The recent flareup of violence between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza has all the disturbing qualities of a foretaste of more bitter things to come. Most troublingly, this latest round of attacks and counterattacks, which achieved nothing for either side, brings us ever closer to a possible third Palestinian intifada.
All evidence suggests that neither the mainstream Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, nor the Palestinian majority, has any interest in another uprising at the moment. But there is no political initiative presently offering any hope to the Palestinian people. Negotiations with Israel are in a semi-permanent deep-freeze, UN initiatives forestalled, and national unity talks also at an impasse.
Meanwhile, the financial crisis, particularly in the West Bank, which is largely the consequence of a decline in foreign aid, has undermined the extent to which Palestinians can at least have confidence that their living conditions are improving.
All progress, therefore, appears stymied, and this is an extremely dangerous and combustible equation. We are at a point where even though most people don't want one, even a small spark in the right time and place could ignite a significant explosion.
Most Palestinians were undoubtedly outraged by the heavy bombardment of the Gaza Strip by Israel, and especially at the civilian casualties. However, there was also little sympathy for Islamic Jihad. Widespread skepticism about the motives of the Palestinians involved in the fighting prevented this round of violence from catching the public mood of frustration and provoking more widespread unrest.
Few would have put it as bluntly, but many people agreed with the sentiments expressed by Tariq Alhomayed, editor of the influential London-based daily Asharq Al-Awsat, when he asked: "I challenge anybody from Hamas or any other Gaza organization to come out with a compelling answer about why 'tinplate' rockets were fired into Israel in the first place, and whose interests are served for the lives of the Palestinian people to be lost in this saddening manner?"
Alhomayed specifically linked the participation by Palestinian extremist groups in Gaza in the latest round of violence with efforts to distract from the uprising in Syria. Others would see an even more direct connection to Iranian interests. Having lost much if not all of their influence with Hamas due to regional realignments prompted by the Arab uprisings, Tehran has redirected its focus among Palestinians to Islamic Jihad.
Both Iran and Islamic Jihad have an obvious interest in challenging Hamas control in Gaza, and outbidding it on militancy towards Israel. In the recent past, Hamas has been strict in forbidding attacks on southern Israel, particularly by other groups. In this case, they were either unable or unwilling to do so.
One possible motivation for Hamas leaders in Gaza to turn a blind eye, at least for a time, to attacks against Israel by more extremist groups is the internal split within the organization pitting its external leaders who are trying to adapt to a new regional environment against a Gaza-based leadership that is reluctant to make any radical changes.
The latest round of violence reinforces the status quo between Israel and Gaza, re-inscribes Gaza as the hub of armed resistance against Israel, and reaffirms the importance to both countries of Egyptian-Israeli security cooperation. All accounts strongly suggest that security cooperation between Israel and the new Egyptian government, even, if not especially, during the recent violence, remained very strong.
All of this serves to undermine recent moves by Hamas Politburo leaders abroad to reorient the organization away from Iran and armed struggle and towards policies conducive to those of Gulf Arab states, particularly Qatar, and Arab Sunni Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Israeli motivations are also highly suspect. Israel claims it initiated the current round of violence by assassinating Zuhair Qaisi, a leader of the so-called “Popular Resistance Committees,” because he was in the final stages of planning “a major terrorist attack against Israel.” But the timing of the assassination, which would inevitably have provoked at least some upswing in violence, is highly suggestive. It came just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was returning, openly dissatisfied, from a trip in which he apparently tried to convince President Barack Obama another US officials of the need to attack Iran.
Israeli officials openly speak of viewing the recent round of violence as “a mini-drill” for a conflict with Iran, particularly regarding its new Iron Dome missile defense system. Iran, too, is open to suspicion of using its Palestinian proxies to test the effectiveness of this new Israeli weapons system.
The apparent cynicism of most of those involved in the latest round of violence and skepticism about their motivations was probably a key factor in explaining why it did not produce levels of outrage sufficient to spark a third popular uprising against Israeli occupation. However, the long-term impact on Palestinian sentiments, particularly regarding Palestinian civilian deaths, could be latent and insidious.
Once again Israel has reinforced, through violence, its role as the occupier, and reminded all Palestinians, no matter what they think of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and/or Iran, that they remain at the mercy of the Israeli military. This latest round of violence, even if it is contained to what has already happened for now (as it seems it will be), has certainly increased tensions across the board and added another layer of Palestinian grievance and frustration.
Another intifada probably won't be sparked by what happens in Gaza, or anything involving crude and cynical violence between Israel and Palestinian extremist groups. But the latest flareup has heaped more kindling on the tinderbox building in the West Bank, which now even the smallest flame, in the right time and place, could ignite at any time.