The war between Israel and Hamas is one of the more puzzling events in the recent annals of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A ceasefire had held between the two parties for nearly a year and a half; the strategic payoff of the latest conflict is vague for both sides, and neither side seemed to have an obvious interest in going to war. Even if it’s clear that both Israel and Hamas had been preparing for a major conflict, with Hamas spending 40% of its budget on its tunnel network and booby-trapping UN infrastructure and the Israelis looking increasingly committed to a long and already costly ground operation inside of a hostile Gaza Strip, it’s uncertain why the worst conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in well over a decade is happening now.
The truth is that rival diplomatic, sectarian, and ideological blocs that have been on a steady collision course are colliding. Here are some such conflicts, apart from the ever-festering over-sixty-year-old one between Israelis and Palestinians, that are playing out in Gaza right now.
Sisi vs. the Muslim Brotherhood
Last summer, Egyptian army field marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi led a popularly-backed coup that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi — the only democratically-elected civilian president in Egypt’s history. Sisi swiftly cracked down on the organisation, violently dispersing sit-in demonstrations in Cairo, imprisoning nearly all of the Brotherhood’s top leadership, and driving its rank-and-file underground.
Sisi’s hostility extended to Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian adjunct and a group that Morsi’s government had supported, loosening border restrictions between Egypt and Gaza and acting as a go-between for Hamas and the broader international community.
Sisi still views the Muslim Brotherhood and its domestic and international supporters as the main threat to his authocratic grip on power, so it isn’t surprising that his crackdown extended to Hamas. As David Brooks recently noted in the New York Times, Sisi’s government has destroyed 95 per cent of the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, causing an estimated $US460 million hit to Gaza’s economy.
Hamas might have escalated its stance towards Israel in the hope of getting a similar payoff to the 2009 and 2012 Gaza conflicts: a ceasefire that loosened border restrictions. It’s no accident that one of Hamas’s demands in this conflict is the international administration of Gaza’s border crossing with Egypt. Hamas’s war effort seems partly aimed at forcing a hostile government in Cairo to accommodate it. The group’s bottom line — and maybe even its viability — might have seemed to depend on reversing Sisi’s anti-Brotherhood push, even if it meant risking all-out war to do so.
Muslim Brotherhood supporters vs. the old regimes
The leadership of Turkey and Qatar responded to the new, more open political environment ushered in by the Arab Spring protests by allying themselves with populist religious parties. This stance seemed to pay off when the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was elected to both the presidency and a parliamentary majority in the Arab world’s most populous state.
But the situation turned on the Muslim Brotherhood’s foreign supporters when a popularly backed military coup unseated Morsi last summer.
Egypt’s new leaders took a vindictive stance towards the Brotherhood’s foreign sponsors, taking on more hostile diplomatic relations with Qatar and expelling and even imprisoning journalists from the Qatari government-funded satellite news network Al Jazeera.
Other regimes that feel threatened by grassroots Islamist political movements have also relatiated against Brotherhood-supportering states. In September, the UAE suspended a $US12 billion investment in Turkey’s energy sector over Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood during last year’s coup. In March, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates pulled their ambassadors from Qatar over concerns that the Emirate was supporting Islamist elements hostile to the Gulf regimes.
But neither Qatar nor Turkey is backing down in Gaza, with the countries serving as Hamas’s de facto representatives in ceasefire negotiations. Qatar in particular is Hamas’s major international sponsor, supplying the Islamist group with natural gas and several hundred million dollars in cash support. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal has been in Doha over the course of the entire Gaza crisis, and much of Hamas’s leadership is based in the Qatari capital.
The Qatar-Egypt rift pits the most populous of the Arab world’s countries against one of its most ambitious. Both view themselves as among the region’s rightful leaders, and both harbor a deep suspicion of the other’s actions and motives. This animosity helps explain why Qatar has backed Hamas throughout the conflict, and why Sisi is apparently happy to see Israel hammering the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch.
Iran vs. the Sunni states (and Israel and the U.S.)
Iran’s support for Hamas is clear. The Palestinian militant Islamist organisation gets its long-range rockets largely from Iran and Syria. Iranian officials have publicly hinted they will increase their assistance for Palestinian militant groups. Iran-allied Sudan is a transit point for weapons heading into the Gaza Strip. Another active armed group in Gaza, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, has even closer relations with Iran than Hamas does and has claimed that all of its weapons in the Strip come from Iran.
Iran also has many enemies. The Shi’ite nation has emerged as the strongest player in a disintegrating Iraq, successfully propped the Assad regime in Syria, and provided weaponry and coordination to Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon, all while upgrading relations with the U.S. through negotiations over its nuclear program. All of these developments concern or even terrify the region’s other powers, driving many to support the other side in various conflicts — including in Gaza.
Saudi Arabia is arguably at the vanguard of this anti-Iran bloc. The Sunni kingdom is a strategic and ideological opponent of Iran, promulgating its own state-backed version of fundamentalist Islam throughout the world and supporting anti-Assad fighters in Syria. This opposition suggests another reason why the oil-rich kingdom has been quiet and perhaps even covertly supportive of Israel during the Gaza escalation.
Egypt, another major competitor to Iran, along with certain other Arab countries are also reportedly taking a wait-and-see approach to the war, preferring to let Israel weaken Iran-allied Hamas rather than push for a premature ceasefire.
America’s position in this conflict is complicated by its ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, but it remains a strong ally of Israel and a longtime partner of the Sunni Arab states. Notably, the U.S. has been replenishing Israel’s ammunition supplies.
Fatah vs. Hamas. In April, the nationalist Palestinian faction Fatah took a major risk by allowing the then-battered and unpopular Islamist group to enter into a technocratic government created to implement open elections in 2015. Less than a month later, Hamas operatives repaid this favour by kidnapping and murdering three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, an act that Hamas leaders applauded.
Even if there’s no evidence that the kidnapping plot came from high up the chain of command, the kidnappings demonstrated the risk of entering into such an agreement with a militant group that trains, funds, and otherwise encourages its fringe to commit acts of terrorism — and is incapable of controlling that fringe when it has every incentive to behave itself.
Even before this latest conflict broke out, Hamas was furious at Fatah for withholding salaries for Hamas-affiliated civil servants in Gaza. Hamas already felt cut out of the new unity government — which included no official Hamas members and preserved Abbas loyalists’ control over several crucial offices, including the Prime Minister’s chair.
It’s possible that Hamas’s decision to launch rockets at Israel was a message to Fatah as much as Israel — a pointed reminder that Hamas is still a heavily-armed organisation that’s willing to use its arsenal for political leverage.
And there are signs that Fatah is using this latest crisis as an opportunity to gain an added advantage against its major domestic political opponent — the Palestinian Authority continues to back an Egyptian ceasefire proposal that Hamas rejected weeks ago.
Hamas doesn’t only feel cut off by Fatah — they want respect from the Egyptians, the Jordanians, and the broader world as well. This desire for legitimacy, and for the kind of recognised pseudo-official status that other state-like militant groups like Hezbollah enjoy, is at the heart of Hamas’s demands during this latest conflict.
Indeed, Israel rejected a Qatari-brokered and U.S.-proposed 7-day ceasefire out of the fear that it would “upgrade Hamas … to an equal negotiating partner.”
Conflicts within conflicts in Gaza are aggravating the Israel-Hamas crisis, giving all sides incentive to keep fighting. At some point in the next few weeks, the violence will probably de-escalate or end. But these conflicts, as well as the larger one between Israelis and Palestinians, might not move any closer to a resolution, and the Middle East’s tangle of proxy conflicts will continue to mutate and escalate regardless of how the war in Gaza concludes.
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