Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
On the Slippery Slope of Operation Guardians of the Walls
Q. Ten days into yet another Israel-Hamas war, it has widened into a conflict between Jews and Arabs in mixed Israeli cities, a nascent intifada in the West Bank, sporadic rocket fire from Lebanon and Syria, growing anger from Jordan, and sharp criticism from a portion of US President Biden’s Democratic supporters. Where did this come from? Where is it going?
A. In recent years, I have referred frequently to the ‘slippery slope’. I have argued that around 7.5 million Jews and the same number of Palestinians, intermixed between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, are sliding inexorably down a slippery slope toward an ugly and violent single-state binational reality. By and large, the slide is so slow and the slope’s incline so slight that on a day-to-day basis Jews and Arabs don’t feel the changing reality. But in the course of the past ten days, the descent has become noticeably more precipitous.
This, in my view, is the main strategic dimension of the latest conflict. It encompasses all Israelis and all Palestinians everywhere: beginning in Jerusalem, spreading to Gaza, into Israel’s cities, and most recently in the West Bank. This looks increasingly like tribal warfare.
Israel’s military chiefs may declare that their strategic goal is to deliver to Hamas a long-lasting deterrent lesson. They may qualify this with the political need to leave Hamas in power in Gaza lest even more extreme elements replace it. That may be described as ‘mowing the lawn’ and managing the conflict. But it ignores the real strategic issue. Welcome to the slippery slope in action.
Q. Still, how did this happen?
A. Ostensibly, Hamas zeroed in on Israel’s mismanagement of Jewish-Muslim issues in Jerusalem, issued an ultimatum on May 10, and followed up with rockets fired toward Jerusalem. Israel, facing aggression against its capital on Jerusalem Day, responded by commencing air attacks on Hamas in Gaza.
The conflict expanded. Hamas’s incitement among Arab citizens of Israel and West Bank Palestinians enabled it to claim it was fighting the battle for Jerusalem on behalf of all Palestinians and, indeed, Muslims everywhere. This is quite an accomplishment for a terrorist organization whose Islamist approach to the Palestinian national issue dictates an ideology preaching the total elimination of Israel and whose rockets indiscriminately target Israeli civilians, Arabs included. For tens days now (at the time of writing, Wednesday May 19), Hamas has managed to present itself to world opinion as the victim of massive Israeli aggression. Meanwhile, the Hamas leadership is indifferent to the destruction it has visited upon 2.3 million Gazan civilians.
This, in turn, is what makes this conflict so difficult for Israel to justify. Not only did Israeli mistakes in Jerusalem grounded in mindless ultra-nationalism help usher in the conflict. The IDF has defined its strategic objective for Operation Guardians of the Walls as, essentially, ensuring that Hamas, like Hezbollah in Lebanon after the 2006 Second Lebanon War, does not dare to provoke Israel again for a long time. Yet it is doubtful that Hamas, insofar as it emerges with enhanced pan-Palestinian and pan-Islamist leadership credentials, will process the war’s outcome this way.
Q. You mention Israel’s mistakes in Jerusalem. Put them in the context of time and space. What was Israel’s overall contribution to the outbreak of this war?
A. The most obvious place to begin is with Israel’s 2018 Nation State Law which constitutionally relegated Arab citizens of Israel to second-class status. This in itself was a quantum leap along the slippery slope. Non-Jews in Israel (including Druze who are allied with Israel’s Jews) have been smarting ever since.
Follow up with the 2020 Trump-Kushner ‘Deal of the Century’. While bringing Israel welcome normalization ties with four more Arab states, this initiative was understood by Palestinians as a dispiriting blow to their national aspirations, one sanctioned by Arab states. In parallel it encouraged Israeli smugness and complacency. The ‘Deal of the Century’ seemingly justified Prime Minister Netanyahu’s preference for the status quo with Hamas in Gaza (financed with monthly Qatari bribes; Qatar sympathizes with the Muslim Brotherhood) as opposed to dealing with Palestinian Authority political dysfunction.
Never mind that Hamas rejects the two-state solution and the West Bank Palestinian leadership continues to embrace it. Better to divide and rule indirectly, but at least avoid any semblance of a peace process with Palestinians “who are hopelessly fragmented politically”. Meanwhile, the settlement enterprise in the West Bank and East Jerusalem can flourish and Israel’s dominant right-religious mainstream will support Netanyahu.
Yet in parallel Israel, hobbled by a prime minister indicted for corruption yet clinging to power, was wallowing in two years of a crisis of governance that projects a regional image of institutional weakness. Not coincidentally, a growing crime wave throughout Israel’s Arab sector was defying ineffectual Israel police attempts to restore order. Arab leaders in Israel were warning that the anarchy would not remain confined to Arab towns and villages. Already parts of the Negev inhabited by Bedouin were becoming “no go” zones due to rampant lawlessness and criminality.
None of this has prevented young National Religious activists from West Bank Jewish settlements from “implanting” themselves in mixed Jewish-Arab towns like Lod, Jaffa and Acre. There they have sought to buy up mainly Arab-owned buildings and convert them to synagogues and Talmud Torah schools. We have come to “do good”, their rabbis declare innocently, rolling their eyes to Heaven. Arab (and some Jewish) resentment has grown. Many see this and the encroachment on Arab housing in East Jerusalem’s Shaykh Jarrah as part and parcel of aggressive Jewish moves to oust Palestinians from their homes and continue the Nakba, the 1948 catastrophe that saw a mass Arab exodus from what is today Israel.
Now, fast forward to May 2021. Factor in abysmal mismanagement by the Israel Police and the Netanyahu government of several parallel Arab and Muslim-related issues in Jerusalem that coincided with Muslim and Palestinian holy days and days of commemoration: Ramadan prayer at al-Aqsa, the Shaykh Jarrah housing grab, Damascus Gate Ramadan gatherings, May 15 Nakba Day. So politically influential are Israel’s Jewish messianic ultra-nationalists that they had to be allowed their provocative “Flag Parade” through Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods on Israel’s Jerusalem Day, May 10.
In retrospect, is it surprising that Hamas reacted? Is it surprising that Arab rioters in those mixed Jewish-Arab towns sought to target synagogues? Still, none of Israel’s mistakes prior to May 10 can justify Hamas’s decision to start a war.
Apropos war and surprise, the Israeli security establishment contributed its own inept intelligence early-warning failures. The IDF failed to understand Hamas’s motivation to launch another armed conflict with Israel. The General Security Service (Shin Bet) failed to anticipate the violence within Israeli society between disgruntled Arabs and Jews from the violent fringes, including anarchist “Hill Youth” who usually run wild in the West Bank but have now been inspired by the Gaza fighting. The Israel Police, deprived of its share of security budgets for decades and of a chief of police by two years of governmental anarchy, was caught flatfooted in Lod and Acre.
Thus has Israel’s prolonged crisis of corruption and governance crept into the security establishment. Nor has it disappeared from Israeli politics: with the beginning of the fighting, Raam’s Mansour Abbas suspended negotiations to form an anti-Netanyahu coalition and Yamina’s Naftali Bennet pulled out and effectively realigned himself with Netanyahu. At work were popular pressures. First, on the pragmatic Abbas from the Arab public in Israel and from Hamas, one of whose motives in going to war may have been to embarrass Abbas and prevent a fellow Islamist from ‘collaborating’ with the Zionist enemy. And second, from right-religious followers of Bennet, now filled with pro-Netanyahu and anti-Raam patriotic fervor.
Q. Hold on, now. Surely there was a weighty Palestinian contribution to the outbreak of violence besides Hamas ambitions . . .
A. Let’s start with the PA’s own prolonged crisis of governance: an aging leader, Mahmoud Abbas, in the sixteenth year of a four-year term. Under popular pressure, Abbas in early December 2020 finally declared elections for June 2021. But he did so against the advice of many, including Israel’s security chiefs, who feared a Hamas victory over the ineffectual West Bank leader. Finally, in April, confronting the certainty of a Hamas electoral victory, Abbas cancelled the elections. If prior to then he had not ceded Palestinian leadership to Hamas, he did now.
Meanwhile, in Gaza Yahya Sinwar had barely won reelection to the Hamas internal leadership, thereby signaling the rise of more militant elements like Mohammad Def, who has commanded the Hamas operation against Israel and ushered in greater Iranian influence. In late April the IDF uncovered a major Hamas-Iran weapons smuggling success into the Gaza Strip. Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi proposed an IDF preemptive operation, two weeks before May 10. PM Netanyahu turned him down, ostensibly preferring to wait for a Hamas provocation and conceivably calculating that he needed to manipulate the eventual violence to suit his political survival needs. (Speculation regarding tacit Netanyahu-Hamas coordination was aptly termed by Amos Harel of Haaretz “more likely half conspiracy and half contingency”.)
This brings us back to Hamas. Like the other non-state or non-Arab Islamists in the region--Hezbollah in Lebanon and of course Iran--Hamas resolutely and religiously refuses to accept the fact of Israel’s existence. That Hamas is odd-man-out in the Arab scheme of things in 2021 was underlined by the low-key reaction to this conflict on the part of all the Arab states. At the time of writing, no Arab ambassadors had been recalled. Hamas’s Arab propaganda achievements in this war--there were no military achievements--were limited to the Palestinian and militant Islamist spheres.
Q. Where do we go from here?
A. There will be a ceasefire, probably negotiated by Egyptian intelligence. But not before Hamas tries to inflict damage on Israel that qualifies propaganda-wise as a ‘victory photo’. This, despite or alongside the massive damage inflicted on Gaza’s cities. As for Israel, it will not be able to declare its own ‘decisive victory’--no Hamas white flags as IDF troops overrun Hamas bunkers. Israel can only hope the images of Gaza’s destruction from the air and the death of Hamas military leaders will act to enhance the deterrent profile the IDF seeks to project on additional fronts like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran in Syria.
Hopefully, Israeli governments-to-come will internalize the critical role Jerusalem plays in Israel’s relations with Palestinians, Jordanians, and Muslims in general--and act more wisely. Note the Jerusalem-related name given to this war: Guardians of the Walls.
Palestinians, with the exception of a few informed and concerned Arab citizens of Israel who don’t fear to speak out, will not question Hamas’s achievements, real or imagined. Hamas’s leadership profile will be enhanced on the West Bank--bad news for many Palestinians and Israelis. Extensive international and Arab aid will be pledged to the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip. Globally, the popularity of the Palestinian cause will grow, thanks to social media’s knee-jerk revulsion at Israel’s display of outsized military power, coupled with compassion for many genuine Palestinian victims and lots of manufactured Palestinian victimhood.
But, still globally, Arab, western and many other governments will display a more reserved reaction. President Biden, backed by Europeans like Germany’s Angela Merkel, has clearly signaled throughout the past ten days that he supports Israel’s right to defend itself and will not allow an Israeli-Palestinian conflict to dominate his agenda, which favors a renewed Iran nuclear deal, China and climate issues. There will be talk in Arab, Israeli and western circles of ‘giving Gazans a vested interest in peace’ by building an economic infrastructure there. None of this will temper Hamas’s Islamist fervor to lead all Palestinians in destroying Israel. We should know by now that Gaza under Islamists will never be ‘Singapore on the Mediterranean’.
The Israeli public will recover quickly. It learned a lesson in collective discipline from the covid pandemic and applied it in this war. But somewhere in the back of our minds will linger the troublesome insight that this is far from over, and that a war against Hezbollah’s more numerous, accurate and far-reaching missiles coming from the north will be a lot worse and far more deadly. Meanwhile, in a best-case scenario, Arab-Jewish relations inside Israel, which blossomed during the covid pandemic thanks to the country’s many Arab doctors, nurses and pharmacists, will have suffered a severe setback.
Israel’s crisis of governance and coalition will pick up where it left off on May 10. Netanyahu’s room for political maneuver will have improved.
There will be agitation in Israel to build proper bomb shelters for the beleaguered residents of Ashkelon, who suffered the most in this war. Many will advise Israel’s government to reach out to the PLO/PA in the West Bank, which continued to work with Israel against terrorism throughout this war. Not much will happen here unless the Biden administration pressures Israel heavily--something this mini-war has demonstrated Biden is not inclined to do.
As matters stand, the slippery slope leading Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs toward ever-worsening intercommunal conflict will prevail over any and all anticipated efforts to generate an alternative reality.