If the harrowing images and stories coming out of Gaza in recent days feel like déjà vu, it’s because many people believe they have seen them before. Over the years, Palestinians have come to predict and expect escalations of violence in the overcrowded, besieged Gaza strip at eerily regular intervals.
Israel's Operation Cast Lead, which lasted from December 2008 to January 2009, killed an estimated 1,400 Palestinians. Pillar of Defense, in November 2012, stopped short of a ground invasion but still killed 174 Palestinians, according to UN figures. Protective Edge, which was launched on July 7 and entered what the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) called “a new phase” Thursday night, has killed more than 325 Palestinians so far.
“In terms of brutality and force, this is already much more brutal than 2012, though… I don’t think it will be as bloody as Cast Lead,” Idan Landau, an Israeli scholar and commentator, told VICE News. He cited statistics by human rights watchdog B’tselem that compared the percentage of civilian casualties in the last three operations: 55 percent in 2008-2009, 52 percent in 2012, and 76 percent in the current operation — at least, up until the ground invasion.
How Did We Get Here?
Like previous operations, the latest offensive is ostensibly targeted at Hamas, the political organization at the helm of the Gaza strip. Israel’s military operations in the territory, officials said, are in direct response to the rockets fired by Hamas into Israel — at a pace of about 145 a day, according to the IDF, though many are intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome. One Israeli civilian was killed since the beginning of the latest conflict, and one soldier died on Thursday, possibly due to friendly fire.
But before Hamas’s rockets, there was a massive raid of Palestinian homes in the West Bank, leading to hundreds of arrests — including dozens of people who had been released as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange in 2011 — and at least 10 deaths.
'When those teens went missing, the Israelis had a choice about how to react.'
That, in turn, was in response to the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers who vanished from the Gush Etzion settlement, leading to a massive manhunt and the largest military escalation in the West Bank since the Second Intifada in the early 2000s.
The fact that a murder in the West Bank turned into a ground invasion in Gaza should at the very least raise questions, critics observed. But there was little room for questions amid the fury that surrounded the teens’ disappearance.
“When those teens went missing, the Israelis had a choice about how to react: They could have chosen to search for the suspects, indict them, charge them, try them, and if they could convict them, punish them to the full extent of the law,” Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian-American political analyst, told VICE News. “Instead they chose a different route, which was one of collective punishment that focused on Hamas as an organization, but also against Palestinians in general. That went outside of the bounds of what was necessary and called for in the face of that crime. It was a deliberate provocation and one that caused the situation that we see today.”
As it turns out, Israeli officials knew all along that the teens had been murdered after being abducted, but they kept up the “search” for several days. When they found out, Israelis were not happy about being lied to, but they quickly moved on to the next target: Gaza.
“You really have to witness the force of this propaganda, people just buy this shit,” Landau said. “People were angry that there was this cover-up and that the police knew that the boys were dead already, but there’s this kind of unwillingness on the part of the Israeli public to distrust their leaders.”
Israeli officials have named the suspects in the boys’ murder — they have also blown up their homes and interrogated and arrested their family members — but have not yet found them. Israeli officials placed the blame for the murders on Hamas, an accusation the organization has consistently denied.
'Ever since the unity government was announced, Israel has been absolutely hell-bent on doing absolutely anything to pull it apart.'
People familiar with the suspects said they were likely acting as part of a rogue cell that has carried out similar attacks in the past. Hamas, they said, likely had no knowledge of the murders — though it did not condemn it either.
The murders offered Israel the opportunity to address something it had strongly opposed for weeks: a deal signed by rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah that culminated in the formation of a unity government on June 2.
“I would add a conspiracy twist to it," said Middle East historian and Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi. "I think ever since the unity government was announced, Israel has been absolutely hell-bent on doing absolutely anything to pull it apart. I know this is going to sound extreme, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this rogue cell did this with the knowledge of Israeli intelligence… The point is that Israel knows very, very well that these people are not under the control of Hamas.
“The moment those kids were kidnapped, the Israeli government set up a huge deception so they could attack Hamas in the West Bank," Khalidi went on. "They tore through the West Bank like a tornado, arresting hundreds and hundreds of people. That horrible, racist, fascist wave of hysteria that swept over Israel was entirely the result of the manipulation of information about these poor kidnapped boys’ murder.”
According to him and several others, the ultimate target was not the murderers. It was Palestinian unity.
[Editor's note: There is no evidence to support Khalidi's theory]
Was Peace the Real Threat?
That Israel has little to lose from the continuation of a conflict that has already dragged on for decades is an observation many have made before. Much more threatening is the prospect of peace.
That is precisely what’s behind the latest escalation, Palestinian, Israeli, and foreign critics have observed. A threat more dangerous than Hamas’s rockets — which in practical terms, are all but useless — is Palestinian unity, and a moderate partner with which Israel would have to engage.
Since Israeli soldiers first swept through the West Bank searching for the missing teens, several Palestinians have suggested that this was not really about the boys at all. The events of the following weeks, and the shift of the conflict to Gaza, only confirmed that in their eyes.
“Many think that Israel is using this as an excuse to punish the Palestinians for going to international institutions [to appeal their case],” Hebron resident Issa Amro told VICE News during the early days of the search.
The sweeping arrests in the West Bank may also have had another goal: to anger Hamas and its military leadership in Gaza.
'Bibi’s slogan, that Iran is gonna bomb us next week, didn’t really catch, so now the big threat — because there always has to be a big threat — is Palestinian unity.'
Like several other observers, Landau, who in an editorial for Israeli blog +972 magazine called the boys’ murder a “boon” for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agenda, argued that the latest escalation of violence was really about the Palestinian unity deal.
“After the Hamas-Fatah agreement became public, it was clearly just a matter of time before this happened," Landau said. "The Iranian situation was pushed in the background, Bibi’s [Netanyahu’s] slogan, that Iran is gonna bomb us next week, didn’t really catch, so now the big threat — because there always has to be a big threat — is Palestinian unity. But it’s not just that Bibi doesn’t want unity — he doesn’t even want separate partners. He doesn’t want Hamas and he doesn’t want Fatah.”
What Israel really doesn’t want, critics say, is a definitive solution, and Netanyahu admitted that much last week, in an offhand observation that went largely unnoticed.
“Netanyahu let something slip on Friday which I think is the most important thing any Israeli politician has said for a long time,” Khalidi explained. “[He said that] Israel will always have to have security control. So what he was basically saying is that there will never be a Palestinian state, the Palestinians will never be allowed to have sovereignty, they will be under perpetual subjugation because the situation demands it.”
The occasional reigniting of the conflict with Hamas is instrumental to that.
Need For a Boogeyman
“If Hamas were to go down it would be hell — really fundamentalist Islamists are waiting behind the corner,” Landau said. “ Israeli leaders want to weaken Hamas but not totally destroy it. Bibi’s policy is this: Keep them under control, not to let anyone more extremist take over, but of course not to let anyone more moderate take over.”
Israel “needs Hamas,” Khalidi agreed.
“They need Hamas because they need a boogeyman, they turned Hamas into that boogeyman, and to be fair Hamas plays that role very well,” he added. “And they need Hamas because if they didn’t have Hamas they’d have the Islamic State, they’d have Salafi loonies whom they would actually not be able to deal with.”
As far as boogeymen go, Khalidi and Landau suggested, Hamas is a manageable one. While never recognizing its legitimacy, Israel has been able to regularly negotiate with its leaders, agreeing — through mediators — to prisoner exchanges and ceasefires.
But Hamas making peace with Fatah is not as much of a boogeyman anymore. Hamas came to the unity deal with its long-term rival having lost much popular support. And Fatah, the party in control of the West Bank, was in no better shape.
Unity, it seemed, was the best deal for both. But from the beginning of the search for the Israeli teens, tensions between the two reignited.
Hamas, for its part, seized on the opportunity provided by the Israeli military escalation in the West Bank — and Palestinian anger at President Mahmoud Abbas’s passive response to the raids there.
“I think there was a political agenda here, to make a statement that the West Bank and Gaza are one, attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank are attacks on Palestinians in Gaza, and efforts to divide Gaza and the West Bank are going to be rejected,” Munayyer said. “That is not the kind of message that you get from Abbas’s party, so there is also a domestic, Palestinian political game there.”
Materially speaking, Hamas is taking a hit from Operation Protective Edge — losing rockets, people, and infrastructure. But in the long term, critics observed, the conflict will only boost its legitimacy. And, while Israeli leaders claim the opposite, that might just be what they were hoping for all along — a stronger Hamas, averting the risk of a peaceful unity, and maintaining a clear enemy.
Same Same, but Different?
While Gaza offensives take place with almost cyclical regularity, they are not all equal.
At the regional level, Hamas has lost the support of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who had helped broker the 2012 ceasefire but was ousted in July 2013. Egypt’s new government, which bypassed Hamas in a failed attempt at brokering a truce earlier this week, is no supporter of the movement, which it basically sees as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood it has outlawed at home. Hamas also suffered the consequences of complex political developments in Syria and Iran.
But the rest of the world has also, slowly, begun to look at the conflict differently, with at least some voices beginning to question Israel’s self-defense argument, or even the notion of any equivalence between the two warring sides.
“I think public opinion is really quite fed up with Israel,” Khalidi said.
“The Israelis are increasingly cognizant of the perception of all of this. Within the first couple days of the Israeli operation in 2008-09 the Israelis had killed more Palestinians than they have killed in this more recent conflict that’s been going on for longer,” Munayyer said. “They are increasingly aware of the perception internationally, that this is not Israel under attack from some aggressive army, but really that Israel is the stronger power here and that it is an oppressed population that is responding.”
Many have grown skeptical of Israel’s justifications, and the Western mainstream media has covered the latest conflict more closely than it did Operation Cast Lead — though not without setbacks. But not everyone is willing to condemn the latest conflict as an act of aggression.
'The US should be playing a role in de-escalating things rather than pushing this thing further and further off the edge.'
“Washington has not really sent the message that it should, and they are the player that has the most leverage over the Israelis,” Munayyer said. “It’s not as important what the rest of the international community is saying if the US is prepared to give the Israelis carte blanche to do whatever they want in the Gaza strip.”
Munayyer cited the controversial remarks of a Department of State spokeswoman who placed on Hamas the responsibility for the death of four Palestinian children on a Gaza beach on Wednesday, witnessed by several foreign reporters.
“That is a horrendous sort of statement,” Munayyer said. “It was so clear that there was absolutely no justification for such an action, and yet the State Department, instead of saying that the Israelis should conduct an immediate and fair investigation and hold people responsible, placed the blame on Hamas. The US should be playing a role in de-escalating things rather than pushing this thing further and further off the edge.”
Brace for More
Going by previous operations in Gaza, this one will likely end in a ceasefire — most people no doubt hope in a matter of hours rather than weeks. But it won’t be the end of it either.
“There’s this mantra that people are being told, that if we only finished the job last time, if you just let us do it properly this time, everything will be fine, and that’s really a myth,” Landau said. “The people in power are well aware that there’s no way to solve this militarily, but they want to preserve the myth which will justify the next operation: We never finished the job, and that’s why we have to maintain the siege, and they’re still aggressive, and we have to contain them.
“Every time one operation ends, the next one is already being planned.”
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi