On 9 May 2023, Israel launched a surprise overnight strike on three senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) commanders, triggering a five-day conflagration between Israel and the Iran-backed militant group. The operation came as a response to the extensive rocket fire from PIJ towards southern Israel the previous week, following the death of PIJ activist Khader Adnan after a lengthy hunger strike in an Israeli prison. On 13 May, a ceasefire was reached, mediated by Egypt, among others. The escalation resulted in 33 Palestinians being killed in the Gaza Strip, of which at least 12 were civilians (including six children), and 190 left injured (including 64 children). Inside Israeli territory, two people were killed by rocket fire – one Israeli and one Gazan worker – while more than 90 per cent of rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome and David’s Sling anti-missile defence systems. According to the Israeli military, 21 PIJ operatives were killed.
Following the ceasefire, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted that Israel had “changed the equation” regarding Gaza. In reality, the status quo of recurring episodes of violence is likely to endure as each side seeks tactical short-term gains, which can serve to boost domestic public opinion or garner support from core constituencies. Since the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005, Israel has launched 15 military operations inside the strip. This suggests that any re-established “deterrence” touted by the Israeli government is at best temporary, given the inadequacy of using military tactics alone to address the security threat from the strip – in the absence of a credible political process. Indeed, 53 per cent of Israeli respondents to one recent poll expected another round of conflict within months, while only 17 per cent anticipated this to be more than a year away.
The physical and psychological damage of Israeli strikes feeds the profound desperation felt by Gaza’s 2.1 million residents, contributing to the conditions for radicalisation. On the Israeli side, the psychological impact of rocket fire, particularly in the south, undercuts moderate voices and amplifies calls from hawkish right-wing politicians for heavier military responses. Escalation between Israel and Gaza also has the potential to prompt intercommunal violence between Arab-Israelis and Jewish Israelis, as witnessed in May 2021.
The Position of Hamas
What has been notable is Hamas’s reticence, observed previously in November 2019 and August 2022, to wade into the conflict – beyond some symbolic gestures. Hamas has maintained a deliberate strategic ambiguity. In the latest operation, it demonstrated its support for the resistance via joint statements and by giving its assent to PIJ to operate but refrained from taking direct military action other than to participate in meetings of a “joint operations room”, a forum that brings together all the militant factions in Gaza. This ambiguity allowed Israel to adopt a policy of distinguishing between Hamas and PIJ, targeting only PIJ militants and infrastructure, while briefing journalists that Hamas did not fire the rockets.
For now, it seems as though Hamas prefers not to escalate tensions with Israel over Gaza and will avoid being dragged into any clashes unless there is a major incident, particularly at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Hamas is focusing instead on fomenting violence in the West Bank and inside Green Line Israel. This approach allows the de-facto government in Gaza to preserve its “achievements” of limited movement and access – primarily comprising more than 17,500 Gazan workers who have permits to work in Israel, the entry of Qatari fuel for the sole power plant and other funding – without suffering military setbacks and endangering the livelihoods of Gazan labourers. The 2022 increase in permits for Gazan labourers is an important instrument for supporting livelihoods, improving purchasing power and reducing unemployment, although it cannot compensate for the economic cost associated with the extensive movement and access restrictions imposed on the strip. The maintenance of some form of ceasefire remains in the interest of Hamas’s political leadership so it can sustain de-facto control over Gaza’s population and continue to receive the associated assistance from Egypt and Qatar in doing so.
For Hamas, any major escalation would risk disrupting nascent, shaky regional rapprochements and upsetting the moderate Sunni leadership, specifically Saudi Arabia and Egypt, with whom it seeks to strengthen ties. Saudi-Hamas ties have been evolving in recent months, after having been frozen since 2007 when the kingdom accused Hamas of undermining a reconciliation agreement with the Palestinian Authority (PA). In April 2023, senior Hamas leaders, including the head of its political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, visited Saudi Arabia for a pilgrimage to Mecca as well as for political meetings – at the same time as a visit by PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Meanwhile, the Saudi government has been releasing prisoners with Hamas affiliation. In an overture to the Saudis prior to the visit, Moussa Abu Marzouk, who handles foreign relations for Hamas, stressed its independence, asserting it was not part of a specific political or military “axis of resistance” (in reference to the Iran-led axis). The evolving Saudi-Hamas relationship is best viewed from the broader regional perspective, in which shifting dynamics are liable to play a role in shaping the Hamas posture on escalation in Gaza.
For Israel too, the decision not to escalate in terms of Hamas serves its immediate interests. Successive Israeli governments have opted to tolerate Hamas, given it can constrain more radical elements inside the Gaza Strip and has proven itself capable of policing ceasefires when they align with its interests. Furthermore, the political divide in Palestinian politics between Hamas in Gaza and the Fatah-dominated PA in the West Bank continues to underpin the Israeli position of having no negotiating partner.
Some Israeli security analysts argue that this policy of distinction is inadvertently strengthening Hamas by allowing it to position itself simultaneously as a “resistance movement” (rhetorically and, at times, militarily) and a state that serves the interests of its people. The decision by Hamas not to partake in the hostilities will likely have infuriated militant groups like PIJ and provoked dissent within Hamas’s militant wing, leaving its political leadership to try and preserve discipline. In addition, it will have cost Hamas popular support among its core constituency – the growing segment of Palestinians, both in the West Bank and abroad in refugee camps, who favour a strategy of armed resistance.
The move was also something of a departure for Netanyahu, who has only opted twice before for pre-emptive targeted assassinations followed by military operations in Gaza. In the short term, the operation was a political “success” at home: Netanyahu’s poll ratings in Israel have stabilised after plummeting prior to the operation against a backdrop of social tensions precipitated by the government’s controversial judicial-overhaul plan.Israeli political and military leaders hailed the importance of the strikes for re-establishing the policy of deterrence, given its most recent erosion after Israel’s internal turmoil and orchestrated rocket attacks from Syria, Lebanon and Gaza in April.
Immediately following the escalation, three opinion polls (N12, Kan, and Channel 13) indicated that almost 60 per cent of Israelis were satisfied with the operation against PIJ. The Likud party’s poll rating rose while Netanyahu temporarily recovered his favourability rating versus former Defence Minister Benny Gantz, head of the centrist National Unity party, which is leading in the polls. However, two weeks on from the ceasefire, Gantz is ahead once more, indicating that the prime minister’s political gains were short-lived.
The political landscape looks bleak on both sides. The Israeli government is the most right wing in the country’s history and it looks set to maintain the same, ultimately ineffective, policy pursued by successive previous governments when it comes to conflict management in Gaza: that is, to provide limited movement and access “gestures”, but to avoid working towards a long-term political arrangement that could reopen the strip while also ensuring Israel’s security.
The Palestinians remain politically divided, with the PA all but absent when it comes to Gaza, and Hamas preferring to maintain the status quo. Hamas is unlikely to pursue escalation from inside the strip, while PIJ will require some time to rebuild its personnel and military capabilities. Instead, Hamas will focus its efforts on orchestrating violence in the West Bank and Green Line Israel.
Without the willingness to address the underlying political issues and revive the moribund peace process, Israelis and Palestinians will remain trapped in recurring episodes of violence, with a high civilian cost, particularly among the Palestinians. In the meantime, although it is not a solution, easing measures consistent with Israel’s security concerns should be significantly expanded to stabilise the situation and reduce the chance of escalation, while alleviating the suffering of Gaza’s residents (see our 2018 report Assessing the Economic Impact of Easing Measures for the Gaza Strip). In the absence of a credible political process, however, it is only a matter of time until the next escalation.