Avi Melamed ~ Inside The Middle East
Tomorrow (Sunday, May 29, 2022) is Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day. This annual event celebrates the unification (according to the Zionist narrative) of Jerusalem following the 1967 war. One of the centerpieces of the day is an event known as the Flag Parade, during which thousands of Israelis carrying Israeli flags are expected to march through the city streets – including through the Muslim Quarter in the Old City. The parade ends at the Western Wall Plaza.
In May 2021, Hamas – the Palestinian Islamic movement that rules the Gaza Strip since 2007 – used the Flag Parade as an excuse to launch a rocket attack on Jerusalem. Hamas’s actions led to a 10-day war between Israel and Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in the Gaza Strip.
Ahead of this year’s event, Hamas and the PIJ are again sending threatening messages, from which it can be concluded that this year, too, they intend to initiate a violent round with Israel.
This short analysis briefly examines the pros and cons of initiating a military collision with Israel from the perspective of Hamas and the PIJ. I also will evaluate the probability of an Israel-Gaza all-out war around Jerusalem Day and the Flag Parade.
Hamas and PIJ position themselves as the ‘Defenders of Al-Quds’ (Al-Quds is the Arabic name for Jerusalem. The word ‘Quds‘ means the holy and it is taken from the Hebrew word ‘Kadosh’) on behalf of Palestinians and the entire Arab world. “Defending al-Quds‘” is a card that gives Hamas and PIJ an advantage in the struggle for the leadership of the Palestinians against the Palestinian Authority and the Fatah organization, the major pillar of the Palestinian Authority that rules parts of the West Bank.
For Hamas and PIJ, threatening to engage in a war with Israel in the name of “defending al-Quds” provides them with a bargaining chip that enables them to create a balance of deterrence with Israel. By doing that, they bolster their attractiveness in the Palestinian arena and label themselves as a player of regional importance.
For Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, another violent round at this time could deepen the unrest and unrest in the Palestinian Authority’s areas of control, deepen the crisis in Fatah (primarily centered around who will succeed President Mahmoud Abbas – who has ruled the Palestinian Authority since its inception in 2005) and therefore give Hamas and the PIJ another advantage in the power struggle to lead the Palestinians.
During the war of 2021 (May 10 – 21 2021) violence erupted in some Israeli cities between Jewish and Arab communities. That milestone reflects growing tensions between Israeli Arabs (about 20 percent of Israel’s population) and Israeli Jews. Hamas and PIJ are interested in further fueling those tensions out of the hope it will result in the crumbling of Israeli society from within.
The Situation in Gaza. The people of Gaza – as well as Hamas’ military might – have not yet fully recovered from the May 2021 war. The distress in Gaza is great and the criticism for the dire situation in Gaza is directed toward Hamas. Over the past few months, Israel has facilitated the entry of thousands of Gazans to enter Israel for work. In this way, Israel alleviates the plight of the people of Gaza. Hamas is aware and cannot ignore the clear message of Gaza residents who are exhausted by the severe outcomes of the military rounds and do not want another confrontation.
Arab Criticism. In the Arab world, there is escalating criticism of Hamas. The Arab world is increasingly vocal in its criticism of Hamas’ extreme policy that has brought nothing but destruction and suffering to Gazans. This criticism is heightened by the fact that Hamas has close ties with Iran, which is pursuing an aggressive, hegemonic, unrelenting, and violent policy to become the regional superpower at the expense of the Arab world.
The War in Ukraine. The war in Ukraine has resulted in rising oil and wheat prices. This has resulted in a sharp increase in the prices of basic commodities – all over the Arab world – including in Egypt. Already suffering an ongoing acute economic crisis, the situation in Egypt is very fragile. Should Hamas launch a war with Israel, this could ignite the streets of Egypt. A situation that Egyptian President Al-Sisi wants to avoid. Egypt is Gaza’s gateway to the world. A War in Gaza does not serve Egypt’s need to address the economic impact of the war in Ukraine.
Another related aspect of the war in Ukraine is the fact that the West is shocked by Russia’s brutal and indiscriminate attacks on Ukrainian cities with rockets and missiles. Even Hamas’ fans in the West will struggle to justify Hamas indiscriminatingly shooting rockets and missiles at Israeli cities.
Israeli Large-Scale Military Drill. These very days Israel is conducting its largest-ever military drill called “Chariots of Fire.” As part of the drill, many reserve forces and many military units are deployed throughout Israel. This fact puts Israel in a position of being fully prepared to transition into a full-fledged state of combat on very short notice. Hamas and PIJ are likely very aware of that.
Will Hamas & The Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Palestine (PIJ) Initiate a Wide Military Confrontation with Israel?
In my estimation, in the current circumstances, Hamas is not interested in a military confrontation with Israel.
Though initiating a small-scale military collision targeting Israeli communities in the vicinity of Gaza is an option, it is likely Hamas evaluates that the downsides of that scenario are bigger than the potential gains, as it could spin out of control resulting in a wide-scale military collision that Hamas wants to avoid. However, in that regard, Hamas has a problem.
The problem is that PIJ might decide to launch an attack.
Different from Hamas which rules Gaza, and therefore needs to be tuned to the Palestinian public opinion in Gaza, and therefore many times does prioritize the needs of Gazans over its radical ideology, PIJ tends to prioritize its radical ideology over the needs of the people of Gaza. This difference in priorities has been and is a source of tension between Hamas and PIJ (read for example my June 2018 article Kites, Flames, Soccer – Is War in Gaza Around the Corner?)
Hamas’ determination to create a balance of power equation with Israel, in which Jerusalem becomes a pressure card they can use at will, presents the two militant Islam organizations with a serious challenge.
In the May 2021 War, in the name of “defending al-Quds,” Hamas yet again dragged Gaza towards destruction and further down a dead-end street. One year later, they have once again used Jerusalem Day and the Flag Parade to position themselves as ‘the defenders of al-Quds.’ However, this time – different from last year – Hamas did not make a clear ultimatum. This fact also indicates that Hamas wants to avoid a wide-scale military confrontation with Israel. Therefore, they need to find a way to “keep face” without risking all-out war.
What then might they do?
One thing Hamas and PIJ may likely do choose is to present an achievement – even if it is not really an achievement. And they may have already found a formula to accomplish this. Pay attention to the nuances in the rhetoric of Hamas spokesmen. They describe the march through the Muslim Quarter as a “provocation.” However, they say that any threat to the al-Aqsa compound (the Temple Mount / al-Haram al-Sharif / Har HaBayit) is a “red line.” Since the parade is not supposed to enter the al-Aqsa compound anyway, Hamas and PIJ’s “red line” will not be crossed. Therefore, they will be able to claim an “achievement” – even if it is a sham.
Rhetorical spinning is a prominent feature of Middle Eastern politics – especially in the multi-layered very nuanced Arabic language. It seems that this time this language and political characteristic will help prevent a wide collision between Israel and Gaza.