Hamas: Why Now?

When historians put large-scale events under the microscope, they often find the reason for them in a series of contributory factors that chanced to come together at the same time. Is it possible, so close to events, to unpick the issues that have led to the current upsurge in violence between Hamas and Israel?

Prime among them is the violent opposition to the Abraham Accords within the loose Islamist alliance of Iran, Turkey, Hamas and Hezbollah. As the agreements were announced Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a committed supporter of Hamas, was outraged and threatened to cut diplomatic ties with the Emirates. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, denounced the accords as a “humiliation” for Muslim nations. They calculated that

the best way to counter Israel’s newly forged relationships with Gulf states and Morocco would be to renew the Hamas-Israel conflict, making sure that the precipitating cause was connected to sensitive Muslim interests, such as police action on or around the Temple Mount. This might be a way to shatter, or at least shake, the new alliances.

An equally important precipitating factor in the current conflict is the determined effort by leaders of Hamas and its Islamist backers to seize control of the Palestinian cause. Achieving that goal they regard as a vital step towards their ultimate aim – the destruction of Israel. All the evidence suggests that the barrage of rockets fired at Israel’s heartlands is part of a long-standing campaign to wrest the leadership of the Palestinian people from Fatah. All that the Palestinian militants, together with their Islamist backers, had been waiting for was an excuse, or a series of excuses, to provoke a fresh confrontation.

As part of their campaign to wreck the Accords, Turkey and Iran, as well as other Islamist-supporting governments like Qatar, are keen that Hamas, committed to the destruction of Israel, becomes the dominant voice in Palestinian politics in place of Mahmoud Abbas, the current, and largely ineffectual, Palestinian leader. Turkish and Iranian leaders had been hoping that Hamas would emerge victorious in the Palestinian elections that were due to be held on 22 May 2021.

Under intense pressure from US and world opinion to restore some degree of democratic credibility to the Palestinian Authority, which last held parliamentary and presidential elections back in 2006, PA President Mahmoud Abbas announced that polling would take place in May and July 2021. However he was only too well aware that the outcome of free and fair elections subject to neutral observation would probably result in an even greater Hamas victory than occurred in 2006. That probability would not have escaped Israeli attention either. When the question arose of arrangements for eligible Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to vote, Israel “didn’t say yes, and she didn’t say no”, to quote an old music hall song. Abbas seized on the issue, and cancelled the elections.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, grasping the opportunity to parade himself as the Palestinian people’s champion, urged Abbas to defy Israel and go ahead with the polls. Hamas further strengthened its position in Palestinian eyes over the Temple Mount issue. Demanding that Israel remove the police from there by a given deadline, Hamas launched rockets against Jerusalem when its ultimatum went unheeded.

For months Israeli security officials have warned that Hamas has been building stockpiles of missiles in Gaza in anticipation of renewed hostilities. The missiles, manufactured locally, are based on medium-range Iranian systems, enabling Hamas to strike targets in major Israeli population centers. In short, the conflict is as much a battle for control of the Palestinian cause as it is an opportunity to attack Israel.

This latest upsurge in Palestinian-Israeli violence is also due in no small measure to the vacillation and obscure messages emanating from Washington about the US administration’s stance on the Middle East. President Joe Biden has been anything but clear about where he stands on the achievement of his predecessor, Donald Trump, in fostering Arab-Israeli peace. Biden has so far shown little interest in maintaining the momentum of the Abraham Accords. On the contrary, he has shown considerable enthusiasm for reopening dialogue with Iran and reviving the controversial nuclear deal. The Abraham Accords are founded in part on a common Arab-Israeli desire to counter Iranian attempts to dominate the Middle East and overthrow both Sunni Muslim states and Israel.

Biden’s present position gives comfort to Israel’s enemies. Middle East players interested in peace rather than eternal conflict need a display of strong US leadership, unequivocally opposed both to violence and to those states that foster it in pursuit of long-term goals of their own. Is Biden prepared to provide this?

These are the factors that have come together to provide the fuel for the current conflagration. A desire to attack Israel in pursuit of a long-term aim of overthrowing the state is certainly among them, although by itself it is usually insufficient to spark conflict. On this occasion it is strengthened by Islamist opposition to the recent Arab-Israeli reconciliation in the Abraham Accords, by the opportunity to seize control of the Palestinian cause from a clearly weakened PA leader, by the frustration of Hamas’s political ambitions because of the cancellation of the Palestinian elections, by ambiguous signals from the Biden administration tied to its desire to reopen the nuclear deal with Iran, and by convenient opportunities to whip up Palestinian anger provided by Israeli attempts to control protests on the Temple Mount and Sheikh Jarrah.

Can diplomacy and reason succeed in damping down the flames before they burst into all-out war?

By Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “"Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com. Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."