Gaza Conflict 2021 charts the causes, conflicts, and consequences of the May 10–21, 2021 war between Israel and Hamas, the de facto sovereign of the Gaza Strip. Its author, Jonathan Schanzer, is senior vice president at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute focusing on foreign policy and national security, as well as a veteran analyst of the Middle East.
Every interpretation of any major event in the eight-decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict is hotly contested, so it is unlikely that Schanzer’s interpretation will be the last word. I found it to be a reasonable, well-sourced analysis, which is why I recommend it to interested readers. It situates those “eleven days of war” in longer historical and broader regional contexts than daily news stories typically allow.
Several points stood out to me in particular:
First, as Chapter One’s title puts it, there is “No Single Spark” to the most recent war. Media often cited a tenancy dispute in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah as the cause, or a major cause, of the conflict. However, this is simplistic. The Sheikh Jarrah dispute was one factor among many. It was a rallying point for Palestinians, but not the sole cause of the dispute.
Second, the conflict cannot be limited to Israelis and Palestinians. Hamas exists because of the largesse of Iran, especially, which provides training, funds, materiel, and technical assistance to Hamas’ fighters. It also receives support from other Arab nations and Sunni regimes. On the Israeli side, of course, the U.S. provides significant military and financial aid.
In a sense, the Gaza conflict was a war between Israel and Iran, with Hamas serving as Iran’s proxy. Given that the Biden administration was actively trying to re-engage Iran through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—an action Israel vigorously opposed—it would be inaccurate to say that Israel was America’s proxy, despite the significant aid the former received from the latter.
Third, the conflict must be interpreted in terms of intra-Palestinian and intra-Middle Eastern struggles, too, not just as a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. In the 1990s, the U.S., Israel, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) entered into an agreement to begin the process of forming a two-state solution to the conflict. The PA’s authority extended over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Within years of Yasir Arafat’s death, however, the Palestinian territories became politically divided between a PA-controlled West Bank and a Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The PA is formally, if coolly, committed to the two-state solution and security cooperation with Israel. Hamas, however is explicitly committed to the destruction of the Jewish state. Hamas control of both the West Bank and Gaza Strip would end both the PA’s rule and the roadmap to the two-state solution.
It’s obvious that Israel doesn’t want Hamas in charge of the territories. It’s also true that the PA doesn’t want that end either, nor do moderate Arab nations, such as Egypt, for whom Hamas’ politics represent a threat to their own politics.
Moreover, while Arab nations have traditionally been Palestinian defenders and are still quite vocal critics of Israel, those majority Sunni Muslim Arabs view see Iran’s majority Shia Muslim Persians as a threat in the region. This explains why Arab critics of Israel during the Gaza conflict were muted and why one could even hear them voice a contrary word about Iran-backed Hamas.
Fourth, there’s an old journalism adage that says, “If it bleeds, it leads.” That explains why casualties and property destruction led the news each night during the conflict. Given Israel’s technological superiority—both defensively and offensively—far fewer Israelis than Gazans died, and far more damage was done to Gazan buildings than Israeli ones. Schanzer makes a persuasive case that this happens because Hamas houses its offices, stores its weapons, and builds tunnels under civilian areas. Any discussion of Israeli “war crimes” in such a context must also recognize that intentionally using civilians as “human shields” also is a war crime.
The upshot of these points—and others that Schanzer makes—is that interpreting Hamas’ conflict with Israel in David-Goliath terms is too simple. Yes, Israel is the technologically superior Goliath compared to Hamas. But Hamas is a proxy for Iran, which is technologically advanced and is funding both Hamas on Israel’s southern border and Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border. Given that reality, who’s David, and who’s Goliath?
Schanzer argues that 2021 conflict was a tactical victory for Israel, though a strategic one for Hamas. With each major conflict, Hamas has improved and extended the scale of its capabilities. The scariest words in the entire book are the final two sentences of the Introduction: “The 2021 conflict was the fourth Gaza war. There will be a fifth.”
Jonathan Schanzer, Gaza Conflict 2021: Hamas, Israel and Eleven Days of War (Washington DC: Foundation for Defense of Democracies Press, 2021).
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