For years, Palestinians and Israelis have laboured to redraw the battle lines. The three-day Israeli war on Gaza, starting on 5 August, manifested this reality clearly. Throughout its military operation, Israel underscored the point repeatedly that the war was targeting Islamic Jihad only, not Hamas or any other Palestinian faction.
A somewhat similar scenario had transpired in May 2019 and again in November of the same year. The May clashes began when two Israeli soldiers were wounded by a Palestinian sniper at the nominal border fence separating besieged Gaza from Israel. Mass weekly protests had taken place near the fence for years, demanding an end to the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip. Over 200 unarmed Palestinians were killed by Israeli snipers, who were dispatched to the fence area as early as March 2018. The unexpected Palestinian shooting of the Israeli snipers was a temporary reversal of the bloody norm in that area.
Israel blamed Islamic Jihad for the attack. On 3 May, Israel responded by bombing Hamas positions so that the latter would put pressure on Islamic Jihad to cease its operations near the fence. The unstated goal, however, was to sow the seeds of disunity among Palestinian groups in Gaza which have, for years, operated under the umbrella of the joint armed operations room. Like the latest August 2022 war, the 2019 war was also brief and deadly.
The war which followed in November 2019 involved Islamic Jihad alone. Many Palestinians were killed and wounded.
Although Israel failed to damage Palestinian unity, a debate took place in occupied Palestine, especially following the November clashes, as to why Hamas did not take a more active part in the fighting. The conventional wisdom at the time was that Israel must not be allowed to impose the time, place and nature of the fight on the Palestinians, as was often the case, and that it is far more strategic for Palestinian resistance groups to make these determinations.
That position might be defensible when understood in a historical context. For Israel, maintaining the status quo in Gaza is politically and strategically advantageous. Moreover, the status quo is financially profitable as new weapons are tested and sold at exorbitant prices, making Israel the world’s 10th-largest international weapons exporter over the past five years, as of 2022.
Israeli wars on Gaza are also a political insurance, as they reaffirm Washington’s support for Tel Aviv, in word and deed. “My support for Israel’s security is long-standing and unwavering,” US President Joe Biden said on 7 August even as Israeli bombs rained down on Gaza, killing 49 Palestinians, 17 of whom were children. It is the exact same position of every US administration in every Israeli military offensive.
The Israeli military establishment also embraced this seemingly unchanging reality. It refers to its occasional deadly offensives against Gaza as “mowing the grass”. Writing in the Jerusalem Post in May 2021, David M Weinberg of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security explained the Israeli strategy in the most dehumanising terms: “Just like mowing your front lawn, this is constant, hard work. If you fail to do so, weeds grow wild, and snakes begin to slither around in the brush.”
For its part, the political establishment in Tel Aviv has learned to adapt and benefit from the routine violence. In 2015, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summed up his country’s position in a short but loaded sentence: “I am asked if we will live forever by the sword — yes.”
Ironically, in May 2021, the Palestinians were the ones unleashing the “sword”. Instead of keeping the tit-for-tat battle in Gaza confined to that small geopolitical space, the resistance groups took the unusual step of striking at Israel in response to events transpiring in a small Palestinian neighbourhood of Occupied East Jerusalem. Within hours, Tel Aviv lost the political plot and its control over the war narrative. It seemed as if every inch of Palestine and Israel suddenly became part of a larger battle, the outcome of which was no longer determined by Israel alone.
The Palestinians call those events the “Sword of Jerusalem battle”. The name was coined in Gaza. Ever since, Israel has been fishing for a new battle that would help it regain the initiative.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, for example, attempted to provoke such a fight in May, but failed. He thought that by moving forward with the provocative Flag March in Occupied Jerusalem he would be able to drag Gaza into another war. Instead of war, Palestinians responded with mass protests and popular mobilisation.
The latest August war last week was another such attempt, this time by the country’s new Prime Minister, Yair Lapid. However, all that the militarily-inexperienced Lapid could obtain was what Israeli military analysts refer to as a “tactical victory”.
It was hardly a victory, though. To claim any kind of victory, Israel simply redefined the war objectives. Instead of “destroying the terror infrastructure of Hamas”, as is often the declared goal, it instigated a fight with Islamic Jihad, killing two of its military commanders.
The typical Israeli media reporting on the war shifted discreetly, as if Hamas and other Palestinian groups were never enemies of Israel. It was all about Islamic Jihad.
“Fighting with the terror group would eventually have to resume,” the Times of Israel wrote on 12 August, citing Israeli military sources. No reference was made to the other “terror groups”.
Unlike previous wars, Israel was in desperate need to end the fighting very quickly, as Lapid was keen on clinching a “tactical victory” that will surely be promoted heavily prior to the general election in November.
Both Israeli military and political establishments, however, knew too well that they would not be able to sustain another all-out conflict like that of May 2021. The war had to end, simply because a bigger war was unwinnable.
Hours after a mediated truce was declared, the Israeli military killed three fighters belonging to the ruling Fatah Movement in Nablus in the West Bank. Lapid aimed to send another message of strength, though in reality he simply confirmed that the lines of battle have been redrawn permanently.
The resistance groups in Gaza commented on the killing of the Nablus fighters by declaring that the conflict with Israel has entered a new phase. Indeed, it has, but the defining war in Gaza has yet to be fought.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.