Gaza: Old War, New Problems

If all parties involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are to avoid bruised reputations and bloodied hands, they need to change their approach. Embracing co-operative solutions to communal problems would be a start.

By Michael Stephens for

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so often seen as the definitive problem in the Middle East, has in recent times appeared secondary to the revolutions and civil strife that has engulfed the Arab world. With media and political attention focused on events in Libya and the Gulf region, the announcement by the Quartet that they had 'given up hope' of renewing talks between Israel and the Palestinians elicited the interest of few outside the diplomatic arena.[1] The explosion of a bomb near Jerusalem's central bus station on 23 March, however, has served to redress this temporary imbalance, reminding us once again of the primacy of the Israeli-Palestinian issue in world affairs. Recent escalations along the Gaza border combined with the resumption of terror attacks inside Israel are now pushing the two sides close to a war over which neither has any control.

Escalation of violence in the context of Arab uprisings

The bomb, which killed a British citizen and injured thirty others, is the most serious attack in Jerusalem since July 2008, when a bulldozer driven by Arab-Israeli citizen Hussam Duwait ploughed into a bus, killing three and injuring thirty. It is nevertheless but one of a recent spate of serious incidences of violence that have resulted in deaths on both sides. The fires of anger have been fuelled in particular by the brutal deaths of three young children in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, and of three minors in the Gaza Strip following Israeli airstrikes on the territory.

The recent escalation in violence raises a number of conundrums that make a definitive analysis of cause and motivation difficult, but both macro and micro factors are at play. The uprisings in the Middle East have made Israelis nervous that a more Islamist anti-Israel sentiment could sweep the region,[2] and made the Palestinian populace more determined to force positive change from their weak position. Secondly, the total collapse of the peace process has left anger and resentment which finds no other outlet but through the use of violence. In a Middle East undergoing radical change, the stasis of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship has been particularly galling, opening a space for those intent on using violence as a way to force a stagnated political, security and diplomatic situation in their favour.

 Hamas' central role in controlling violence

Whilst both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine (hereafter referred to simply as 'Islamic Jihad') have claimed responsibility for the firing of mortars and Grad rockets deep into Israel's territory,[3] no such responsibility has been claimed regarding attacks in Jerusalem or Itamar. The Itamar attack in particular has caught Hamas by surprise, who, despite offering a coldhearted contextualisation for the reasons behind it, condemned the deliberate targeting of children as 'morally wrong'.[4]

This raises questions about the degree of institutional control over violence conducted by Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank. In the Gazan context, Islamic Jihad operates in an uneasy alliance with Hamas, who tolerate the former's presence and activities whilst divorcing themselves from its unpredictably violent outbursts. The recent Gaza conflagrations have, however, not been in keeping with Hamas' current posture of shying away from violent resistance. The tit-for-tat escalation caused by the activity of Islamic Jihad militants firing from the abandoned settlement of Neve Dekalim has forced Hamas to take action.

The volume of rockets and mortars fired by Islamic Jihad, combined with the severity of the Israeli response, has necessitated a response from Hamas' Qassam brigades. Hamas, as the self-styled leader of the resistance, could not appear to look weak and ineffective in comparison to its smaller, more violent rival. But there are clear signs  that Hamas appears an unwilling partner in this escalation: on 25 March Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh telephoned Islamic Jihad's leadership in Damascus to order the group to stop firing rockets and mortars at Israel to avoid an all-out confrontation in the Gaza Strip.[5]

This action serves two purposes: firstly, it stops the process of escalation between Hamas and Israel, avoiding costly - and, empirical evidence would suggest, devastating - Israeli air strikes against Hamas' political and security infrastructure. Secondly, it shows Israel that Hamas is still in charge, and able to conduct operations to maintain stability in the strip. The second point is of particular importance, because any indication that Hamas is unable to control violence among the Palestinians creates serious problems both for its own legitimacy and for Israel. Israelis may detest Hamas, but they understand the beast and know that its rule, although oppressive and Islamist, is far better than many of the alternatives on offer.  The accelerated proliferation of Al-Qa'ida inspired radical groups in the Gaza Strip has done much to confirm this belief. It is these Salafi Jihadist groups, who bare responsibility for a sizeable number of rocket attacks against Israel and, unlike Hamas, see no strategic gain in a ceasefire.[6]

Since Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, Hamas has proved a bulwark against such groups, shifting from a strategy of co-operation to one of containment, and often brutally suppressing and executing salafist radicals who dare to challenge its rule. On 14 August 2009, Hamas fighters stormed the Mosque of radical cleric Abdel-Latif Moussa, then Head of the Jund Ansar Allah ('Army of the Helpers of God'), an Islamist group with links to Al-Qa'ida, killing thirteen, including Moussa, and injuring 120.[7] The proliferation of similar groups has been checked by Hamas' hegemonic control over the use of force. But there are signs that Hamas may be losing some of this control: in 2010, an urgent dispatch to Hamas' political chief Khaled Mesha'al from the Senior Commander of the Qassam brigades, stated that the security situation in Gaza was deteriorating as Islamist groups continually challenged Hamas rule.[8]  It appears that this control has eroded further, with Israel's Head of Southern Command, Maj-Gen Tal Russo, recently stating that 'There is anarchy right now on the other side and Hamas is having difficulty getting the situation back to the way it was. There is anarchy within Gaza and within Hamas. There is no control.'[9]

If Hamas cannot ably assert control over radical groups in Gaza, Israel will have to step in and take military action to destroy militant organizations that have established a base in the territory. This would involve a prolonged military occupation, a PR nightmare for a nation currently struggling to maintain international legitimacy. In the aftermath of the 2009 Goldstone report, which accused both Israel and Hamas of war crimes, Israel has been extremely reluctant to re-engage in any prolonged military operation in Gaza (despite its utter rejection of Judge Goldstone's findings). Goldstone's recent amendment of the report - retracting the claim that Israel 'intentionally' targeted civilians[10] - will do little to change this orientation. The damage caused to Israel's image from both the report's findings and the fiasco of Israel's error-strewn operation in May 2010 to stop the Turkish ship, The Mavi Marmara, from sailing to Gaza have been severe.

Any resumption of attacks by Islamist splinter factions, or by Hamas itself, would nevertheless have to be met with a harsh Israeli response. Israel has displayed a degree of restraint in its recent military exchanges, but its patience is running out. The deterrence established by Israel during Operation Cast Lead has been greatly eroded, and the feeling among Israel's military establishment is that, despite its domestic troubles, any violation of the ceasefire will require retaliatory action. In the words of a senior Israeli commander, 'The precise reason why they are firing is not important ... Israel cannot explain to itself Hamas' motivations every time it fires at us and avoid reacting. We need to maintain deterrence and this is done by reacting.'[11]

Israeli reaction would not come without cost. It would compel Hamas to violently resist Israel in order to re-establish its primacy, and the form of resistance could range from military action against soldiers, re-employing the tactic of using suicide bombers against civilian targets, or even the killing of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held in Hamas custody since 2006.

Any military conflict between Hamas and Israel isolates Mahmood Abbas from the political arena, effectively rendering him powerless. His Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) will look impotent in the face of Hamas' continuing resistance, undermining its already damaged reputation and credibility amongst the Palestinian public. Given the damage to the PA caused by recent revelations published in the 'Palestine Papers', the little authority Abbas has left to conduct negotiations on behalf of the Palestinians would disappear. This would critically undermine any attempt to restart peace negotiations, postponing the possibility indefinitely until a moderate Palestinian faction is able to convince its public that it will not betray their interests in the face of perceived aggression from Israel. 

The Problem of the 'Lone Wolf'

This tense situation is further complicated when placed in the context of the recent terrorist activities in Itamar and Jerusalem. Should Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) or Al-Aqsa Martyrs have taken responsibility for the attacks, at least there would have been some body upon which the Israeli security establishment could have targeted a response. The fact that no Palestinian militant group has done so means that Israelis, angry and shocked at the recent violence, have nowhere to turn. The simplest response would be to blame Hamas and initiate a response against Gaza in the form of targeted airstrikes and limited incursions to arrest suspects connected to extremist groups.

Yet this solution will not do, for if the terrorists acted alone, the response does nothing to prevent the perpetrators from repeating their atrocities. Furthermore, if, as is sometimes the case, civilians are killed in the course of these actions, it would provide another pretext, a self-justifying rationale to encourage them, and other potential 'lone wolves', to retaliate violently in the future.

If neither the Palestinian Authority, nor Hamas, nor Israel have prior knowledge of individuals who have come to see violence as not only a viable but a justifiable course of action, almost nothing can be done to stop them. This is highly problematic, for the capacity of the lone actor to tip the already unstable security situation towards war has never been higher. The murder of young children in particular is emotive enough to convince many Israelis that widespread military action against the Palestinians is justified.

Regional Involvement

The key to preventing another conflagration will be the engagement of wider players in the Middle East. This is not an easy moment for either Jordan or Egypt to step into the breach, but their assistance is desperately needed to help calm the situation and provide a space for dialogue - both between Israel and Hamas, and between Hamas and the PA.

A formalised back-channel of communication between Egypt, Hamas, the PA, Jordan and Israel, in which information about radical individuals is shared with all parties, will be beneficial to all concerned, and allow all sides to isolate and target those individuals whose potentially violent actions pose a threat to the stability of the entire region. Success at establishing such channels has been mixed: Israel, for example, rejected a back channel to Hamas via Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin in 2008.[12] But mediation via Jordan and Egypt has fared far better, enabling security co-operation between rivals to take place. Former Israeli General Mike Herzog recently stated that 'Israeli leaders have always used back channels to communicate with counterparts, most importantly in unfriendly or rival political entities, or in states with whom Israel did not have diplomatic relations.'[13] Positive results were achieved with the PLO in 1994, and the PA post-2003 - there is no reason, given Hamas' current predicament, why a sustained back channel effort by Israel could not work to solve the two side's mutual problems.

It must be clear that such an arrangement does not mean friendship or alliance - there is no public support on either side for such an endeavour. An open alliance of any sort would be counter-productive, especially for Hamas, who would immediately lose legitimacy, distancing Islamic Jihad and more radical members of the Qassam Brigades and others who seek to continue a campaign of violence against Israel. For Israel, it would mean the legitimisation of a party which has still not relinquished its anti-Semitic founding charter, which explicitly pledges commitment to the destruction of the Jewish State.

Should Hamas desire an escalation of conflict with Israel at any point in the near future, there is little that can be done to stop them, save their total removal from power. The development of events from this point on will thus largely be of Hamas' choosing. Nevertheless, the problem of lone actors creating an unstable security climate needs to be addressed, and urgently so. Israel, the PA and Hamas all have a role to play in creating a more secure environment. Should steps not be taken to facilitate communication between them, the likelihood of regional war is vastly increased, and the smallest action could drag this most intractable of conflicts into yet another deadly spiral of violence.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute. 


[1] Barak Ravid, ' Quartet Giving up Hope of Renewing Israeli Palestinian Talks',  17 March 2011, Haaretz <>

[2] Dan de Luce, 'Israel's Barak says Arab uprisings positive in long run', 25 March 2011, AFP <>

[3] Hamas' Qassam Brigades Information Office claimed direct responsibility for the firing of 33 mortars between 08:30 and 08:40 on 19 March 2011 <>

Islamic Jihad announced its responsibility for launching Grad rockets targeted at Ashdod and Beersheva, 23 March 2011 <>

[4] Khalid Amaryeh 'Killing children is wrong: But Israel has killed thousands of children', 15 March 2011, Qassam <>

[5] Khaled Abu Toameh, 'Haniyeh to Islamic Jihad: Stop attacks on Israel', 25 March 2011, Jerusalem Post <>

[6] 'Radical Islam in Gaza', International Crisis Group Middle East Report No. 104, 29 March 2011, p. 1

[7] Yoram Cohen & Matthew Levitt, 'Deterred but Determined: Salafi-Jihadist Groups in the Palestinian Arena', Policy Focus No. 99, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, p. 21 <>

[8] 'Hamas admits losing control in Gaza', 6 March 2010, Haaretz <>

[9] Yaakov Katz, 'IDF Commander warns of Anarchy in Gaza' 27 March 2011, Jerusalem Post <>

[10] 'Goldstone says he won't seek nullification of Gaza War report', 6 April 2011, Haaretz <>

[11] Yaakov Katz, 'IDF Commander warns of Anarchy in Gaza' 27 March 2011, Jerusalem Post <>

[12] 'Olmert Rejected Hamas Back Channel', 1 March 2009, Turkish Weekly <>

[13] Michael Herzog, 'Israel must employ back channel diplomacy sooner rather than later', 13 December 2010, The Daily Telegraph <>


Michael Stephens

Associate Fellow

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