikTok of Palestinian youth, and escalated to an unprecedented exchange of fire between Hamas and Israel. This is not a classic war, because while the leaders take care to be protected and guarded, the residents of Gaza and Israel are the frontlines. The fire is directed at them, the mutual destruction is enormous, and neither side can overpower the other: Israel is too strong, and Gaza too poor and weak. This is an asymmetrical war in the fullest sense of the word and that is why it is so hallucinatory.
What is most delusional about it, however, is that both sides refuse to acknowledge reality. Israel is deluding itself that the Palestinians can be ignored or eliminated, while Hamas is deluding itself that Israel can be eliminated through rocket fire and active resistance. Benjamin Netanyahu and Ismail Haniyeh have been playing this game for many years, even though the harsh reality hits them in the face again and again. The high, bloody price is quickly forgotten and the two leaders return to their hallucinatory lives, until the next round.
Israel was busy forming a government, after four rounds of elections yielded identical results. The Palestinian question did not come up for discussion at all, and the argument was that there remains no more Left and no more Right. The debate is no longer about whether there should be a Palestinian state, since there are no partners to negotiate with, and also because the countries in the region have already made peace with Israel, confirming Netanyahu’s idea that the Occupation is not an obstacle to regional peace.
Moreover, Netanyahu’s U-turn concerning Israel’s Arab population, and his willingness to rely on the Islamic Movement to form a government, stemmed from his assessment that the Abraham Accords with the Gulf states, then with Sudan and Morocco, ushered in a new era, in which Israeli Arabs could finally cut the umbilical cord that binds them to their Palestinian brethren and concentrate on their civilian demands.
Netanyahu failed to form a government because he couldn’t connect extreme right-winger Itamar Ben Gvir with Islamic nationalist Mansour Abbas. Yair Lapid then got the mandate from the President, intending to form “a government of change.” As part of that mandate, Lapid and his partners sought to replace Netanyahu at all costs; they sought to form a broad government headed by Bennett, which would connect the right, center, left and the Arabs. Meretz members took great pains to explain that such a government is essential, and that the common interest among its diverse elements should prevail. According to them, agreement on a national budget , health care, transportation and the needs of Arab society constitute a solid basis for proper functioning of the future government. After a few days of warfare with Hamas, however, Bennett backed away from the “government of change,” taking it off the agenda.
On the other side of the separation wall, an equally important political drama took place. Abu Mazen announced parliamentary elections. Since 2006, no elections had been held in the Palestinian Authority because Abu Mazen refused to recognize the duly elected Hamas government headed by Haniyeh. At that time, Hamas responded with a military coup, removing the Palestinian Authority (PA) from Gaza. Since then, two entities have existed. The first, the PA in Ramallah, cooperates with Israel in matters of security, and the second is Hamas’ rival regime in Gaza, which has set itself the goal of freeing Gaza from the siege that Israel has enforced since Hamas abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006.
The division between Hamas-Gaza and PA-West Bank suited Netanyahu well. The Palestinian people have been divided, weak, and lacking a clear representative, so Israel could claim that there is no partner for negotiations. Hamas has attempted to break the blockade of Gaza three times, and Israel has responded with three “rounds of war”: Pillar of Cloud, Cast Lead and Sturdy Cliff. Meanwhile, unemployment, poverty, the COVID-19 pandemic, and shortages of water and electricity have created an impossible situation in Gaza.
What shook up the status quo was Abu Mazen’s sudden announcement of parliamentary elections. His motives are unclear. It is possible that Biden’s election as President of the United States convinced him of the need to legitimize his rule. In any case, after the announcement, it soon became clear that Fatah was split among various factions and would be defeated at the ballot box.
Without doubt, the elections would have enabled Hamas to return to the Palestinian parliament, take over Ramallah and bring about a “democratic” end to the siege of Gaza. Such a scenario became a strategic danger for Israel. A democratic takeover of the West Bank by Hamas would have rendered it a legitimate force in the arena.
Therefore, Israel Security Agency chief Nadav Argaman raced to Ramallah, warning Abu Mazen that elections would be suicide. Israel cleverly provided him a face-saving pretext for cancelling: it banned East Jerusalemites from voting in the elections. Abu Mazen duly accused the Israeli Occupation of voiding the elections, proclaiming that without the Palestinians of Jerusalem, elections would not take place.
This is where Jerusalem enters the picture. For Hamas, the coordination between Israel and Abu Mazen in cancelling the elections was a red flag, because it eliminated the last hope of ending the siege. Hamas took the position: if the elections are not held because of Jerusalem, we will liberate Jerusalem! As delusional as that may sound, this was the explicit goal voiced by Haniyeh in a long and detailed speech on Tuesday, May 11th.
Hamas’ pretext for war is, as usual, the al-Aqsa Mosque, which been a political card for competing Islamist factions since 1996. In that year, the followers of Sheikh Raed Salah, the leader of Israel’s northern Islamic faction, coined the slogan “Al-Aqsa is in danger” as a way of goading Israel’s southern Islamic movement, which had split from the northern branch because the latter refused to participate in Knesset elections. Today, al-Aqsa has become a card for Hamas to strike at the Palestinian Authority and challenge Israel. The goal was and is to end the siege and allow Hamas to control the entire Palestinian arena, meaning the West Bank and Gaza, without restraint.
Hamas is going the same way the Muslim Brotherhood went in Egypt, when it rode the wave of the Arab Spring to come to power, while turning its back on the young people who overthrew the Mubarak regime. It was also the way of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood when, with the help of Qatar and Turkey, it overrode the Syrian revolution initiated by young Syrian democrats, instead suppressing democracy. The result is known. Assad is still in power and millions of Syrians have become refugees. Now Ismail Haniyeh “responds” to the call of Jerusalem’s young people and of the Arabs in Israel. Gaza, he says, cannot remain indifferent to the attack on al-Aqsa. The barrage of missiles on Jerusalem was intended to establish Hamas as the sole factor who determines, decides and speaks on behalf of Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa Mosque.
Despite all this, the end of Hamas will not be different from that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Syria, Sudan and all other countries where they have tried to impose their rule. The fate of the Israeli Right and its partners from the Center and the Left will not be different either. Five million Palestinians are not transparent. The violence of young Arabs in Israel, 40% of whom do not study or work, will not remain confined to Arab cities and villages. It erupts whenever frustration mixes with national religious feelings.
It is time to take seriously the fate of the Palestinians. Negotiations with Abu Mazen, who has lost credibility with his people, are not a solution, nor are “understandings” with Hamas. Both organizations have proved incapable of running a state and a society, and they do not respect civil or human rights. The solution can only emerge from new democratic forces in the West Bank and Gaza, a few of whom have already adopted slogans such as “Let live!” and “You’ve gone too far!” Such voices, which understand that the problem is not only Israel, but also the corrupt and fundamentalist leaderships that are suffocating them, can be partners for a shared Israeli-Palestinian future.
On the Israeli side, the parties that make up the current Knesset have proven without exception how detached they are from reality. Two cardinal questions were not present in the last four elections. The first is the fate of the Palestinians and the future of the Occupation. The second is the climate crisis. The first will determine the fate of Israeli society and the second the fate of humanity.
The old paradigm of “two states” was buried by the Oslo Accords, while the fight for civil and climatic justice requires the construction of a joint alternative civil movement. It should be based on Israeli and Palestinian environmental and human rights organizations, which can connect these two issues for a just, egalitarian and democratic society including Israelis and Palestinians. It may be difficult today to imagine such a future, but the reality in Israel and throughout the world will eventually force a change.