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The fourth war between Israel and Palestinian factions: Roles, results, and future scenarios

On 24 May the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies (ECSS) held a seminar on “The Fourth War between Israel and Palestinian Factions”. The seminar was meant to evaluate the war along with its dimensions, results, and future scenarios.

The seminar opened with a speech by the General Manager of the ECSS, Dr. Khaled Okasha. The speech highlighted the importance of evaluating the fourth war in light of the changes that have taken place throughout the long history of the Palestinian cause and their impact on the regional and international fronts. The repercussions of such changes can be seen through a tri-pronged approach: the reasons for the outbreak of the war; the stage on which the war took place; the day after, and the possible future variables.

Dr. Okasha underscored the centrality of Egypt’s role as a major actor on the ground, and the evolution of this role within the framework of Egypt’s strategic vision to place the Palestinian cause on the right track by putting the Palestinian house in order and reviving the peace process through promoting confidence in Egypt’s regional and international role.

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The seminar was moderated by Major General Mohamed Al-Dewery, Deputy General Manager of the ECSS. Introducing the seminar, Major General Al-Dewery referred to the quick response of Egypt’s political leadership to deal with all the dimensions of the situation rather than to focus on the battle on the ground. He noted that there are indications that portend a forthcoming change in the Palestinian cause, giving rise to new dynamics. But what is important, he said, is to take advantage of the current momentum in order to avoid the regression of the Palestinian cause.

The first part of the seminar explored the military situation during the war. In this context, Major General Dr. Mohamed Qashqoush, Advisory Board Member of the ECSS, pointed out that Palestinian factions proved to possess qualitative capabilities. However, Gaza paid a hefty price due to the massive damage to its infrastructure. He added that Iran remains the pivotal player in building up the military capability of the Palestinian factions. Conversely, Israel was left at an impasse and will definitely take into account the military results of this war, particularly with regard to developing its defense capabilities, given the considerable controversy over the effectiveness of the Iron Dome against the torrent of missiles launched from Gaza, a situation that makes it unlikely that Israel will venture into a war on multiple fronts in the near future.

Relatedly, regarding the Israeli position, Ahmed Eleiba, head of the Armament Unit at the ECSS, highlighted two points. First, on the eve of the war, Israel was preparing to start the largest multi-front drills in its military history, which means the war on Gaza came at a time Israel was mobilizing its full military force and was, thus, supposed to be best prepared. However, the results revealed Israel’s erroneous assessment of the capabilities of the Palestinian factions seven years after the last escalation between them, which confirms Major General Qashqoush’s conclusion that Israel will not venture into a battle on multiple fronts, particularly after it had become evident that the capabilities of the Palestinian factions are not quantitatively or qualitatively less than those of Iran’s agents in Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq. Moreover, it has been 15 years since Israel last fought Hezbollah. 

Second, the Israeli performance during the war reflected leadership gaps manifested in the internal rift and the failure of the Civil Defense Department and vagueness of objectives which called into question Israel’s aim of the war: did it merely aim at sapping the capabilities of the Palestinian factions? Were there any other objectives, particularly since Benjamin Netanyahu put forward a foggy objective, namely “protecting Israel’s citizens”, which hadn’t materialized as has been reflected in the outcome of the day after where Israel was cornered to end the war?

Shadi Mohsen, a researcher with the ECSS, reviewed the Israeli think tanks’ strategic estimates of the war and pointed out that there were three prevailing trends. The first pertained to the assessment of the Israeli military operational performance, which was utterly disparate between achievement and failure. There was a state of uncertainty among think tanks as to whether the Israeli army achieved victory or was defeated, raising questions such as, “Did Israel achieve its objectives from the war? And how effective is the Iron Dome’s system?” Some suggested that failure necessitates the completion of the military operation and that the Iron Dome has fallen short. 

The second trend pertained to assessing the political and military implications of the war and these assessments were negative in general, contrary to the positive picture of Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories. Finally, the third trend focused at the military level where experts were of the view that the deferent system hadn’t achieved its goals, necessitating a re-assessment of the Iron Dome in the event that it continued in operation or a replenishment of it, or seeking alternatives. 

Shadi pointed out that several qualitative indicators have been seen in this respect, including the permeability of fronts (loss of control), fissures in the home front, and protests by Israeli Arabs, which hadn’t been envisaged by the government that has always believed that going into war requires cohesion and unity on the home front, which was seen as an abject failure.

As such, a number of alternatives have been provided, including strengthening Israel’s civil defense capabilities, forming popular units to secure the interior regions, establishing greater security coordination with the Palestinian Authority, and reviewing the mobilization and operational capabilities of the Israeli army.

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In the second part of the seminar, Ambassador Said Abu Ali, Assistant Secretary-General and head of the Occupied Palestinian territories Sector at the Arab League, addressed the Palestinian situation, pointing out that betting on the deterioration in the status and centrality of the Palestinian cause proved to be wrong, a fact that could be easily concluded by rereading history. Ambassador Abu Ali touched upon the unprecedented Israeli violations, the wave of violence, and arrogance against the Palestinians, particularly Israeli Arabs, starting from Israel’s Jewish nation state law, settlements, Jerusalem, Sheikh Jarrah, and ethnic cleansing. Evacuating residents of Sheikh Jarrah has been cause for contention for 30 years; so, raising it today again and insisting on evacuating its people was no accident.

Israel’s practices extended beyond one-sided arrangement of Israeli projects and plans to appropriation of the Palestinians’ property and deliberately taking measures that provoke them, [the Palestinians] including restricting them from praying at Al-Aqsa Mosque, noting that Netanyahu launched this war out of pure personal interest hoping that it would bring him back to the tense political scene.

Ambassador Abu Ali added that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has been reeling under financial and political blockade for over a year. The blockade is still in place especially the political one, which is intermingled with break or semi-break with the Israeli government. The comprehensive siege on Gaza is still in place as well. He pointed out that this war had brought an end to the political siege/ embargo against the Palestinian Authority. Ambassador Abu Ali concluded by saying that we are in need of reconstruction/ rebuilding, but there is a greater need for a real peace process. This requires ending division and achieving national reconciliation. He also indicated that the restored Egyptian role, supported by Arab countries and global actors, enjoys acceptability and credibility for the Palestinians underscoring that Egypt’s role has been central to the Palestinian cause and Egypt has never let Gaza or Palestine down. 

Regarding the Israeli political position, Egypt’s former ambassador to Israel, Hazem Khairat, agreed that Netanyahu was seeking personal glory. Ambassador Khairat addressed the position of the 1948 Palestinians, noting that their uprising was a remarkable moment that reiterated their loyalty to the Palestinian cause. He reviewed many positions from the standpoint of practical experience and also touched on the situation in Jerusalem, noting that what happened in Sheikh Jarrah wasn’t but an Israeli arrogance. The Arab neighborhoods are rich in history and the Palestinian families have been well-established in the area; so, Israel’s attempt to change this situation would have naturally provoked an uprising at any time. As for the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, the Israeli government already imposes exorbitant taxes on its residents, as a means of putting pressure on them, which means that the issue is likely to be brought to the surface again.

At the domestic level, Dr. Sobhy Essaila, an expert at the ECSS, reviewed indicators of the war and compared them with indicators of the 2014 war, noting that examining earlier indications, it was found that every fear, whether real or contrived, causes the Israeli public opinion to move to the right. Israel’s Gordian knot of fear is highly exaggerated, a fact that Netanyahu is well-aware of and knows how turn into an advantage. 

On the Palestinian side, the post-war situation may relatively contribute to strengthening the position of Hamas, although the latest opinion poll in which participants were asked to name the party or faction it nominates to lead the next PA government, 38 percent of participants nominated Fatah while 22 percent nominated Hamas, which confirms Fatah movement isn’t really struggling. 

As for the Palestinians’ views on the way to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the majority of Palestinians still support settlement of the conflict by peaceful means, whereas armed action comes second by a considerable margin. As for the two-state solution, it still gains greater acceptance from both the Israelis and Palestinians, although showing increasing disapproval lately.

The third part of the symposium dealt with stances of international actors on the fourth Gaza war. Dr. Mohamed Kamal, Advisory Board Member of the ECSS, discussed the American position during the war which could be best described in a popular saying: “If you want to stay away from the Middle East, the Middle East will not stay away from you.” 

The Biden administration came to office with clear and specific priorities, namely internal issues (Covid-19 and the US economy), and foreign files (China, Russia, and Iran). Thus, the Palestinian cause was not a priority for Biden’s administration. However, it happened that the US administration received warnings of further escalation following Sheikh Jarrah incidents, all of which fell on deaf ears. The US was taken aback by the development of events which probably explains the late response. The incidents had also caught the attention of the US public which might have also motivated intervention. What happened in Palestine didn’t stay there. It has made its way to the US media and public opinion. 

Moreover, Democratic administrations tend to be disproportionately affected by the media than the Republicans particularly with liberal media channels supporting them, including the Washington Post and The New York Times, both of which provided a sufficiently balanced coverage and highlighted the state of destruction and the humanitarian impact of the war. Additionally, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (a group of young people who, despite few in Congress, has a popular base that contributed to Biden’s success) and the US international allies placing pressures to push the United States to take action might have moved the US to action. 

Dr. Kamal concluded that the US has taken a greater interest in the conflict than before the crisis, with a focus on the humanitarian dimension and rebuilding. Washington’s position toward any unilateral Israeli action regarding Jerusalem or the settlements might change.

Mr. Ezzat Ibrahim, an expert with the ECSS, touched upon the shifts in the US position. In the beginning, the Biden administration showed support for Israel; however, with the increased clashes between Palestinians and Israelis, the US started to show less solidarity with Israel. 

While the US-Israel alliance is projected to remain intact in the short run, estimates indicate that problems are bubbling away under the surface. For a number of reasons, the US- Israel relations aren’t the same as before: several congressional caucuses, including the Progressive Caucus led by Bernie Sanders which is very active in the Congress, make a long-term interruption in the US-Israel relations more probable. 

Signs of fracture in this alliance have been evident in the Democratic Center’s – which has strong ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – proposal to block arms sale to Israel. This growing rift started following Netanyahu’s address to the Congress on Iran during Obama’s presidency. Upon his return to Israel, Netanyahu declared that the two-state solution no longer exists, which provoked more right-wing division among Republicans and less solidarity with Israel from the left-wing Democrats, seeing that Israel does not want a two-state solution and is impeding the peace process. Israel’s stance has increasingly pushed it towards the right away from the center, the left, and the Jewish elite.

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On the international level, Dr. Tewfick Aclimandos, Chief of the European Studies Unit at the ECSS, shed light on the European positions on the recent Gaza war, pointing out that they were largely divergent governed by two main drives: perceptions of the ruling elite; and overlap of interests between Israel and Arab countries. However, there exists a common ground that gives rise to the idea that European countries’ stance on the Palestinian cause has become more of an internal policy rather than a foreign policy. This can be attributed to several reasons including the increase in the number of Muslim citizens and residents in those countries, their involvement in the political life, and the left’s realization of the Israeli racism.

Dr. Aclimandos also reviewed a number of prominent European positions on the Gaza war, including the German position, noting that, except for the Green Party, the political elite in Germany, inter alia leaders of Germany’s far-right party “Alternative for Germany”, are sympathetic to Israel. In terms of action, the Germans will continue to announce their support for Israel, but will, conditions permitting, provide strong financial support for reconstruction of Gaza and will support the Palestinian Authority as well. 

Regarding the French position, Dr. Aclimandos indicated that France doesn’t hold many cards when it comes to the Palestinian cause, but it can place considerable political pressure towards a two-state solution. The same is true of the United Kingdom, albeit with varying degrees of influence. One fundamental difference is that Boris Johnson is a friend of Israel. However, on the formal level, he continues to push for the two-state solution, confirm the need to reduce tensions, and the need for Hamas to stop threatening civilians and for Israel to avoid targeting civilians. Italy, on the other hand, tries to show it takes a middle path, yet there is sympathy with Israel notwithstanding the left-wing support for Palestine. 

As for the Russian stance, Dr. Aclimandos described it as being “ambiguous”. President Vladimir Putin is far from being considered anti-Semitic and a significant proportion of his allied business-class are Jews. Moreover, Russia and Israel have common direct interests over Syria as they both seek reducing the Iranian nuclear threat and undermining the Iranian influence in Syria.     

Dr. Abdel-Moneim Said, head of the Advisory Board at the ECSS, spoke about the international stances on the Egyptian role, pointing out that, for several reasons, Egypt is pivotal in this equation. Egypt is in the process of building its own version of the state. This phase, which is projected to extend till the end of this decade, is so critical for Egypt and achieving regional stability help safeguard the building process and hence this issue shouldn’t be overlooked. The security doctrine of Egypt, stated Dr. Said, is founded on the belief that the internal building process shouldn’t be hindered by whatever reason. Coming to the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Dr. Said indicated that the two-state solution is on the table, but there is also much talk about a one-state reality, i.e. interdependence between the Palestinians and Israelis turning into a political reality, and in such a case obtaining full equality would be the issue, a key demand of the Arab Israelis. Another option, Dr. Said noted, is to establish an international position along the lines of the Madrid Conference. Between the two-state solution and the one-state solution, there is the confederation alternative that establishes two independent states sharing economic and security interests where Jerusalem will be kept open to both communities. Finally, Dr. Said concluded that the “regional solution” is on the table as well, noting that if the cause is meant to be resolved at any point in time, the unified regional endeavor will be the only path to that.

The fourth and final part of the symposium dealt with the regional situation, where Dr. Mohamed Megahed Al-Zayat, Advisory Board Member at ECSS, addressed the Iranian presence in the latest round of fighting between Israel and Palestine, noting that there were signs that were meant to indicate Iran was actively present there, chief among them were the communications between Commander of the Quds Force and military leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad Movement. 

According to Iranian sources, Iran insisted that statements be issued from Palestine declaring maintaining contact with the Commander of the Quds Force and the latter’s confirmation of willingness of his country to provide military support, sending the message that Iran has been around since the start of the crisis. The Iranian position was shaped at the Quds Force commander’s behest, conveying the message that he was there capable of pushing a new military-political force in the region, similar to the model of Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran also wanted to convey a message to Israel that it [Israel] is battling on only one front and it [Iran] is capable of sparking escalation on multiple fronts, i.e. Syria and Lebanon, particularly its influence in Syria hasn’t been undermined. Iran is well aware that its controversial regional influence will be on the table in Vienna and seeks reinforcing its position before going to the negotiation table to get the price that is worth pressing for. Moreover, Iran wanted to say that the technological advancement in Iran is at its peak with a potential for more advancement.  

Turning to the Turkish position, Dr. Al-Zayat noted that Turkey’s position is typical of Erdogan’s political engagement on regional crises: he makes calls to leaders in the region stating that he is mobilizing the international community to address the Israeli violence and levels accusations at Israel as is always the case, without going beyond that. Indeed, Erdogan was capitalizing on a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement which Israel is reluctant to substantially respond to given Turkey’s ties to Hamas. So, overall Turkey’s movement doesn’t affect the regions’ strategy. It is worth noting that the Turkish stance was much motivated by internal considerations pertaining to Erdogan’s declining popularity and his concerns over the upcoming elections; so, the Turkish position on the conflict came to draw the attention of the Turkish public and the parties to an external issue for doing away with the corruption issues. Conversely, Qatar maintained close contact with Egypt from beginning of the crisis till the ceasefire was reached. On its part, Israel refused Qatar’s continued provision of material assistance to the Gaza Strip through Hamas. The Abraham Accords weren’t any game changer in the events and can’t be wagered on in subsequent arrangements.

Concluding the seminar, Major General Al-Dewery said that the great momentum around the Egyptian role entails building on it especially as Egypt is qualified to lead the efforts at the current stage, pushing the Palestinian cause forward within the framework of the two-state solution. 

It is pivotal to get the parties to the negotiation table and resume talks, particularly given the failure of Deal of the Century. 

In closing, Dr. Okasha stated that the most significant change that had taken place as a result of this round of escalation was the Palestinian cause restoring momentum as a central issue at the Arab world level and it has been also placed top of the international community’s priority list. Today, it can be safely said that efforts of the Palestinians were not in vain after the failed Deal of the Century, which leads us to move forward so that the next chapter is in favor of the Palestinian cause.

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