Violence has erupted again in the Middle East during one of the holiest times of the year for both Jews and Muslims.
In recent days, militants in southern Lebanon have fired a large number of rockets at Israel in response to a Israeli police raid on the grounds of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
Israel blamed the Hamas terror group for the attacks and retaliated by launching airstrikes against Palestinian militias in Lebanon. most alarming cross-border violence in 17 years — as well as in the Hamas-led Gaza Strip.
A rare missile strike came from Syria, sparking another round of Israeli airstrikes on targets there. Subsequently, skirmishes also broke out in the West Bank thousands of Israelisaccompanied by seven cabinet ministers, marched on an evacuated settlement there and demanded that it be legalized.
The motives behind such provocations are anger, fear, vindictiveness and frustration. These emotions are driven on the one hand by the horror of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and anger at Palestinian terrorist attacks or rampant desire for Jewish hegemony on the other.
Extreme interpretations of nationalism or religiosity – and often a combination of both – tend to exacerbate these feelings.
These bouts of violence should be seen as provocations, as there is no military solution to the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Deterrence is what the two main actors, Israel and Hamas, seek. Maintaining, achieving or increasing deterrence is key in both sides’ calculations of how to respond when violence breaks out.
Sandwiched between provocation, retaliation and deterrence, each side estimates how far they can stretch the line before they can deal with a costly response from the other.
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A multitude of calculations
For Hamas, the most important calculation is how the attacks on Israel can escalate, while Gaza is still preserved from the violence. The goal is to direct the fight against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories to the West Bank, Jerusalem and Israel itself.
Israel recognizes this and is trying to redirect its military responses back to Gaza, once it can link the provocation to Hamas.
Hezbollah, the militant group in Lebanon that growing partnership with Hamas, has a different set of calculations.
These include his long-standing feud with Israel, a desire to settle old scores (including past assassinations of Hezbollah leaders), religious passions (for example, sensibilities regarding the Al-Aqsa Mosque), and guidelines from Iran.
However, Hezbollah is constrained by Israeli military responses and by the need to reconcile its allegiance to Iran with its accountability to the Lebanese people. Many Lebanese already accuse Hezbollah of prioritizing Iranian interests over their own. To be held responsible for a costly Israeli retaliation against Lebanese territories would be problematic for the organization.
Israel, in turn, also fears a new war with Hezbollah would be extremely expensive. The organization has a huge arsenal of missiles (estimated at more than 100,000), including high-value and long-range weapons, which it could fire at Israel at will.
The famous Israeli Iron dome air defense system could not withstand the power and sheer number of these weapons.
Israel’s greatest fear, however, is one simultaneous escalation on multiple frontswith Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza to the south, an Intifada-style insurgency in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to the west, and Hezbollah in Lebanon to the north.
A fourth front could open up in Israeli cities between Israel’s Palestinians, Jews and security forces. And there is always the possibility of a fifth front being fought against Iranian forces stationed in Syria.
Israel’s preferred approach to these multiple threats would be try to isolate the different actors by limiting his retaliatory actions to a single provocation at a time. However, this would not be easy.
Why both sides have so far avoided escalation
As we have seen recently, tensions between the different sides usually arise or are caused by provocations by petty actors – Jewish settlers in the West Bank, Jewish nationalists in Israel and Palestinian militants in the occupied territories, in Israel or in the South of Israel. Lebanon.
In the past, retaliation for such provocations by Israel, Hamas and other groups was more often than not measured. That is, they were intended to project power and internal determination to avoid being seen as weak by one’s own people. But a measured response also signals a desire to avoid escalation on the other side.
The targets hit in recent outbursts of violence illustrate this. On the side of Hamas, limiting rocket firing to Jewish towns in southern Israel, as opposed to more central cities, expressed a desire to avoid a major escalation. On Israel’s side, targeting low-level Palestinian targets as opposed to primary command posts or key leaders could mean the same thing.
However, it is unclear how the new hardline Israeli government will respond to the evolving violence.
At the moment, Israel seems to prefer to avoid escalation. The latest polls show that the new ruling coalition is taking a nosedive in popularity and failed to win a majority of seats in parliament if there were elections today. This could explain why the more outspoken nationalists seem to be giving way, at least temporarily, to more cautious voices in government.
However, a significant provocation at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, or a significant terrorist attack against Jews, can both change this mindset.
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Where to from here?
The international community plays a crucial role in forcing or encouraging the various parties to make painful but necessary concessions on the (very) long road to peace.
One could appreciate the value of the de-escalation strategies currently in use. However, if the main objective is to maintain deterrence, a more honest dialogue within and between the camps about the risks of violent provocations might offer better solutions.
In the endless tit-for-tat violent cycle, there are no winners, only losers.