The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long ago become a shouting match over moral superiority. With seventy Israelis and more than two thousand Palestinians, most of them civilians, dead, the latest round of violence in Gaza, too, is being analyzed and discussed mostly on ethical grounds. But as fighting goes on, moral condemnation will likely do little to prevent the next round. Understanding how we got to this point—and, more importantly, how we can move beyond it—calls for an examination of the political events that led up to the operation and the political context in which it took place.
In Israel, endless controversy over Gaza has overlooked one question: How did we get here in the first place? Why, after a considerable period of relative calm, did Hamas resume rocket fire into Israel?
Before the current operation began, Hamas was at one of the lowest points in its history. Its alliance with Syria and Iran, its two main sources of support, had grown weak. Hamas’s ideological and political affinity with the Muslim Brotherhood turned from an asset into a burden, with the downfall of the Brotherhood in Egypt and the rise of its fierce opponent, General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi. Egypt’s closure of the Rafah crossing and the tunnels on its border with Gaza undermined Hamas’s economic infrastructure. In these circumstances, Hamas agreed last April to reconciliation with its political rival Fatah, based on Fatah’s terms. For example, the agreement called for a government of technocrats largely under the control of the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas.
But Benjamin Netanyahu viewed the reconciliation as a threat rather than an opportunity. While the separation of Gaza from the West Bank may not serve Israel’s interest (namely, effective government in the Palestinian Territories), it benefits Netanyahu’s policy of rejecting solutions that would lead to a separate Palestinian state. The reconciliation agreement robbed him of the claim that in the absence of effective rule over Gaza, there is no point in striking a deal with Abbas.
Ironically, it was Netanyahu’s own choices that drove Abbas to reconciliation with Hamas. The impending failure of the Mideast peace negotiations led by US Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013 and early 2014 left Abbas with few political options. Talks faltered as Netanyahu allowed increased settlement activity on the West Bank and they finally collapsed when he reneged on his commitment to release Palestinian prisoners. Realizing that talks were doomed, Abbas signed fifteen international agreements as a head of a Palestinian state and struck his reconciliation deal with Hamas, as he said he would.
Netanyahu, who never had any intention of making the necessary concessions, as his own statements would later reveal,1 was mainly playing the blame game. He saw the reconciliation with Hamas as an opportunity to criticize the Palestinian president and, according to one of the American diplomats involved in the peace talks, his aides said that…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.