Dozens have already died in the fighting between Israel and Hamas, and more will perish if the fighting continues to escalate.
But there is little chance that the root cause of all this death — the long-running political status quo in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — will be altered in the slightest. Israeli-Palestinian warfare has become routinized; it follows a familiar script that repeats itself endlessly.
Since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, there have been three full-scale wars and numerous rounds of lower-level fighting. But the basic structure of the conflict — Israel’s blockade of Gaza and occupation of the West Bank, and Palestinian rule divided between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank — has remained remarkably durable.
It would seem as if the current round of violence emerged out of a complex series of events in Jerusalem, most notably heavy-handed actions by Israeli police and aggression by far-right Jewish nationalists. But in reality, these events were merely triggers for escalations made almost inevitable by the way the major parties have chosen to approach the conflict.
Both Israeli and Palestinian leadership have basically accepted the painful political status quo in Gaza, seeing the violence and humanitarian suffering it causes as bad but basically tolerable as part of an effort to secure their hold on power. Israel’s leadership bears particular responsibility: As the most powerful actor in the conflict, it has the greatest ability to break the pattern. But the factions in control of Israel’s government have strong ideological and strategic reasons for keeping the Gaza policy in place.
As a result, the underlying status quo will likely outlive this conflict, guaranteeing more violence.
“It’s like the worst version of Groundhog Day,” says Khaled Elgindy, the director of the program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute. Leaders “just put a Band-Aid on it and we go back to the pre-crisis normal.”
It’s a horrible equilibrium, one in which “manageable” levels of violence stand in for doing something to actually improve the lives of Israelis or Palestinians. It is also a direct result of the deepest political structure governing the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the iron hand of Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza’s border.
The Israeli-Palestinian doom loop
The current violence began with a series of conflicts in Jerusalem.
Israeli police in the city blocked off the Damascus Gate, a popular gathering place for Arabs during Ramadan, sparking protests. An attempt by Jewish settlers to evict longtime Arab residents of Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem, inflamed tensions, leading to violent clashes with Israeli police. Arab youth attacked ultra-Orthodox Jews in the city, and Jewish extremists assailed Arab residents. All of this culminated in a violent Israeli police raid on the al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem’s holiest site for Muslims, located on the Temple Mount (the holiest site in the world for Jews).
Then Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem. Ostensibly, this was a display of solidarity with the protesters on the ground. But it appears to have been a political calculation — Hamas attempting to capitalize on Palestinian anger over the violence in Jerusalem to expand its own influence, especially in the wake of recently canceled Palestinian elections that likely would have strengthened its political position.
“This is much more about internal Palestinian politics than it is about what’s been going on in Jerusalem,” says Michael Koplow, policy director at the Israel Policy Forum.
The attacks on Jerusalem crossed what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to as a “red line,” breaking the unspoken rules that limited the pace and range of rocket attacks to limited barrages mostly targeting southern Israel. Israel responded with overwhelming force: massive airstrikes targeting Hamas emplacements in densely populated Gaza. This prompted more rocket attacks from Hamas and, in turn, more bombings from Israel. As a result, as of May 12, at least seven people in Israel and around 70 Palestinians had been killed — with no end in sight.
But while the events that led to this point are unique, the broader pattern of events is not. This week’s violence is part of a recurring pattern determined by structural factors in the conflict. If the events in Jerusalem hadn’t prompted Hamas rocket fire and Israeli escalation, something else almost certainly would have.
“The most likely scenario is unfortunately the one we’ve been in for the past 15 years,” says Ilan Goldenberg, the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
Goldenberg co-authored a report in 2018 documenting what he terms “the cycle of violence” between Israel and Hamas. It documents the ways in which the political status quo is arranged in a way that makes frequent violent flare-ups all but inevitable.
The stage is set, Goldenberg and his co-authors say, by the policy approaches of both sides. Israel aims to minimize the threat posed by Hamas and other militant factions, imposing a harsh blockade on Gaza that limits the flow of goods and people into the territory. Hamas aims to cement its hold on power and expand its influence relative to its Palestinian rivals, seeing violence against Israel as a key tool in this struggle. This creates an underlying reality in which fighting breaks out again and again.
“Eventually, humanitarian and economic pressure builds inside Gaza, and Hamas escalates its use of violence both to generate domestic political support and to pressure Israel to ease the economic situation,” they write. “Israel responds with its own escalation, including military strikes inside Gaza and punitive economic measures that further choke the Strip.”
Once the fighting starts, it’s not clear how much it’ll escalate. Sometimes it ends swiftly and with minimal loss of life. Other times — as in 2008 to 2009, 2012, and 2014 — it turns into an all-out war, with hundreds of (mostly Palestinian) casualties. The current fighting is rapidly moving in that direction, with Israeli leaders pledging to continue the bombardment of Gaza indefinitely.
“The IDF [Israel Defense Forces] will continue to strike and bring complete silence for the long term,” Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on May 12.
Ultimately, the warring parties either unilaterally decide to stop bombing or else agree to an internationally brokered settlement that does little to change the fundamental dynamics. This is the nature of current conflict: Many people die, and many more suffer, without any real prospect for change.
“The question isn’t why this keeps happening,” Elgindy says. “It’s why anyone isn’t doing anything to prevent it from [continuing to] happen.”
The doom loop has deep roots in Israeli politics
It’s clear that that this status quo produces horrors. The problem, though, is that these terrible costs are seen as basically tolerable by the political leadership of all the major parties.
Hamas continues to be able to rule Gaza and reaps the political benefits from being the party of armed resistance to Israeli occupation. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas appears cowed by Hamas’s power — most analysts believe he canceled the Palestinian election because he thought he would lose — and so is content to let Israel keep his rivals contained in Gaza.
Israel is the most powerful actor of the three: It controls access to the Gaza Strip and operates a military occupation in the West Bank. If the Israeli leadership wanted to take actions to short-circuit the cycle of violence, like easing the blockade of Gaza, it could. But despite the persistent rocket threat, the leadership isn’t willing to try something new.
The last time I was in Israel, on a reporting trip in November 2019, I spoke with Yehuda Shaul, the founder of Breaking the Silence, a group that helps Israeli soldiers tell their stories about service in the Palestinian territories. He told me that the traditional categories used to describe politics — left, right, and center — are fundamentally inadequate when it comes to explaining what happens in Israel.
These days, he argues, most of Israel’s leadership falls into what he terms the “annexation” camp or the “control” camp.
The annexationists are Jewish extremists, who want to formally seize large chunks of Palestinian land while either expelling its residents or denying them political rights — ethnic cleansing or apartheid. The “control” camp, which includes current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sees things primarily through the lens of military and physical security: how the Palestinians are ruled is less important than minimizing the threat they pose to Israeli lives.
“The driving principle [of the control camp] is a national security idea,” Shaul explains. “We are in a zero-sum game: Between the river and the sea, there is room for one sovereign power. It’s either us or the Palestinians.”
The status quo in Gaza serves both groups. From the annexationist view, keeping the Palestinians weak and divided allows Israeli settlements to keep expanding and the seizure of both the West Bank and East Jerusalem to continue apace. Lifting the blockade on Gaza, and working to promote some kind of renewed peace process involving both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, jeopardizes the agenda of “Greater Israel.”
“It is Israeli policy to fragment Palestinians politically and geographically, to isolate them into these different areas. It’s classic colonial strategy of divide and conquer,” Elgindy says.
Meanwhile, the “control” camp sees this as the least bad option. Any easing of the Gaza blockade would risk Hamas breaking containment and expanding its presence in the West Bank, which would be far more dangerous than the rockets — a threat heavily mitigated by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. In this analysis, periodic flare-ups are a price that has to be paid to minimize the threat to Israeli lives — with heavy escalations like this one required to restore a basically tolerable status quo.
I witnessed one of these flare-ups on the same trip where I met Shaul, reporting from Israel and the West Bank as Israel and Hamas exchanged fire. After a few days of mayhem and air raid sirens, life just went back to normal in Israel — as if nothing had happened, as if dozens of Palestinian lives had not just been snuffed out (there were no Israeli deaths in that round).
“A lot of the Israeli security and political establishment has sort of internalized this idea that ... there’s a sort of stable equilibrium,” says Koplow. “You get occasional rockets, and Israel will respond with a few missile strikes on Gaza, but it happens very occasionally and things immediately quiet down.”
For much of Israeli history, a third camp — which Shaul calls the “equality” camp — presented a different vision for achieving Israel’s security needs. Epitomized by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government formed in 1992, it believed that Palestinians deserved a political voice as a matter of principle — either in a single state or, more typically, through a two-state arrangement. Such an agreement would sap Palestinian support for violent groups like Hamas by taking away the population’s underlying grievance: the lack of a state to call their own.
Yet the equality camp practically collapsed after the failure of the peace process and the second intifada in the early 2000s. Its political vehicles among Israeli Jews, the Labor and Meretz parties, make up a little more than 10 percent of Israel’s current Knesset (parliament). The result is indefinite occupation with no end in sight; no fundamental rethinking of the approach to either Gaza or the West Bank.
“As a society, the view is that the risks necessary to solve [the conflict with the Palestinians] are not worth it and it won’t work,” Goldenberg says. “So all we can deal with is the problem in front of us today, without really thinking long-term. We’ll deal with the other problems tomorrow — that’s basically the Israeli attitude.”
None of this excuses Hamas from its role in escalating the current conflict, or makes the deep divisions between Palestinians themselves less significant. The status quo is not only Israel’s fault.
But the Israeli government sets the terms for how Israelis and Palestinians interact, the underlying policy architecture that shapes the options available to the various sides.
So long as the annexation and control camps are in the driver’s seat in Israel, it will pursue policies that aim to maintain control over Palestinian land while simultaneously minimizing the security threats intrinsic to the enterprise of military rule over a hostile population. The Gaza situation is an outgrowth of this reality, the sort of policy that one pursues in a world where a more fundamental revision is ideologically foreclosed.
Barring some international intervention, it’s hard to see how things get much better — and easy to see how the same terrible things keep happening, over and over again.