The World

The 2021 Gaza War Was a Disaster for Everyone Except the Leaders Who Started It

A mutually hopeless round of violence was just what Hamas and Netanyahu needed.

A Palestinian boy balances on a railing amid rubble on a clear day
A building destroyed by Israeli strikes in Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip on Friday. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

“No, there is no war; there is fighting,” Israel’s former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once told an interviewer in 2001, in the midst of the second intifada. “There are daily shooting attacks, roadside bombs, mortar fire. But there is no war in the way that we have known war previously, where the danger is existential and the whole nation is involved.” In other words, the violence was a regrettable but manageable long-term state of affairs, rather than a distinct rupture.

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One reason it’s hard to think of what just transpired in Israel and Palestine as a “war” is there was never any question of either side winning or even meaningfully shifting conditions on the ground. This makes it all the more grotesque when Israel and Hamas choose to escalate violence. It was clear for the past two weeks that this latest confrontation would end with a return to the status quo. The only question was how many people would die before it happened. Assuming a cease-fire that went into effect at 2 a.m. Friday morning holds—and for the moment it seems likely to—the answer to that question is 232 Palestinians and 12 Israelis.

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Israeli commanders use the grim metaphor “mowing the grass” to refer to their periodic assaults on Gaza in the name of killing Hamas militants and degrading the group’s arsenal. Implied in the metaphor is an expectation that, before too long, the grass is going to grow back. As for Hamas, there’s no hope of any rocket offensive ending the blockade of Gaza or the occupation of the West Bank, or even—in the era of the Iron Dome—inflicting serious damage on Israel.

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All the same, while there was no “victory” in this confrontation, the leaders involved all got more or less what they wanted out of it. For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the fighting torpedoed a coalition deal among his opponents that was on the verge of finally ousting him. He will now likely stay in power at least until Israel holds its fifth general election in less than three years, when he will run in the aftermath of a military show of strength. The recent violence also makes the prospect of a Jewish-Arab political coalition—the anti-Bibi bloc’s best hope—less likely. Netanyahu still faces significant political obstacles, including allies from the right who are now criticizing him for agreeing to a cease-fire too quickly, and governing without a majority from election to election doesn’t seem like the most durable long-term political strategy, but it would be foolish to bet against his political survival at this point.

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Hamas took the decision on May 9 to begin firing hundreds of rockets at Israel in response to a police crackdown on Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem, knowing that it was likely to provoke a devastating military retaliation from Israel. All in all, despite the carnage in Gaza, the group’s leaders and supporters are probably satisfied with what they accomplished over the past two weeks, as evidenced by the celebrations in the streets of Gaza City on Thursday night. While the vast majority of the rockets fired from Gaza were intercepted by the Iron Dome, Hamas did accomplish a milestone by demonstrating an ability to hit Tel Aviv, Israel’s typically secure commercial capital. And while the group no doubt incurred heavy losses from Israeli airstrikes, its military chief, Muhammad Deif, survived multiple attempts by the Israel Defense Forces to kill him. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the group’s West Bank–based political rival, looks more isolated and irrelevant than ever, and Hamas has inched closer to being the de facto leader of the Palestinian resistance.

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As for the U.S., the Biden administration took some criticism during the conflict for what seemed to be a low-key approach to the violence. Despite pressure from congressional Democrats who are far more comfortable criticizing U.S. support for Israel than they used to be, Biden didn’t even call for a cease-fire until eight days into the fighting, and the U.S. vetoed a resolution calling for one at the U.N. Security Council. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spent the week about as far from the Middle East as he could possibly get, focused on Arctic issues on a trip to Iceland and Greenland.

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But all the while, Biden’s aides were reportedly making dozens of calls to Israeli and Palestinian officials, as well as governments like Egypt and Qatar that have relations with Hamas. It was Egypt that eventually mediated the cease-fire. It’s hard to know from the outside how much these calls accomplished, but what Biden called “quiet, relentless diplomacy” now looks somewhat vindicated as the fighting stopped much more quickly than many feared it would. At the very least, Blinken’s calls from Reykjavik seem to have accomplished as much as John Kerry’s high-profile shuttle diplomacy did during the last major round of Gaza fighting in 2014, which lasted for seven weeks, killed more than 2,000, and involved multiple failed cease-fires.

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In the end, all the leaders got more or less what they wanted, while the overall situation continued to deteriorate. The direct casualty numbers for Gaza understate the humanitarian toll for the strip, which is already under a stifling Israeli blockade and the rule of a Hamas government more interested in building its military than caring for its people. Water and sewage systems have been badly damaged. There are shortages of medicine, and the only COVID testing lab was destroyed.

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Israel is more isolated on the world stage than ever. The IDF did no favors for its coverage in the international press by destroying Associated Press and Al-Jazeera bureaus as well as intentionally deceiving the press to trick Hamas. (Though American right-wingers are still more than willing to bully news outlets into submission or spin wild conspiracy theories on its behalf.) If Israeli leaders hoped when they signed the Abraham Accords with several of their Arab neighbors last year that the Palestinian issue would simply fade from the world stage, they miscalculated. Any illusions that the conflict could be shunted away behind the separation barrier and the Iron Dome were shattered by the rioting that erupted in streets of mixed Jewish-Arab cities.

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Disturbingly, the backlash against Israel has been directed at Jews as a whole in many places, with a spate of recent antisemitic incidents in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere. Pakistan’s foreign minister even employed antisemitic slurs, accusing Israel of having “deep pockets” and controlling the media, in an interview with CNN.

The occupation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remain as intractable as ever, with dire consequences for those who live there and destabilizing effects on the rest of the world. The fact that outbreaks of extreme violence like we saw this month nevertheless seem to serve the interests of those responsible for them doesn’t bode well for them ending anytime soon.

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