At the end of each round of violence between Israel and Gaza, both Israel and Hamas always insist that they have won.
This time around, Israeli politicians have ample footage of Gazan towers and neighborhoods they bombed “back to stone age.” Hamas likewise has footage of its rockets reaching Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, forcing Israelis into shelters, to showcase that its armed resistance is alive and efficient whenever Gazans criticize it.
There is no way for Israel to violently win against Hamas, or to bomb Gaza into submission and silence while its people continue to live caged in a toxic slum from birth to death. Instead, with each rocket, Israel is increasing Gazan support for the one group seen as fighting for their survival. What’s left to be determined is merely how many families will be ripped apart, children orphaned, homes reduced to bleak ruins and bitterness fueled on both sides of the wall in the process. If Israel truly hopes to stop the rockets, then its leadership needs to find a better way.
The first three months of 2021 were the least violent for Israel in decades, with virtually zero rocket attacks from Gaza and almost no successful lone wolf attacks in the West Bank. Palestinians were poised to hold the first general election in more than a decade — and things were not looking great for Hamas. Internal polling predicted the militant group would get around 25% of the vote and Hamas was softening its rhetoric accordingly.
Instead of rewarding and building on this calm, Netanyahu squeezed us Palestinians further into the corner, building more settlements in Givat Hamatos and Har Homa that would effectively render a two-state solution more impossible; imposing restrictions on Muslim worshipers’ access to al-Aqsa mosque in Ramadan; installing barriers at the Damascus gate; maintaining Gaza’s suffocating blockade while it’s being ravaged by the pandemic; and emboldening settler extremists to sharply increase attacks on Palestinians. In addition, Israel’s obstruction of Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem gave pretext to the octogenarian Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to indefinitely postpone those elections.
This toxic and oppressive atmosphere, the daily scenes of police and settler brutalities against Palestinians in Jerusalem and violent incursions of Al-Aqsa — along with a “death to the Arabs” march and a planned Israeli flag parade by right-wing extremists in the Muslim quarter in Jerusalem — all dramatically increased rage and despair amongst Palestinians. This lent growing credence to advocates of violence as a hopeless bid for deterrence or vengeance.
Palestinian support for Hamas, or for violence against Israel, fluctuates from time to time. But we also know that support for violence increases sharply in times of rage, despair and crisis, not in times of progress and peace. We also know that these moments likewise present Hamas with an opportunity to solidify their power and claim leadership over the Palestinian struggle.
This time, Hamas felt compelled to act or be condemned as indistinguishable from the idle and “collaborationist” Palestinian Authority. However, this time was different: activists on the ground in Jerusalem were garnering international sympathy and Hamas shifted the narrative when they began indiscriminately launching projectiles that inspire no sympathy. Indeed, they were promptly criticized by Palestinians for distracting attention from activists on the ground in Jerusalem. However, the longer the escalation lasted, the more Palestinian outrage focused on Israel’s unprecedentedly intense pounding of Gaza instead of on Hamas’ actions. As Israel’s attacks on Gaza became worse, the Palestinian critics of Hamas grew silent.
The destruction in Gaza has also awakened Arab and global solidarity at a time where Palestinians feel increasingly abandoned and betrayed, following the signing of the Trump-sponsored Abraham accords.
After every escalation, Hamas has always grown more sophisticated and become more adamant to grow stronger, building more tunnels and enhancing its capabilities. In contrast, the Palestinian peace camp and the Palestinian Authority have become an irrelevant laughingstock and a cautionary tale for many Palestinians. The PA’s inaction during attacks on Gaza, unrequited recognition of Israel and upholding security collaboration with the forces of the occupation has been met by relentless efforts from Netanyahu’s government to weaken, isolate, humiliate and demonize the PA rather than rewarding it with any tangible progress that it could show to its people to be the result of moderation and diplomacy.
Similarly, the Palestinian peace camp’s crucial advocacy of co-existence, the two-state solution or dialogue has borne little or no fruit to offer beleaguered Gazans emerging from the rubble to find bleak ruins as far as the eye can see.
The more Israel fails to acknowledge or reward periods of calm and the more hellbent on pounding Gaza into submission to the country becomes, the more empowered Hamas grows.
There is no military solution in Gaza. Leaving Gazans with nothing to lose, nothing to hope for and an abundance of trauma will never make Israel safer. It’s a textbook recipe for fueling extremism, radicalization and hate.
A 2008 study by the RAND Corporation entitled “How Terrorist Groups End” attests to this. Of 268 non-state armed actors that ended their activities after 1968, only 7% were defeated militarily. 43%, in contrast, were ended through transition to a political process, dialogue, conversion to unarmed politics and peaceful accommodation with their government. The brutalities and pain the Israeli government inflicts on Gaza is only giving Hamas an easy victory in the battle of hearts and minds. Israel can only do one thing if it hopes to restore deterrence and achieve security for its people: acknowledge that Palestinians also need and deserve security, safety, freedom and dignity.
Israel’s only hope is to find a way to give Gazans their basic rights, remove a draconian blockade that rendered the enclave virtually uninhabitable and engage in a good faith and serious diplomacy process. Otherwise, it’ll be only a matter of time until the next round of violence. Afterall, what most Palestinians want is a decent and normal life where they can afford to fall in love, start a family, find a job, grow roots in the land and live a life free from systematic humiliation and discrimination.
Both Israelis and Palestinians deserve a life like this. The closer we move towards a peace process, the less relevant and less popular Hamas, which undermines these liberties, will be.
Muhammad Shehada is a contributing columnist for the Forward.
Israel’s attacks on Gaza have only made Hamas stronger