I’ve been thinking about why the most recent flare-up of the Israel-Palestine conflict is happening now. Most off-the-shelf explanations of the relationship — ethno-religious animosities, long-standing rivalry, Western imperialism, etc. — only describe baseline characteristics even if they were fully acceptable as explanations (which they are not). There is a big gap between the long-running fundamentals and what is happening now.
I’ve had a nagging sense that all of this was somehow related to the revolutions, invasions, and civil conflicts that have been occurring in the Middle East for several years* but was having trouble filling in the picture. So I was happy to see David Brooks, who is not one of my favorite people, providing appropriate context:
Look at how the current fighting in Gaza got stoked. Authoritarians and Islamists have been waging a fight for control of Egypt. After the Arab Spring, the Islamists briefly gained the upper hand. But when the Muslim Brotherhood government fell, the military leaders cracked down. They sentenced hundreds of the Brotherhood’s leadership class to death. They also closed roughly 95 percent of the tunnels that connected Egypt to Gaza, where the Brotherhood’s offshoot, Hamas, had gained power.
As intended, the Egyptian move was economically devastating to Hamas. Hamas derived 40 percent of its tax revenue from tariffs on goods that flowed through those tunnels. One economist estimated the economic losses at $460 million a year, nearly a fifth of the Gazan G.D.P.
Hamas needed to end that blockade, but it couldn’t strike Egypt, so it struck Israel. If Hamas could emerge as the heroic fighter in a death match against the Jewish state, if Arab TV screens were filled with dead Palestinian civilians, then public outrage would force Egypt to lift the blockade. Civilian casualties were part of the point. When Mousa Abu Marzook, the deputy chief of the Hamas political bureau, dismissed a plea for a cease-fire, he asked a rhetorical question, “What are 200 martyrs compared with lifting the siege?”
The eminent Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff summarized the strategy in The Times of Israel, “Make no mistake, Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel. But Hamas is firing rockets at Tel Aviv and sending terrorists through tunnels into southern Israel while aiming, in essence, at Cairo.”
Emphases added. This means, among other things, that John Kerry will be completely wasting his time in Cairo unless his trip is an attempt to reconcile the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters with the Egyptian military. (Hamas’ rejection of the ceasefire negotiated by Egypt and Israel makes additional sense in this light.) That is so unlikely as to be hardly worth hoping for, and it isn’t even clear what such hope would mean, but that is the only mission with a chance for success. Of course it’s not even that simple: all of this is occurring within a broader regional conflict environment, as Brooks also notes:
This whole conflict has the feel of a proxy war. Turkey and Qatar are backing Hamas in the hopes of getting the upper hand in their regional rivalry with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptians and even the Saudis are surreptitiously backing or rooting for the Israelis, in hopes that the Israeli force will weaken Hamas.
It no longer makes sense to look at the Israeli-Palestinian contest as an independent struggle. It, like every conflict in the region, has to be seen as a piece of the larger 30 Years’ War. It would be nice if Israel could withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank and wall itself off from this war, but that’s not possible. No outsider can run or understand this complex historical process, but Israel, like the U.S., will be called upon to at least weaken some of the more radical players, like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and Hamas.
It should be reiterated at this point that this is fundamentally a conflict over economics, not ideology. It is about control over the region’s resources at a time when those resources are dwindling and demographic pressures are mounting. Which is all to say that it isn’t 1967 anymore. Nor 1979 nor 1987 nor 2000.
None of this means that Israel’s response has not been disproportionate. It has been, and frankly it’s hard for me to believe that anyone could sincerely believe the opposite. Regardless of the tactics of Hamas, the Netanyahu government has shown a characteristic lack of maturity by lashing out with far less discrimination than it is capable of. It is, as the late Tony Judt put it, a sign of Israel’s inability to yet achieve its full height. Israel’s own blockade of Palestine only increased Egypt’s importance, it must be remembered. Still, Israel’s immaturity has a different flavor when half of Israel’s neighbors in the Middle East are supportive or indifferent, while much of the other half are engaged in their own domestic conflicts that are (in some cases) as severe as that in Palestine, or even much worse. It has a different feeling when ISIS is brutalizing Iraq while preparing to materially support Hamas.
The United States used to forestall Egyptian meddling in Palestine through military aid. It had a pacifying effect (pdf). Such aid had been frozen several times since the Arab Spring. Now the taps are open again, but it is much less clear if money will be able to soothe tensions if Egypt’s enemy is Hamas rather than Israel.
I am interested in this question in part because I cannot understand why Palestine remains cause célèbre for the left while support for Israel is de rigueur on the (American) right. This appears as a vestige of a Cold War mentality where imperialism was the primary concern of capitalists and socialists alike. Perhaps I’m thinking too much like a political scientist, but aren’t the stakes much lower today? Other than habit, why is Palestine’s struggle with Israel given so much more concern even than Iraq? Or this (h/t Dan Nexon)?
*On that point, briefly: neoconservative “domino” theories look a lot better today than they did in 2006, don’t they? But it’s more of a “be-careful-what-you-wish-for” situation than neoconservatives would’ve expected, and the much-maligned Cold War policy of maintaining relationships with authoritarians for the sake of stability is more understandable all the time.