Stagnation, Strategy, and Optimism: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict as we enter 2013


In November 2012 the world witnessed two major events in the timeline of the now decades long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. First, a week of escalated fire ensued as the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) pursued Operation Pillar of Defense in response to increased rocket attacks from the terrorist organization Hamas in Gaza. Second, the United Nations General Assembly voted to recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state in the UN. These two events must mean something significant for the future of the conflict as we enter 2013. Or do they?

The Jewish-Arab conflict, which has evolved from 1948 into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is one of the most complex puzzles facing the Middle East today. (muslimwriters)
The Jewish-Arab conflict, which has evolved since 1948 into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is one of the most complex puzzles facing the Middle East today. (muslimwriters)

Pillar of Defense: same cycle, few lessons learned

Unfortunately, rocket fire between Israel and Hamas is far from a novel occurrence. When Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the territory was controlled by the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority until the Hamas takeover of the strip in mid 2007. Since then, the unfortunate citizens of both Gaza and southern Israel have suffered through on-and-off exchange of rocket fire.

The largest outburst in this Israel-Hamas conflict occurred in late 2008-early 2009 when Hamas escalated rocket attacks at Southern Israel, and in response the IDF launched Operation Cast Lead. This conflict lasted about three weeks and included an Israeli ground offensive in Gaza, ending when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared a unilateral cease-fire, to which Hamas militants responded that they would stop fire as well.

On Wednesday, November 14 the IDF officially launched Operation Pillar of Defense in response to renewed escalation of Hamas rocket fire. In many ways this week-long intensified conflict resembled the usual cycle: Hamas escalated fire at civilians in southern in order to ‘send a message to the occupation’; the Israeli government at a point decided that enough is enough and the IDF must retaliate; the Israeli military launched an operation targeting military facilities in Gaza and Hamas military and political leaders; eventually Hamas was sufficiently subdued and a cease-fire resulted.

In some important ways Pillar of Defense was different from Cast Lead. While the IDF for its entire history has prided itself on doing its upmost to avoid civilian casualties, in this most recent operation it even more carefully utilized new weapons technology to further minimize Palestinian casualties that unfortunately cannot always be avoided when Hamas purposefully positions military targets amongst schools, workplaces, and mosques. The Israeli government learned from the harsh international criticism it faced during and after Cast Lead, and exercised even greater caution. Additionally, Israel did not engage in a ground invasion of Gaza this time, despite Hamas’ firing rockets even farther into Israel, to the point where warning sirens went off in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Nevertheless, the IDF’s refraining from sending ground troops into Gaza dramatically reduced both the intensification of the conflict and casualties on both sides. Another important difference was that this late 2012 Israel-Hamas conflict ended in a cease-fire brokered by Egypt and the United States. Particularly notable is the precedent being set of Egyptian brokerage between Israel and Hamas. Post-revolution Egypt is controlled by the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Islamic organization that is also the root for Hamas. While Egypt has natural sympathy towards Hamas, it also has an interest in maintaining peace and good economic relations with Israel, which therefore makes it potentially a productive agent in the future of this conflict.

Smoke billowing from an explosion over Gaza during the most recent outbreak between Hamas and the IDF. (ForeignPolicy)
Smoke billowing from an explosion over Gaza during the most recent outbreak between Hamas and the IDF. (ForeignPolicy)

Nevertheless, Pillar of Defense revealed how both sides have not altered their fundamental strategies, which unfortunately means that such a cycle of violence around the Gaza strip may not end in the near future. For its part, Hamas has not learned that firing rockets and terrorizing Israeli citizens will not make Israelis leave their homes and turn over the country to the Palestinians (Hamas as an organization calls for an end to the occupation referring to the entire state of Israel, not just the territories captured post-1967). At the same time, Israel has not learned, or at least has not altered its actions to reflect the knowledge, that Hamas as a movement is formed around a doctrine and does not revolve around one or even several iconic leaders, as, for example, PA President Mahmoud Abbas is the face of Fatah. Therefore Hamas’ ideology and policies will continue even if top political or military leaders are killed by Israeli targeted strikes. Moreover, Israel faces the common problem that killing Hamas leaders provides the new leaders with ammunition to unite the people and silence criticism.

Thus, it can be seen that recent developments in the Gaza conflict have not represented a particular historic shift that will alter the current situation. Moreover, Pillar of Defense caused a much smaller ripple in the international media than did Cast Lead. This signals that perhaps such brief escalations can occur in cycles from year to year with increasingly little rustle of world news. Unfortunately, no particular end is in sight.

Palestinian UN Recognition: a timely acknowledgement of the status quo

On Thursday, November 29, the UN General Assembly voted with 138 countries in favor, 9 against, and 41 abstaining, to accept Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ request for recognition of the State of Palestine within the 1967 borders (i.e., the territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). Palestine was given the recognition of a non-member state with observer status in the UN. Such a vote certainly came as a triumph as well as a relief for Abbas, who had been endeavoring for this recognition at the UN for over a year and who has been facing increasing pressure from other Palestinian leaders and criticism for his inability to make political accomplishments for the Palestinian people. Particularly in the wake of Hamas’ claiming (some measure of) victory against Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense, it was crucial that Fatah also had an accomplishment to present to the Palestinian people.

Israel, the U.S., and other Western countries denounced the move that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton explained was “unfortunate and counterproductive.” These countries have long insisted that only through direct negotiations can a peaceful two-state solution deal between the Israelis and Palestinians be achieved.  Israeli Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor even went as far as saying that those who voted to recognize Palestine are in fact undermining the peace process.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asking the UN General Assembly to recognize the State of Palestine. (cfr)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asking the UN General Assembly to recognize the State of Palestine. (cfr)

But both sides should perhaps recognize that this vote at the UN is not a momentous historical occurrence but rather a well-timed recognition of what basically is the status quo. It is true that both the West Bank and certainly Gaza by and large fail to possess the internal institutions, set legal and political systems, and monopoly of military force that are crucial characteristics of a state. Nevertheless, these two Palestinian territories are moving towards state development. Moreover, it is by this time generally acknowledged that a two state solution will ultimately be agreed upon, and the State of Palestine that results will consist generally of the territories of the West Bank and Gaza, with some specific land swaps with Israel. Thus, is it truly such a long shot to grant Palestine this pseudo-state recognition in the United Nations? (It will join the Holy See, or the territory of the Vatican City, with this status.) Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commented that the GA’s move “will not change anything on the ground.”

Furthermore, granting Palestine UN non-member state observer status may be a positive development not only for Fatah and the Palestinians but also for Israel. Palestine’s recognition is a victory for Fatah at the crucial time when Hamas is claiming that its militant terrorist approach to ‘resisting the occupation’ is proving more fruitful than Fatah’s more political strategy. While Israel believes the UN move to be underhanded and unproductive, it is in Israel’s interest for the more moderate Fatah to gain ground relative to Hamas. Additionally, for the majority of Israelis who are in favor of a two-state solution and acknowledge that the West Bank and Gaza will be the primary territories of the Palestinian state, there is perhaps some virtue in external recognition of this fact. Additionally, perhaps recognition of a state will support accelerated state-building in these territories.

Well then, will anything change in 2013?

Although the developments in the end of 2012 perhaps do not in themselves mean much for the progression or potential resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, shifts in the current situation may still be on the horizon. On January 22, 2013 Israel will be holding Parliamentary elections. The November conflict with Gaza as well as the recognition of Palestine in the UN will color the foreign policy debate among the Israeli political parties. Indeed in the major contention between the right-wing Likud-Beiteinu alliance and a potential Center-Left bloc, the election results and ensuing foreign policy objectives and decisions will determine what happens in the arena Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the coming year.

Danielle Bella Ellison ’15 is in Davenport College. As a Globalist Notebook blogger, Danielle covers Middle East events and politics. Contact her at