Violence between Israel and Hamas has been escalating in recent weeks. Nearly 200 lives have been lost, over a thousand hurt, tens of thousands forced to flee their homes, and fear and uncertainty spreading among both Israeli and Palestinian populations. There is no end in sight to the expanding confrontation as Israel seeks to rid the Gaza Strip of the rockets that threaten the Jewish state. A human rights catastrophe is in the making — again.
The latest bout of hostilities began with the kidnapping last month of three Israeli teenagers, all of whom were later found dead. Israeli security forces responded by rounding up hundreds of Hamas activists. A Palestinian youth was also seized, allegedly by Israeli nationalists in revenge, and killed; the autopsy results reveal that he was burned alive. Palestinian militants responded to the killing and the roundup with rocket salvoes against Israeli territory from within the Gaza Strip. Israeli sources report as many as 800 launches since the violence began, including rockets launched in an attempt to strike a nuclear reactor located near the city of Dimona in the Negev dessert.
Predictably, those rocket attacks prompted an Israeli escalation. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has launched over 1,300 air strikes in retaliation and sent military commandos into the Gaza Strip on a lightning raid. The rocket salvoes continue unabated and Israel has been warning residents of Palestinian villages near Israel’s border to leave their homes, sending some 10,000 people fleeing south.
The human toll mounts. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that when it completed its report on casualties, 138 Palestinians were killed since the start of Operation Protective Edge on July 8, 36 were children, and 1,361 Palestinians were injured. Nearly 80 percent of those killed were civilians. In addition, Palestinians claim that Israel is engaged in psychological warfare to demoralize and destabilize their citizens.
Netanyahu has countered that he is only defending his country and its citizens, a responsibility that he has pledged to uphold by “any means necessary.” He, along with other Israeli officials, charge that Hamas militants are to blame for the destruction being rained upon Gaza, as they hide their “rocket infrastructure” in civilian territory. Military sources say that they have struck 32 “Hamas leadership facilities,” 29 communications infrastructures and additional sites used for terrorist activities. Netanyahu has apologized for civilian casualties but blames Hamas for using human shields. As one Israeli defense official complained, the enemy “wants to trap me into an attack and into hurting civilians.” If it is a trap, Israel has fallen right into it.
On Tuesday one Israeli man was killed in a Hamas mortar attack but as of Wednesday no Israelis had been killed by Hamas missiles. The guidance systems for Hamas missiles are unreliable, and Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system has proven extremely effective. In addition, Israel has spent heavily on civil defense and since several years past new houses have to include a safe room protected against such attacks.
Still, Hamas seeks to ratchet up the psychological pressure. Its military wing announced last week in Hebrew that it would launch a barrage on Tel Aviv an hour later with a new rocket, a move that got the attention of the Israeli authorities and media. On the same day as the announcement, Hamas debuted a Hebrew-language website to make its threats more easily accessible to the Israeli population.
After reports that Israel has called up 40,000 reservists, Palestinians fear that a ground invasion could be forthcoming. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has asked the United Nations for protection as the conditions for Gaza’s 1.7 million people “have become unbearable.”
The best protection would be a ceasefire, but that appears unlikely. Despite denunciations and calls for restraint from capitals around the world, neither side seems ready to lay down their weapons. Israel wants to destroy Hamas’ ability to threaten Israel, and Hamas feels it can still hurt Israel, build up its credibility as a force within Middle Eastern politics and prevail in the war for public opinion. That logic torpedoed an Egyptian ceasefire proposal: Israel accepted the terms; Hamas did not.
Just as worrying is the lack of a credible interlocutor. Hamas considers the United States to be too close to Israel and Abbas, with whom it competes for Palestinian support. Since Hamas has been branded a terrorist group by Washington, the European Union and Israel, the U.S. cannot meet its leaders to negotiate. Egypt mediated the last ceasefire in 2012, but the head of the Egyptian government at the time was Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who has since been deposed. His successor, President Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, is hostile to Hamas and like-minded Islamic groups; Israel is hoping that he will tighten the noose around Hamas and prevent it from acquiring the weapons that it uses to threaten Israelis. That hostility was evident in the brusque rejection by Hamas of this week’s ceasefire proposal from Cairo.
As ever, the bottom line is the zero-sum mentality of Israel and Hamas. Both refuse to acknowledge the other’s legitimacy or existence, except as an entity to be extinguished. That may meet political needs, but it is unrealistic and unfeasible. Sadly, more deaths and destruction will occur before either side will feel that it can settle for a ceasefire. And that will likely preserve an uncomfortable status quo until the next acts of violence and the cycle begins anew.