Col (ret.) Eli Bar-On, served for 25 years at the Israel Defense Forces. His latest two positions were Deputy Military Advocate General and an Instructor at the Israel National Defense College. And Lt. Col (ret.) Tomer Barak, served for 21 years at the Israel Defense Forces in several senior strategic research and analysis and strategic planning positions. Senior analyst in the research of the Middle East, as well as the international arena’s involvement in the region.
There’s nothing new about the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas. The terror group that has been ruling Gaza ever since 2007 has confronted Israel in at least three major confrontations in: 2008, 2012, and 2014.
In May 2021, another intense violent clash erupted between Israel and Hamas. But this latest escalation was different, because this time at least three different flashpoints were uniquely converged into one mega-clash: violent clashes with a religious coloring, focused on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (Al Haram al-Sharif) between Palestinian worshippers and Israeli police forces; violent riots between Arab and Jewish mobs inside Israel; and an intense military clash between terrorist organizations in Gaza—Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ)—and Israel.
As the dust settles, it is worth trying to assess what influence these events will have on the evolution of terrorism and radicalization around the region, and how the key regional actors perceive them.
The Early Phase
The turbulence began in Jerusalem around the beginning of the month of Ramadan. An uptick in violent incidents during Ramadan is not unusual, but this year’s incidents were especially extreme. These incidents revolved around several loci and contexts.
Palestinians protested in East Jerusalem over the anticipated eviction of a few Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, following decades-long legal proceedings in Israeli courts. The courts recognized the property rights of the Jewish landowners but also ruled that the Palestinian families will enjoy the rights of protected tenants in their homes as long as they pay their rents. The families refused to pay and were thus facing eviction—and protests against the imminent eviction ensued.
At the same time, young Palestinians were posting videos of themselves beating orthodox Jewish men. These videos went viral and the phenomenon was even branded in Israeli media as “the TikTok terror”. A decision made by the Israeli Police to put barriers around the Damascus Gate at Jerusalem’s Old City, a place of assembly for Palestinians during Ramadan, also led to violent protests that have not abated even after the barriers were removed. The beating by Arabs of a Rabbi in Jaffa, Tel Aviv, resulted in the spillover of protests to Central Israel.
The most fierce and sustained riots, however, occurred on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (Al Haram al-Sharif), where thousands of Palestinians clashed with Israeli policemen, hurling stones and Molotov cocktails at them. The Police, in an attempt to restore order in the compound, stormed the place using riot control measures and even stun grenades. The riots went on for a few days and inflamed Arab and Muslim crowds around the region.
On Israel’s Jerusalem Day, May 10, the Hamas authorities in Gaza published an ultimatum to Israel to withdraw its police forces from the Temple Mount and from Sheikh Jarrah by 6 pm. Failing to comply with the ultimatum, Hamas said, would result in an attack on Israel. Shortly after the deadline passed, Hamas launched a barrage of rockets towards Israel, first towards Jerusalem and then to other areas. Israel retaliated with heavy strikes against Hamas and PIJ military assets in Gaza. At this point, there was no way to avoid the escalation. The hostilities lasted for eleven days.
During this campaign, Hamas and PIJ militants launched more than 4,300 rockets to cities and villages in Southern and Central Israel. Hamas also tried to launch explosive UAV attacks against civilian targets and a maritime operation to damage an Israeli gas rig in the Mediterranean. Most of these rockets and UAVs were intercepted by Israel’s effective Iron Dome missile defense system or fell in open areas. Hundreds of them fell short inside the Gaza Strip and caused the death of numerous Palestinians, including children. Yet, dozens of rockets successfully hit their civilian targets in Israel, causing 12 deaths, hundreds of injuries, and significant damages to property. In response, Israel attacked hundreds of military targets of Hamas and PIJ, located in dense civilian surrounding in Gaza, causing immense damage, the death of approximately 250 Palestinians, and the injury of almost 2,000. After 11 days of fighting, a cease-fire between the parties was brokered by Egypt.
Hamas’s attack on Israel caught Israel by surprise. Although a calculated escalation in Gaza was not perceived as an impossible scenario in Israel, the Hamas ultimatum and intense rocket attack that followed were significantly above the level of escalation that Israel believed Hamas would engage in. Shortly before that, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, decided to postpone the legislative election he announced just a few months before. Hamas recognized it as an act of weakness, just as they interpreted the indecisive response of Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA) to the events in Jerusalem. Hamas decided to take advantage of this weakness and create an improved strategic reality for itself. It did so by starting another war with Israel. Was this gamble successful? There are some important aspects we need to look into.
Politics by Other Means
First and foremost, it seems that Hamas’s main goal in starting the war was to position itself politically as the defender of Jerusalem, both within Palestinian society and among Arab and Muslim publics around the world. In this regard, it seems that Hamas is apparently quite satisfied with the results thus far. Obviously, Israel did not accept Hamas’s terms in Jerusalem at any stage of the conflict. But that was never Hamas’s objective. Hamas tried to dictate a new equation, in which it has an influence on events that happen outside the boundaries of Gaza. In this respect, Hamas’s popularity in Jerusalem skyrocketed. And while Israel tried very hard in its messaging to detach the operation in Gaza from the events in Jerusalem, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) dubbed the Gaza campaign “Operation Guardian of the Walls”, a reference to Jerusalem Day, which was celebrated in Israel on the day the escalation began—a clear indication of the link the Israelis saw between the events in Jerusalem and those in Gaza. Hamas dubbed the war as “Sword of Jerusalem Battle”, making the same link, unsurprisingly, since fostering this nexus was why it initiated hostilities in the first place.
Throughout the fighting, Hamas tried to inflame Palestinians in the West Bank and encourage them to join the violent fight against Israel, while confronting the PA’s security forces. Although these efforts had limited success, and a third intifada (uprising) never broke out, there was a noticeable uptick in Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians and security forces on the West Bank. Even militias that identify with the PA were documented getting ready to confront Israel. While both Israeli and PA security forces proved effective in dealing with the extreme currents in the West Bank, it remains unclear whether worse eventualities would have taken place had the conflict in Gaza lasted longer. What is clear, is that there is no shortage of violent elements that might erupt in any future escalation in the West Bank. The potential for radicalization is clearly there, but it seems that, for now, the vast majority of Palestinians in the West Bank prefer to preserve their relatively comfortable life.
Overall, it seems that in the internal Palestinian arena, Hamas has gained many points and its political popularity has surely increased, especially for its stance as a defender of Jerusalem and for reviving “the Palestinian issue” in the region and around the world. But does it also mean that Hamas’s military attack against Israel was successful?
The Military Balance
While the rocket capabilities of both Hamas and PIJ have undoubtedly improved significantly, as was demonstrated in the unprecedented number of rockets that were launched towards Israel and their longer ranges, most of these rockets were still intercepted by Israel. Israel decimated a significant part of one of Hamas’s most valuable military assets, its defensive tunnel network, which has become known as “the Hamas Metro”. Those tunnels were a unique strategic asset, which cost a fortune and had been built over many years.
Israel also dealt a heavy blow to significant Hamas naval, cyber, research and development (R&D), and aerial capabilities. Dozens of Hamas and PIJ militants were killed in Israeli strikes, although most of them were not very senior. Hundreds of structures housing military targets in Gaza were destroyed. Many of these buildings were also used as government offices. It will take years before a successful reconstruction of Gaza is completed.
The bottom line is that Hamas has paid a very heavy price for its aggression, probably much heavier than it had in mind when taking the risk of firing those rockets towards Jerusalem on May 10.
Was it worth it? It depends on whom you ask. While Hamas leaders manifest self-confidence and act as victors, internal discussions among them surely revolve around the wisdom of their aggressive move. Having no other option, the public in Gaza has shown support for Hamas as always, but the sight of the vast devastation throughout the Strip and the increasing hardships that Gazans have to endure after the war surely occupy the Hamas leadership. The PA leadership was surely relieved that Hamas’s military power was decimated, although they, too, know that in internal Palestinian politics, Hamas came out of the conflict with the upper hand. Overall, while Hamas enjoys support for its political stance against Israel, it seems unlikely that its military aggression is seen as successful or effective among Palestinians.
Throughout the military campaign in Gaza, widespread protests and riots were held by Arab crowds in Israel. Many of these protests were extremely violent, especially in cities with mixed Arab and Jewish populations. Arab rioters set cars and businesses owned by Jews on fire, looted Jewish houses, vandalized private and government property, and attacked Jewish citizens. In response, Jewish extremists retaliated by attacking Arabs and vandalizing Arab property, although to a much lesser extent. While the causes for this violent eruption may be rooted in old challenges of the Arab society in Israel, the timing of the eruption was undoubtedly linked to the events in Jerusalem and in Gaza and as such Hamas will be “credited” for it.
Most of the Israeli public was disturbed by the internal riots much more than it was by the clash with Hamas. The magnitude of the events surprised many Israelis, who for years have been witnessing a consistent trend of Arab integration in Israeli society. Hopes in this regard have now been shattered. In cities with mixed Jewish and Arab populations that were a model for coexistence, there is now fear of renewed violence. Extremists on both sides are still very vociferous, blaming each other for the events. Even if calm prevails from now on, it will take a long time before this wound heals. And yet, the majority of both Arabs and Jews are moderate and aspire to rebuild the bridges between the “two tribes,” as Israeli President Reuven Rivlin calls them. And therein lies the hope that, over time, there will be a way to defeat the radicalization within the country.
The Regional Picture
How did the Israel-Hamas conflict affect other regional players? Let us start with Israel’s newest friends in the region and the ones with which it signed peace agreements. The main insight in this regard is that the strategic and visionary decisions by the leaders of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan to normalize relations with Israel successfully withstood their first significant challenge. The events forced these leaders to express their support for the Palestinian cause, as part of an Arab resolution, but they did not sever nor restrict the relations with Israel in any way. Moreover, in Saudi Arabia, the standard perception of Hamas and PIJ as terrorist organizations was formally expressed once again, hinting to the region and to the domestic public who is to blame for the hostilities.
In the public domain in those countries, there seemed to be only very faint criticism of Israel for the strikes in Gaza. Not only that, some social network campaigns were launched, one of them under the hashtag “#حماس_الارهابية” (Hamas the terrorist(, which used harsh language towards Hamas’ leaders and referenced to the Muslim Brotherhood. However organic its initiation, it surely indicates a strong opposition to radicalization in most of the Gulf countries.
Egypt proved again to be the only effective player in the region, the one with the ability to mediate a ceasefire between the two sides. In that sense, the Egyptian leadership gained a great deal of respect during the campaign and improved its relations with the new administration of President Joe Biden. The Egyptian public is in no condition to express support for the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Hamas: most are against these groups after experiencing a Brotherhood government, and radical factions of the Egyptian society currently remain dormant. In the Sinai Peninsula, too, it seems that the Egyptian armed forces have finally managed to mitigate the threat emanating from the Islamic State (ISIS) militants in the area.
Unlike the responses in Israel’s other Arab treaty partners, the state of affairs in Jordan has been much more challenging. The series of Ramadan events in Israel and Gaza dealt yet another blow to Jordan’s shaky political relations with Israel. One of Jordan’s gravest concerns is that its responsibility for the holy sites of Islam in Jerusalem will be diminished. Although Israel keeps stressing that the status quo in the holy sites remains intact, any volatile event in Jerusalem agitates the Jordanian authorities. Moreover, it inflames the Jordanian public—both those of Palestinian origin and the trans-Jordanian tribes—and especially the Muslim Brotherhood organizations in the kingdom.
Even twenty-seven years after the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, the Jordanian public retains strong anti-Israeli sentiments. The Ramadan events intensified this sentiment and radicalized the public response. During the days of the Gaza operation, big demonstrations were held across the country, including in the vicinity of the Israeli Embassy and along the border with Israel, and renewed calls were heard to expel the Israeli ambassador and to revoke the peace treaty. Even after the events were over, these calls against Israel have persisted and the demands to cut the economic ties with Israel—focusing on a natural gas agreement between the countries—have once again been raised. There is a silver lining, though, in the well-established security cooperation between Israel and Jordan, both in preventing unwanted escalatory events and in minimizing the risk of terror attacks across the border from Jordan to Israel.
The other interesting regional players are Turkey and Qatar, who are sometimes referred to as “the Muslim Brotherhood alliance”. Both these countries are invested in the Palestinian arena in terms of an ideological vision—Hamas is a Muslim Brotherhood movement—and as a way of pursuing their other political interests in the regional competition for influence against the Saudi-UAE bloc.
Both countries suffered some strategic losses from the recent events. Qatar was a major player trying to implement a strategy of stabilizing Gaza through rehabilitation and has donated vast amounts of money for that end. The latest Gaza fight ruined many Qatari-funded projects. Moreover, Israel claims that Hamas took advantage of the Qatari funds and funneled some of that money into its military buildup, with Qatari knowledge. Hints from Israel suggest that Qatar’s role in Gaza might be sharply curtailed going forward.
Turkey was invested in Jerusalem and competed specifically to gain more influence in Al-Haram al-Sharif. Turkish agents were responsible, at least to some extent, for the amplification of the unrest in Jerusalem. In the aftermath of the Ramadan events, it seems that Turkey lost ground in Jerusalem. While Jordan remains in some dispute with Israel, Jordan kept its status as the guardian of the holy sites. Moreover, Israeli security forces managed to reduce unwelcome foreign influence in the city, at least for the time being. In Gaza, too, Turkey could not be credited for anything beyond some rhetorical support for Hamas.
The Iran Dimension
While exploring the effects of the Israel-Hamas conflict on the radicalization in the region, it seems that the most important regional players to look at are Iran and its proxies. The events have put Iran on the horns of a dilemma. On one hand, Hamas is an Iranian ally and the PIJ is an Iranian proxy; in case of a war with Israel, Iran is expected to assist them in the fight, even without showing direct involvement. On the other hand, Iran is currently in the midst of highly complicated strategic negotiation with the West regarding its nuclear program and does not want to give the West the cards to connect its malign regional activities to the nuclear negotiations. Under these circumstances, it’s easy to understand why Iran could not offer Hamas and the PIJ as well as the PA much more than rhetoric support regarding both Jerusalem and Gaza.
Outside the framework of the Palestinian issue, it was interesting to see how the Israeli-Iranian “dialogue through fire” continued like there was no war in Gaza. Mainly in Syria, Iranian assets were struck during the Gaza campaign, and on the opposite side, an Iranian drone sent from Syria or Iraq was shot down by Israel near the Israeli-Jordanian border.
It seems that the regional player who was expected to join the fight against Israel more than all others was Hezbollah, the Lebanese Iranian proxy and Israel’s major non-state threat in the region. Yet, Hezbollah did little more than turn a blind eye to Lebanese protests along the border with Israel and allow some Palestinian militants to fire a few rockets from Lebanon to northern Israel, while offering rhetoric support for the terror groups in Gaza. Similarly, the Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen kept threatening Israel, but did not take any actions to back their rhetoric.
In the aftermath of the events, the Iranian camp will surely study the Gaza fight carefully at the tactical level and will share operative knowledge in order to conduct its terror operations more efficiently—against Israel, the Gulf monarchies, and others. At the same time, it seems that the might of the Israeli response to the aggression from Gaza, the depth of the Israeli intelligence penetration of its rivals, and the resilience of the Israeli home-front did not go unnoticed in Iran and Hezbollah. Hopefully, that could serve as a sufficient deterrent that will diminish some of their radical aspirations to get into a quarrel with Israel.
The Impact on Radicalization
So how will the latest flare-up between Israel and Hamas influence the vectors of terrorism and radicalization in the region? It seems a bit early to offer a conclusive answer to this question. As discussed above, this clash was part of an array of events with different characteristics and causes. To separate them and analyze the respective contribution of each of these events to the trajectory of terrorism and radicalization in the region would be impossible at this point. There is no doubt that these events uncovered worrisome radical elements, and that had the war lasted longer it might have fueled many more radical sentiments across the region.
It seems that the decisive Israeli response in Gaza sent a very strong message that was heard loud and clear hundreds of miles away from Gaza, most importantly by Iran and Hezbollah. In this regard, it’s worth recalling the 2006 Lebanon War, which was initially perceived as an Israeli military failure, but the quiet Israel-Lebanon border for the past fifteen years suggests that the Israeli military campaign has been effective and worked as a deterrent to prevent another round of hostilities between the parties. Time will tell if the latest Gaza conflict has the same effect. Belligerent rhetoric by Hamas and Hezbollah leaders after the conflict ended can be understood as internal politics, though it does create a risk of more ill-advised moves.
Hamas drawing the Israeli military response in Gaza also had the paradoxical effect of averting quagmire of a religious conflict in Jerusalem. The riots at the Temple Mount (Al-Haram al-Sharif) had all the ingredients for such a conflict to evolve. The angry responses across the Muslim world showed how incendiary this issue is. Yet, the firm Israeli military campaign in Gaza—and more restrained police activity at the Temple Mount itself—have led to the subsidence of this explosive conflict. The fear of this religious war, indeed, seems to have led to new forms of regional cooperation between Israel and moderate Arab states to maintain calm in the holy city.
In sum, the Israel-Hamas clash can be seen as yet another blow to radical elements in the region, who have suffered a series of such blows over the past decade. The series of hits to radicalism in the region include the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, the effective fight against terror groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and the decisive Israeli and former American administration’s acts against Iran and its proxies. One can only hope that radical tendencies will abate even further following the latest Gaza war.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.