For years, Palestinians, as well as Israelis, have labored to redraw the battle lines. The three-day Israeli war on Gaza, starting on August 5, clearly manifested this reality.
Throughout its military operation, Israel has repeatedly underscored the point that the war was targeting the Islamic Jihad Movement only, not Hamas or anyone else.
A somewhat similar scenario had transpired in May 2019 and again in November of the same year. The May clashes began when two Israeli soldiers were wounded by a Palestinian sniper at the fence separating besieged Gaza from Israel.
Mass weekly protests had taken place near the fence for years, demanding an end to the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip. Over 200 unarmed Palestinians were killed by Israeli snipers, who were dispatched to the fence area as early as March 2018. The unexpected Palestinian shooting of the Israeli snipers was a temporary reversal of the bloody scene in that area.
Israel blamed the Islamic Jihad for the attack.
On May 3, Israel responded by bombing Hamas positions so that the latter may put pressure on the Islamic Jihad to cease its operations near the fence. The unstated goal, however, was to sow the seeds of disunity among Palestinian groups in Gaza who have, for years, operated under the umbrella of the joint armed operation room.
Like the latest August war, the 2019 war was also brief and deadly.
Another brief war followed in November, this time around involving the Islamic Jihad alone. Many Palestinians were killed and wounded.
Though Israel failed in breaking up Palestinian unity, a debate took place in Palestine, especially following the November clashes, as to why Hamas did not take a more active part in the fighting.
The conventional wisdom at the time was that Israel must not be allowed to impose the time, place and nature of the fight on the Palestinians, as was often the case, and that it is far more strategic for Palestinian Resistance to make these determinations.
That position might be defensible when understood in a historical context.
For Israel, maintaining the status quo in Gaza is politically and strategically advantageous.
Additionally, the status quo is financially profitable as new weapons are tested and sold at exorbitant prices, making Israel the world’s 10th-largest international weapons exporter over the past five years, as of 2022.
Israeli wars on Gaza are also a political insurance, as they reaffirm Washington’s support for Tel Aviv, via word and deed. “My support for Israel’s security is long-standing and unwavering,” US President Joe Biden said on August 7, as Israeli bombs rained over Gaza, killing 49 Palestinians, 17 of whom were children. It is the exact same position of every US administration in every Israeli war.
The Israeli military establishment too embraced this seemingly unchanging reality. The Israeli military refers to its occasional deadly war on Gaza as ‘mowing the grass’. Writing in the Jerusalem Post in May 2021, David M. Weinberg of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security explained the Israeli strategy in the most dehumanizing terms: “Just like mowing your front lawn, this is constant, hard work. If you fail to do so, weeds grow wild, and snakes begin to slither around in the brush.”
For its part, the political establishment in Tel Aviv has learned to adapt and benefit from the routine violence. In 2015, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summed up his country’s position in a short but loaded sentence: “I am asked if we will live forever by the sword – yes.”
Ironically, in May 2021, the Palestinians were the ones unleashing the ‘sword’. Instead of keeping the tit-for-tat battle in Gaza confined to that small geopolitical space, the Resistance took the unusual step of striking at Israel in response to events transpiring in a small Palestinian neighborhood in Occupied East Jerusalem. Within hours, Tel Aviv lost the political plot and its control over the war narrative. It seemed as if every inch of Palestine and Israel suddenly became part of a larger battle, whose outcome was no longer determined by Israel alone.
The Palestinians call those events “the Sword of Jerusalem”. The name was coined in Gaza.
Ever since, Israel has been fishing for a new battle that would help it regain the initiative.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, for example, attempted to provoke such a fight in May, but failed. He thought that by moving forward with the provocative Flag March in Occupied Jerusalem, he would be able to drag Gaza into another war. Instead of war, Palestinians responded with mass protests and popular mobilization.
The latest August war was another such attempt, this time by the country’s new Prime Minister Yair Lapid. However, all that the militarily inexperienced Israeli leader could obtain was what Israeli military analysts refer to as “tactical victory”.
It was hardly a victory. To claim any kind of victory, Israel simply redefined the war objectives. Instead of ‘destroying the terror infrastructure of Hamas’, as is often the declared goal, it instigated a fight with the Islamic Jihad, killing two of its military commanders.
The typical Israeli media reporting on the war discreetly shifted, as if Hamas and other Palestinian groups were never enemies of Israel. It was all about Islamic Jihad.
“Fighting with the terror group would eventually have to resume,” The Times of Israel wrote on August 12, citing Israeli military sources. No reference was made to the other ‘terror groups’.
Unlike previous wars, Israel was in desperate need to end the fighting very quickly, as Lapid was keen on clinching a ‘tactical victory’ that will surely be heavily promoted prior to the general elections in November.
Both Israeli military and political establishments, however, knew too well that they will not be able to sustain another all-out conflict like that of May 2021. The war had to end, simply because a bigger war was unwinnable.
Hours after a mediated truce was declared, the Israeli military killed three fighters belonging to the ruling Fatah Movement in Nablus in the West Bank. Lapid aimed to send another message of strength, though in actuality he confirmed that the lines of the battles have been permanently redrawn.
The Resistance in Gaza commented on the killing of the Nablus fighters by declaring that the conflict with Israel has entered a new phase. Indeed, it has.
The writer is a journalist, author and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA). His website is www.ramzybaroud.net