International 22/05/2021

Netanyahu and Hamas become stronger over Gaza conflict

Israeli prime minister gains chances of retaining an office he was on the verge of losing

4 min
Acting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

BarcelonaBoth Israel and Hamas have taken advantage of the first hours of truce to proclaim themselves victors of the conflict that, during the previous eleven days, left at least 248 dead in Gaza and 12 in Israel. "Hamas can no longer hide. The offensive has been a great success for Israel", said acting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, who was pleased to have "eliminated more than 200 terrorists, including 25 commanders" of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. For his part, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh spoke of "victory" and added that "what will come after this battle will not be what it was before". "You will see many [diplomatic] contacts and successes. We have seen our nation wake up to support Jerusalem, Palestine and the resistance", he said from Doha, where he lives.

However, who has gained the most from this confrontation? "No one has won", answers Lurdes Vidal, director of the Arab and Mediterranean World area at IEMed. "The Palestinians see it as a victory simply because they have survived, but Gaza is destroyed and there have been more than 200 deaths. And Israel presents it as mission accomplished because they have dismantled the operational capacity of Hamas (or so they say), but the situation of violence continues both in Jerusalem and in Israeli cities where Jews and Palestinians live", she explains. In the opinion of Antoni Segura, president of the Cidob, the conflict "has been a lose-lose", and he points out yet another negative element for the Israeli side: "It has worsened the image that the country projects internationally, which has never been very good, and it has lost the opportunity to demonstrate with facts that it is the only democratic state in the Middle East, as the Israeli government often claims". In this sense, he points to the bombing of the building in Gaza where the editorial offices of media outlets such as Al-Jazeera and the Associated Press agency were located, which he considers "very difficult to justify" and which "has not gone down very well in the United States".

However, although no one can be considered a collective winner, there are at least two actors who may have profited from the escalation of violence. On the one hand, Benjamin Netanyahu could emerge stronger at a time when he seemed on the verge of losing Israel's political leadership. The incumbent prime minister was unable to form a government after the country's fourth general election in two years, and the task then passed to the head of the opposition, the moderate Yair Lapid. This happened on 5 May, five days before the outbreak of the conflict in Gaza, which dynamited Lapid's attempts to form an alternative coalition ranging from the Jewish ultra-Orthodox to Arab parties. In this context, Netanyahu "has played his cards" and has "managed to put himself back on the game board and make himself visible as a strong leader," says Vidal, who believes that "it is easy for him to end up winning and erase all the shadows of the trial he was facing".

"Netanyahu had a difficult situation and has sought to save himself by showing himself as a relevant actor", reflects Òscar Monterde, researcher at the Centre for International Historical Studies of the UB and expert on the Palestinian question. According to Segura, the president "intended, as a collateral effect, to unite Israeli society around his figure", and the "current crisis has broken the anti-Netanyahu front that had been created even with parties that were further to the right than he was". The confrontation with Hamas, says the president of the Cidob, "will have made it easier for him to obtain a majority that he did not have".

Palestinian leadership

The other winner is Hamas, which "can wear the medal of having resisted and having made people feel fear", according to Vidal. "For them this is a way of winning, because it gives them more internal legitimacy in Gaza, but also in the West Bank", he adds. "There is a civil movement that has been moving among the Palestinian population for some time, and both Fatah [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' party] and Hamas are trying to take the lead", Monterde says. Vidal notes that the Palestinian National Authority, led by Abbas, "would like to return to the old path of negotiation, but the people want a new path". "Hamas could capitalise on this movement, but it doesn't control the people of Jerusalem or the West Bank. That's why they started firing rockets, because they wanted to appropriate the proceeds of a protest that broke out outside the traditional leadership", he concludes.

The future of the ceasefire

The other big question raised by the unconditional cease-fire, in effect since early Friday morning, is whether the agreement will be long enough to last. "The ceasefires [between Israel and Hamas] have never been solid", warns Monterde, who recalls that the Hebrew army attacked Gaza in 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2018. Segura believes that this truce can last, but not because the pact is particularly consistent, but because "a new escalation is not in the immediate interest of either side". On the one hand, there is a "certain weakness" on the Palestinian side due to the fact that "the Arab countries are relegating their cause to oblivion", as shown by gestures such as the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel by states like Bahrain, the Arab Emirates and Morocco. On the other hand, the strong involvement of Palestinians in Israel in the demonstrations of the last few days, an unprecedented event until now, "generates internal instability in the country" and represents "a wake-up call" for the government, which "will have to take it into account for the future".

Vidal thinks that the ceasefire can be extended also because there has been "some international pressure" in favour of stopping the conflict, but warns that the origin of this escalation of violence was in Jerusalem, and that there the situation remains "very tense". This Friday there were clashes again between Israeli police and groups of Palestinians in the Esplanade of the Mosques, in a repeat of the events that on 10 May triggered the air strikes between Israel and Gaza. In this case, however, the incident went no further.

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