The UN warns of full-scale war if the ongoing violence between Israel and Hamas continues to escalate. Hundreds, many of them children, have been killed in the attacks on Gaza and about ten Israelis have died as a result of Hamas rockets. Hundreds of people have been injured.
Lisa Strömbom believes that the international community must now live up to its name and exert real pressure to get the parties to the negotiating table in order to put an end to civil suffering on both sides as soon as possible.
- Israel violates international law when it invades Gaza as an occupying power. Hamas, in turn, is now winning propaganda victories among its people and showing strength against arch-enemy Israel by proving to be militarily stronger than before, and Hamas rockets are moving further into Israel, creating more devastation than ever before. External pressure is currently necessary for the leadership on both sides to back down, which is needed for a de-escalation of the current situation that creates enormous suffering for civilians on both sides.
What is the reason for the escalation of violence between Israel and, above all, Hamas - why is it happening now?
- We see that separate developments during the spring are becoming interlinked. On the one hand, we have the creeping development where Israel is pushing to create space for micro-settlements in East Jerusalem through legislation, including in the Palestinian district of Sheikh Jarrah. The issue of settlements in Jerusalem has been a powder keg for many years but has now escalated as Jewish settler groups have the right in court to reclaim the land owned by Jews in the area before the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. This is seen as deeply unfair by many Palestinians as many of the Palestinian families have lived there for many decades, especially since similar legislation is lacking for Palestinians. This has led to large-scale demonstrations and clashes between Israelis and Palestinians.
The second development has to do with events during the fasting month of Ramadan. Israel closed off the area around the Damascus Gate that leads to the al-Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount, thus limiting the opportunity for Muslims to pray. According to Israel, the shutdown took place due to the unrest in Sheik Jarrah. It created vast discontent among Palestinians because Ramadan is a very important religious holiday, and they feel that they are being ported from one of their holiest sites during the most important period of the year. This in turn has created even more discontent.
At this time of the year, groups of Israelis usually march to celebrate Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of when Israel took over West Jerusalem in 1967. Many young people from Jewish religious-nationalist groups have wanted to march in the eastern parts of the city and in the Muslim quarter of the Old City, which is seen as deeply humiliating for many Palestinians.
This development culminated in the storming of the al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli soldiers in connection with Jerusalem Day. As a result, many devout Muslims who were in the mosque were injured and chocked. This was the ultimate spark that led to Hamas starting to fire rockets at Israel, which in turn led Israel to start bombing Gaza and street violence has breaking out between Israelis and Palestinians inside Israel.
It seems like war is impending - how likely is it that we will see full-scale military actions from both sides?
- Neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas' formal leader, wants to show weakness, so both have declared that they will consider laying down their arms only if the other party does so first. This type of conflict thus has a self-escalating dynamic. The more losses you get, the more you tend to become offensive and violent. Both parties also play on the losses among their respective populations - to create support for their actions. The parties want to create security through military means, but the result is rather that everyone in the region becomes more insecure. And those who have to pay the highest price are the civilians on both sides.
However, what speaks against these events turning into a regular war, and something that is often forgotten in the debate, is that the conflict is a typical example of a so-called asymmetric conflict. Israel has more power resources, and military control over the West Bank, which is geographically divided into Areas A, B and C. The Palestinians have control over Area A while Israel can easily take control of Areas B and C through roadblocks. This back-binds the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and also reduces the risk of a third intifada, a popular uprising, in the West Bank.
And Hamas, which can act on the vast popular dissent by firing rockets, does not have the resources to carry out a ground offensive against Israel. Hamas is economically, weapons-wise and resource-wise much, much weaker than Israel, which also has the option of shutting off supplies to Gaza. As a result, larger numbers of Palestinians are suffering and dying in clashes between the two parties in this eruption of violence as well as in previous ones.
Can the UN or the EU do anything to create calm in the area?
- The UN Security Council has had meetings almost every day, but we know that the Security Council has historically been, and is, very divided regarding the conflict. Often states use that vetoes to block decisive action. The EU, in turn, has done a great deal in terms of aid to Palestinian state-building and humanitarian aid, but does not have much power to really put pressure on the parties. It has been criticised for being "a payer, not a player" in relation to the conflict.
What is worrying is that where we have previously seen a strong commitment to dialogue, where countries such as the US have used rather tough means periodically to get the parties to the negotiating table, and at least negotiate a ceasefire, we now see a declining political will to put pressure on the parties in the international community.
Furthermore, we saw that the US under Trump supported a unilateral Israeli line, including the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem, rather than a two-state solution. This showed the split in the UN Security Council, of which Sweden was a temporary member in 2017-2018. At the time, several members, including Sweden, tried to push for pressure on Israel to comply with international law and push for a two-state solution, but also there the United States opposed new resolutions in that direction.
Now it remains to be seen if Biden chooses to act differently than Trump. Perhaps he could be the one to downed-escalate the current situation and help the Security Council put more pressure on both parties. Intensive mediation attempts are currently underway, with the United States, Egypt , Saudi Arabia and Qatar , among others, trying to force a ceasefire. If one is to look at previous patterns, it is likely that a temporary ceasefire will be negotiated within the upcoming days, so that a fragile calm can once again take over.
As long as Hamas has the military capacity left to intimidate and wreak havoc in southern and central Israel and Netanyahu wants to pursue the revenge against and further wreck Hamas’ future military capacity as promised, that readiness may not really be with the parties yet. It is also a known fact that US presidents rarely act forcefully in the Israel-Palestine conflict during their first term in power, as it often entails a high political price.
The unrest coincides with Human Rights Watch's release of a report accusing Israel of apartheid - could a negative international image force Israel to act differently?
- Of course, there is an element in international relations where you want to maintain an image of yourself as righteous - you justify your reasons for taking military action as a necessity. At the same time, there is a strong and historical distrust in Israel towards the international community where many believe that the community always accuses Israel.
The national conversation in Israel is more security-focused, and the course of events is seen in a different way. So, no, a negative image of Israel's actions in the outside world will probably not have a decisive effect on Netanyahu's actions. We do not know what will happen after the election - now Yair Lapid, Netanyahu's rival, has been commissioned to form a government.
Do you think that a peaceful transition to a two-state solution is possible?
- Without external pressure from the international community, I can see no way to a two-state solution in the current situation. Israel is indeed the stronger party, and the conflict is asymmetric, they have much more to lose - especially since many settlements are now on land that would go to Palestine in a two-state solution, so the question is why they would risk losing their upper hand by entering negotiations. Furthermore, the political landscape in Israel has become increasingly right-wing, as Netanyahu has over the years become dependent on right-wing nationalist parties to stay in power.
Without external pressure from the international community, I can see no way to a two-state solution.
Both sides also see the other party as an enemy. On social media, Palestinians see clips of hard-line soldiers committing violence, while Israelis in turn see Hamas and young violent men threatening the security of Israeli civilians. This confirms the feeling of threat on both sides. What one would need to do, which is difficult because the societies live so separately, is to put civilians in focus and see how the conflict causes enormous suffering for both Palestinians and Israelis.
(Written by Noomi Egan, and first published in Swedish on lu.se)