Editor’s Note: Israel and Hamas began airstrikes against each other on May 10, in the worst fighting between Israelis and Palestinians since 2014. The fighting began after weeks of inter-ethnic violence in Jerusalem and the early ruling of the Israeli Supreme Court on a land dispute that leads to the eviction of six Palestinian families in East Jerusalem.
Rachel S. Harris, professor at the University of Illinois in Comparative and World Literature Program and The program on Jewish culture and society, studies Israeli literature and culture, and has written on the Arab-Israeli conflict. She spoke with Jodi Heckel, Editor-in-Chief of the News Bureau.
Why are we now seeing increased tensions and airstrikes, after a long period of relative calm?
There are several factors at play and not all of them are discussed in the news media, including the fact that COVID-19 lockdown restrictions were relaxed in April. After more than a year of intense confinement, more than 50% of the population has now been vaccinated. COVID-19 restrictions have eased as several Jewish and Muslim religious holidays have led to large groups gathering in close proximity to religious sites.
Although there were some burning issues, these were allowed to erupt in part because of a leadership vacuum among the Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not have the votes to form a coalition government, despite the Israelis voting in the fourth election in two years. He also faces corruption charges that undermine his leadership position.
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, indefinitely postponed the scheduled elections in May, the first Palestinian elections to be held since 2006, probably because his party, Fatah, would lose to Hamas. Its position had been weakened due to increased autocracy and corruption, but also because recent peace treaties between Israel and several Arab countries in late 2020 and early 2021 ignored the plight of Palestinians. – offering his opponent Hamas the opportunity to qualify him as less and less relevant. as a political leader.
Neither side seems willing to compromise to end the violence. Why, and what do you think will be needed to end the fighting?
There is no political advantage in ending the fighting and it will continue until this changes. Hamas uses its firepower to defend itself as the protector of Jerusalem and Muslim holy sites. Coupled with the growing disappointment with Fatah, this gives Hamas an added advantage in a leadership battle and gains its support in the Arab world in general.
For Israel, the current hostilities offer an opportunity to weaken Hamas’s military infrastructure, but there are also political considerations within. In times of war, the country is more likely to shift towards supporting a right-wing government and is prepared to neglect domestic political concerns for the sake of national security – and Netanyahu’s solid background makes him a favorite. in such a power play.
Ultimately, the violence empowers extremists on both sides and undermines the possibility of a liberal coalition Israeli government backed by Arab parties, which was seen as likely just a week ago.
International pressure from regional partners and the United States can end the current violence but is unlikely to do much to create longer-term stability, and this current powder keg can be easily revived without significant realignments in domestic politics. .
What can President Biden do to defuse the conflict? What about international pressure through the United Nations Security Council?
While the United States and the United Nations Security Council are likely to stop this outbreak through negotiations, it is unclear whether they can do more than stabilize the current situation. It is only by returning to the negotiating table that Fatah has the opportunity to regain the upper hand in internal politics, and that may be enough to persuade Israel that it is to its advantage to reopen the talks.
There are civilian casualties on both sides, including children who were killed. Are both Israel and Hamas violating international human rights treaties and do you think there will be repercussions for either side?
While Israel is likely to face more anger for its bombing of Gaza in the international press, its military approach generally attempts to mitigate the number of civilian casualties, which makes it unlikely to be subject to attack. legal (legitimate) censorship. Israel must share intelligence on targets with its allies and demonstrate that its response is proportionate. This is why we see President Biden and others calling for a ceasefire without threatening Israel with sanctions.
Hamas is not a state entity even though it de facto rules Gaza. It is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the international community, and it too is unlikely to be subject to legal scrutiny, given the nature of asymmetric warfare and the broader unresolved issues of the United States. conflict.
As the two sides find themselves in a PR war, the moral argument is likely to become more meaningful than the legal argument.