A grave setback: Flaring of violence between Israel and Palestine may undo hard-won gains made in the region towards easing conflict
The ongoing violence between Israeli forces and Hamas — the worst fighting since 2014 — comes at a time when there seemed to be hope for a genuine easing of tensions in West Asia. This was thanks in no small part to the softening of the hard stance vis a vis diplomatic ties with Israel by several Islamic regimes in the region. The violence is a grave setback. Within Israel and Palestine, it could embolden the maximalist, anti-peace voices. In the region, it is likely to make it harder for those trying to normalise ties with Israel.
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The immediate provocation for the current conflict appears to have been the action taken by Israeli police and security forces to prevent Palestinians from gathering at the Damascus gate in Jerusalem after Ramzan prayers — a long-standing tradition — in which hundreds of civilians were injured. The action allowed Hamas to don the mantle of “protector” and the bombs they launched initially killed three Israeli citizens. The Benjamin Netanyahu government’s response was disproportionate: It has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Gaza and reportedly deployed artillery and troops as well. Over 100 Palestinians have been killed, at least 27 of them children. Both Hamas and Israel are attempting to use airstrikes and bombs against each other. Residential areas are bearing the brunt of Israeli attacks and there are reports of rioting.
While there are no winners in war, there are certainly some who benefit from it. Netanyahu continues to expand the offensive against Hamas, which on the ground means more Palestinian civilian deaths. He does so at a time when his government — which has been in a minority in the legislature — is teetering on the brink of collapse. Hamas, too, finds relevance in conflict, in stoking the flames of resentment that are bound to be just under the surface in places like Gaza, where an entire generation has lived through blockades and occupation. The fundamental question of semi-legal settlements, of the differential rights enjoyed by Palestinians and Israelis, and violence as a means of political expression, remain unaddressed. The international community cannot afford to take its eyes off the tinderbox that is West Asia. How the current conflict affects the promise of the overtures by Bahrain and the UAE towards Israel remains to be seen. India, for its part, has thus far managed to balance its historical commitment to the rights of Palestinians with its growing closeness to Israel. Delhi must continue to tread a fine line, without compromising either on its national and strategic interests, or its core humanitarian values.