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Editor’s note: Israel and Hamas began air strikes against each other on May 10, in the worst Israeli-Palestinian fighting since 2014. The fighting began after weeks of interethnic violence in Jerusalem and the expected ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court over a property dispute that would make it possible for the displacement of six Palestinian families in East Jerusalem.
Rachel S. Harris, Professor at the University of Illinois in the Comparative and World Literature Program and the Jewish Culture and Society Program, studies Israeli literature and culture and has written on the Arab-Israeli conflict. She spoke to Jodi Heckel, editor for arts and humanities at the news office.
After a long period of relative calm, why are tensions and air strikes mounting now?
There are several factors that are not all discussed in the news media, not the least of which is that COVID-19 lockdown restrictions were eased in April. After more than a year of intensive lockdown, over 50% of the population have now been vaccinated. COVID-19 restrictions were eased at the time when several Jewish and Muslim religious holidays resulted in large groups gathering in close proximity to religious sites.
While there were some hot button issues, these could break out in part due to a leadership vacuum between Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not have the votes to form a coalition government, despite the fact that the Israelis voted in the fourth election in two years. He is also exposed to allegations of corruption that undermine his leadership position.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas postponed the scheduled May elections, the first Palestinian elections since 2006, indefinitely, most likely because his party would lose Fatah to Hamas. His position had been weakened due to increasing autocracy and corruption, but also because the recent peace agreements between Israel and several Arab countries in late 2020 and early 2021 ignored the situation of the Palestinians and gave its opponent Hamas the opportunity to view it as increasingly irrelevant political leader.
Neither side seems willing to compromise to end the violence. Why and what do you think will be necessary to end the fighting?
There is no political advantage in ending the fighting, and so it will continue until that changes. Hamas is using its firepower to stand up as the protector of Jerusalem and Muslim holy places. Coupled with the growing disappointment with Fatah, this gives Hamas another edge in a leadership struggle and wins its support in the Arab world in general.
For Israel, the current hostilities offer an opportunity to weaken Hamas’ military infrastructure, but there are also political considerations at home. In wartime, the country tends to support a right-wing government and is willing to overlook domestic concerns on national security grounds – and Netanyahu’s strong track record makes him a favorite in such a power game.
Ultimately, the violence empowers extremists on both sides and undermines the possibility of a liberal coalition of the Israeli government backed by Arab parties, which was considered likely just a week ago.
International pressure from regional partners and the United States can stop the current violence, but is unlikely to do much to create longer-term stability, and this current powder keg can easily be brought back into operation without significant domestic policy reorientation.
What can President Biden do to de-escalate the conflict? What about international pressure from the United Nations Security Council?
While the United States and the United Nations Security Council are likely to negotiate this flare-up, it is unclear whether they can do more than stabilize the current situation. Only if Fatah returns to the negotiating table will it have a chance to regain the upper hand in internecine politics, and that might be enough to convince Israel that it is to their advantage to resume discussions.
There are civilian casualties on both sides, including children who have been killed. Are both Israel and Hamas violating international human rights treaties and do you think there will be ramifications for both sides?
While Israel is likely to face more anger in the international press for its bombing of Gaza, its military approach generally seeks to reduce the number of civilian casualties so it is unlikely to face (legitimate) legal criticism. Israel must share target information with allies and show that its response is proportionate. Because of this, President Biden and others are calling for a ceasefire but not threatening Israel with sanctions.
Hamas is not a state entity, although it de facto governs Gaza. It is identified as a terrorist organization by the US and the international community, and given the nature of asymmetrical warfare and the larger unsolved problems of the conflict, it is unlikely to be subject to legal scrutiny.
With both parties in a PR war, the moral argument is likely to become more important than the legal one.