As usual, with a view to understanding what is happening in the Middle East, we need to rewind the common thread that links the great issues on the table, from the origins to the present day.
Also the new flare-up of war, which has been shaking Israel and the Gaza Strip for a week, necessarily takes us back to the time of Israel’s “war of independence” in 1948 and the subsequent “Six-Day War” in 1967.
In 1948, Palestine’s Jews won the confrontation first with the Palestinians and later with the Arab armies that – on May 15, when the birth of the State of Israel was proclaimed – invaded the territories assigned to them by the United Nations and were incredibly defeated by a crowd of citizens in arms.
Thanks to modern firepower and the professionalism of its British Commander, Sir John Glubb “Pasha”, the Jordanian Arab Legion managed to conquer the Old City of Jerusalem and the Eastern part of the Holy City, with the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, and to keep it under Jordan’s control for the subsequent 19 years.
Much has been said – and rightly so – about the exodus to which 700,000 Palestinians were forced after the military defeat. Less has been said about the naturally less massive exodus of Jews forced to leave their villages and homes in the territories taken away from the fledgling State of Israel by the force of arms.
They included hundreds of Jews living in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of Jerusalem, who were forced by the Arab Legion to leave their homes. Obviously those houses were promptly occupied by Arab families and the situation remained as such until the 1967 war, when again Israel inflicted a crushing defeat on Jordan’s, Egypt’s and Syria’s armies, thus finally putting an end to the Palestinian-Arab dream of “driving the Jews back into the sea”.
During a secret conversation in September 1947 with the Jewish diplomat (later Israel’s Foreign Minister), Abba Eban, the Secretary General of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, had been prophetic: “Politics is not a matter of sentimental agreements; it is the result of a confrontation between opposing forces. The problem is to see whether, in view of creating a Jewish State, you are able to bring into play more forces than we can muster to prevent it. If you want your own State, however, you have to come and get it”.
Azzam Pasha certainly did not foresee that his assumption would turn out to be tragically true for the Arabs, and the Jews “took” their State in 1948, and even expanded it in 1967, conquering Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Golan Heights.
The re conquered areas included also the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, entirely inhabited by Palestinians, until – under the pressure and support of right-wing Israeli organisations – some descendants of Jewish families who had been forced to leave their homes in 1948, required their return or at least the payment of rent.
Israel is a State based on the rule of law in which the Supreme Court of Justice does not hesitate to impeach a Prime Minister accused of corruption. Therefore, the dispute over the houses in the Sheik Jarrah neighbourhood dragged on for years before courts, with ups and downs, until a few weeks ago the Supreme Court ruled on the issue and established the right of the Jewish owners to return to their homes or require the payment of rent.
That decision caused incidents in the “disputed” neighbourhood, first between tenants and landlords and then between Palestinian and Jewish protesters in other areas of the Holy City. Demonstrations became ever more massive and violent, also due to the simultaneous end of Ramadan and the Jewish celebrations for the reconquest of Jerusalem, until Hamas – the most extremist faction of the Palestinian resistance movement which, together with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007 – became part of that dispute triggered by a series of evictions.
On Monday 10 May, while Palestinian demonstrators were violently protesting in Jerusalem on the Esplanade of the Mosques, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) suddenly launched a salvo of missiles on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, an act of open warfare that could not fail to cause a very harsh Israeli response.
In fact, as was predictable, not only were 90% of the missiles launched from Gaza intercepted in flight by the Iron Dome air defence system, but Israel’s air force and artillery began a systematic bombing of strategic targets located in the Gaza Strip.
An act of war, such as the decision to strike the capital of a sovereign State, must necessarily have a strategic aim – otherwise it would be a senseless act conceived by a mad mind.
The assumption that Hamas decided on such a risky operation out of solidarity with its Arab-Israeli “brothers” does not hold up, because the extremist factions of the Palestinian resistance movement consider the latter to be collaborators who even agree to send their representatives to the Knesset, i.e. the Israeli Parliament, by participating in free political elections.
We know very well that the leaderships of Hamas and PIJ are not made up of crazy visionaries, but of very clever politicians who have been ruling the two million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip for 14 years with a firm hand and an iron fist against internal dissidents and the factions close to the moderate camp.
We also know that for years Mahmoud Abbas, the successor to Yasser Arafat at the head of the Fatah movement, has been postponing elections in the West Bank, controlled by his party, for fear that Hamas may repeat the success it obtained in the elections held 14 years ago in the Gaza Strip and take definitive control of all the territories under Palestinian administration.
Considering the above, we must therefore revert to the issue of the real reasons why Hamas and PIJ have decided to start an open conflict with an adversary such as Israel, whose military strength and political determination they know very well and which they know they cannot defeat on the ground.
In just over a week, by launching thousands of rockets onto Israeli cities with the aim of causing indiscriminate slaughters, Hamas has succeeded in damaging a few houses and causing the death of ten Jews.
In response to this apparently senseless aggression, the Palestinian resistance movement has suffered considerable damage: not only have the collateral victims of the Israeli bombardments exceeded two hundred people, but the targeted strikes of the Jewish air force have killed dozens of Hamas and JIP militants, thus decapitating both groups’ intelligence, killing their important political and military figures, and destroying strategic infrastructure such as the network of underground tunnels painstakingly built over the last few years to enable the Palestinian military apparatus to operate in absolutely safe conditions.
So far the rocket offensive has been a failure at military level, while on a political level it has not even managed to stop Israel’s internal debate on the formation of the new government – a debate in which the politicians representing 20% of Arab-Israelis are also participating actively.
If Hamas and JIP have decided to take the risk of provoking Israel militarily in a confrontation with no chance of success, the reasons are probably to be found in the internal policy of the Palestinian movement and its moves in foreign policy.
On the domestic front, there is a clear attempt to mobilise the Palestinians living in the occupied territories or in those administered by Fatah and to convince them that the pragmatic policy of Mahmoud Abbas is a weak and losing policy. So far the attempt has failed as the insurgency of the Arab-Palestinians -fomented by Hamas emissaries in the hope of spreading terror to cities like Lod and Ramallah where Arabs and Jews have found tried and tested forms of peaceful coexistence – is gradually dying out.
In terms of international links, so far there has also been the failure of the attempt – clearly inspired by Hamas‘ external sponsors, namely Qatar and Turkey – to sabotage the “Abraham Accords” which, under the auspices of Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia, led to the normalisation of relations between Israel, the Emirates and Sudan at the end of last year.
The exchange of missiles over the skies of Palestine continues in the total silence of the Arab Chancelleries and, above all, of Iran, which has so far not allowed Hezbollah– which has an impressive missile apparatus in the Lebanon, supplied and controlled by the Iranian Pasdaran– to intervene militarily in support of its “brothers” in the Gaza Strip.
If Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and their external sponsors hoped that the missile gamble could be a game-changer in Middle East diplomacy and mobilise a new Arab front, united in the fight against Israel, their strategy has so far proved to be a costly failure.
Now rumours are rife of a call for a truce from Gaza: but can a war be started with the strategic objective of calling for a truce?
The missile crisis has so far embarrassed the United States, causing a split within President Biden’s party. It has shown that Europe continues to be conspicuous by its absence on the international scene, while the United Nations keeps on hesitating and being too cautious. In the debate at the Security Council, however, the missile crisis has also brought to the fore what could be a new protagonist in the Middle East dialectics, i.e. Xi Jinping’s China, which has made its voice of authoritative moderation and self-restraint heard in a discussion in which the other permanent members of the Security Council did not seem to be able to express anything but obvious and inconclusive formulas calling for “pacification”.
If China, which is already present in some strategic areas in Africa, were to decide to make its voice heard on the most sensitive dossiers of the Arab-Israeli confrontation, possibly in tune with Egypt’s and the Gulf monarchies’ voices, the prospects for pacification would become more concrete than the adventurist provocations of Palestinian extremists or the uncertain and contradictory moves of the US diplomacy let us hope. Indeed, after the undeniable success of the “Abraham Accords”, under the hesitant leadership of President Biden and his Secretary of State Blinken, the US diplomacy does not yet seem to have found the tools to enable it to be again an authoritative protagonist in the Middle East peace process.