Months of low-level conflict between Israel and Gaza seem to be reaching a boiling point — and experts worry the two sides may be hurtling toward all-out war.
Since March, thousands of Gazans have been protesting nearly every week at the Israeli border. They’re calling for the “right of return” for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and their descendants who fled or were displaced from their homes after the creation of the state of Israel, as well as an end to Israel’s crippling 12-year land, sea, and air blockade of Gaza.
The terrorist group Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, organized most of these protests. And though the vast majority of protesters were peaceful, some have used violence, setting fire to Israeli land with flaming kites and balloons, launching rockets and mortars into Israel, and shooting at Israeli soldiers, killing one.
Israel has responded forcefully to the Gaza uprising, shooting and killing protesters at the border and pounding Hamas installations inside Gaza with artillery, tank fire, and airstrikes. Since March, Israeli forces have killed around 140 Palestinians and injured roughly 16,000 others, including women, children, and journalists who were covering the protests.
Hamas and Israel agreed to an Egypt-brokered ceasefire on July 14, but it quickly collapsed, and the fighting has only escalated.
Neither side seems willing to back down, and Israeli officials have begun openly discussing the possibility of launching a full-scale military invasion of Gaza.
“Hamas leaders are forcibly leading us into a situation where we will have no choice, a situation in which we will have to embark on a painful, wide-scale military operation,” Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told the Jerusalem Post on July 20. “Hamas is responsible for this crisis, but unfortunately it’s the Gaza residents that may have to pay the price.”
Hamas has escalated the rhetoric too. The group stated on July 26 that it vowed to “make the enemy pay a heavy price, in blood, for its crimes against the Palestinian people.” Hamas may yet change its mind, as the group’s top leaders from abroad traveled to Gaza for talks about whether to finally accept the ceasefire.
In mid-July, top Israeli officials also ordered the military to prepare for a possible ground invasion of Gaza — but it’s unclear if that means an invasion is imminent.
And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a planned trip to Colombia last Thursday, citing current tensions with Gaza. That same day, Israel indefinitely blocked fuel and gas from entering Gaza.
These moves have led some experts to worry that Israel and Gaza are on the brink of yet another all-out war — their fourth in just a decade.
“I’m honestly surprised we haven’t seen a full-blown war yet,” said Khaled Elgindy, an adviser to Palestinian leadership from 2004 to 2009 who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. “It’s only a matter of time.”
Some in Israel might even welcome a larger fight. According to a July 31 poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 61 percent of Jewish Israelis believe the country should launch a large-scale military operation against Gaza if it continues to attack Israel.
If full-scale war does break out, experts warn the conflict will almost certainly be even bloodier and uglier than the last time.
Gaza is a tiny, densely populated strip of land located between Israel, the Mediterranean Sea, and Egypt. Approximately 25 miles long and 6 miles wide, it is home to an estimated 1.9 million Palestinians.
In 1967, Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank during the Six-Day War. (Gaza had formerly been under Egyptian control.) From then until 2005, Israeli military authorities controlled Gaza in the same way they control the West Bank today. Some 8,500 Jews also chose to build settlements in Gaza during this time, many believing it to be part of “Eretz Yisrael” (Greater Israel), the land biblically ordained for Jews.
Those settlements, and the soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces who were charged with protecting the Jewish settlers who lived in them, caused serious friction with the majority population of Palestinians in Gaza.
As a result, in 2005, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally decided to dismantle all of the Jewish settlements in Gaza, evacuate the settlers (forcibly, if necessary), and pull out all Israeli troops.
A short time after the Israeli withdrawal, the Islamist group Hamas, which formed in 1987 as a militant “resistance” group against Israel, won political power in Gaza in a 2006 US-backed election and took full control of the Gaza Strip.
This prompted Israel to institute a blockade of the flow of commercial goods into Gaza, on the grounds that Hamas could use those goods to make weapons to be used against Israel. Israel has eased the blockade over time, but the cutoff of basic supplies like fuel still does significant humanitarian harm by restricting access to electricity, food, and medicine.
Hamas and other Gaza-based militants have fired thousands of rockets from the territory at Israeli targets. Israel has launched a number of military operations in Gaza, including an air campaign and ground invasion in late 2008 and early 2009, a major bombing campaign in 2012, and another air/ground assault in 2014.
In the summer of 2014, three Israeli students were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank, a Palestinian-controlled territory. Once authorities found the bodies under rocks in an open field, Israeli officials blamed Hamas for the deaths and vowed to seek revenge.
Thus began the last time Hamas and Israel fought a war — and it was a brutal seven-week fight.
Israel started launching airstrikes on Gaza, and Palestinians responded by firing rockets into Israel. Then on July 17, 2014, the Israeli military invaded Gaza, in part to close down tunnels that allowed Hamas to secretly enter Israel and attack the country. Ground fighting led to a spike in Palestinian casualties, which went from a few hundred quickly into the thousands.
The conflict eventually ended in August, with both sides agreeing to an Egypt-brokered ceasefire. Israel said it would relax the blockade on Gaza; Hamas declared that it won the war. More than 2,100 Palestinians and 71 Israelis were killed, while over 10,000 people — mostly Palestinians — sustained injuries.
That war was bad, but a new one could be worse.
Israel may feel more emboldened this time around because there are fewer political constraints on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his team, the Brookings Institution’s Elgindy told me.
That’s because the United States — and the Trump administration in particular — is very closely aligned with Israel. Should Israel choose to drop even more bombs and send even more troops into Gaza, and kill more people, than it did four years ago, Elgindy expects Washington to let it happen with little criticism.
The question is how much leverage, or desire, Egypt and the US would have to broker a ceasefire and end a potential new war. And even if they did succeed in attaining some sort of peace, experts don’t think it would last.
“It is hard to imagine that any negotiated truce would survive in the long run,” Guy Ziv, a Middle East expert at American University, told me. “As long as Hamas is in power, and as long as the dire humanitarian conditions [in Gaza] persist, a renewed flare-up is probably only a question of time.”
So to recap: A new Israel-Gaza war could be bloodier this time, and when it ends, the potential for new conflict will likely still exist. It’s no wonder most experts note the prospects for peace between the two sides remains very slim.
“There’s no international initiative of any kind that can get us out of this mess,” Elgindy told me.