The Impact of the May 2021 Hamas-Israel Confrontation
A Conversation with Shai Feldman
Organized and edited by David Siddhartha Patel
For 12 days in May 2021, Israel and Hamas exchanged heavy fire. The number of casualties suffered reflected the balance of capabilities—offensive and defensive—and decisions made by policymakers on how to respond to attacks: 10 Israelis, 3 foreign workers, and approximately 260 Palestinians were killed, with many more injured. The immediate trigger for this round of violence seemed to have been developments that took place far from Gaza: the eviction of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah (a neighborhood of East Jerusalem, which is territory occupied by Israel in 1967 and subsequently de facto annexed) and a gradual increase in the number of Jews permitted by Israeli authorities to pray on the Temple Mount (also known as the Noble Sanctuary). The absence of a deliberate response to these developments by the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) both motivated Hamas and provided it an opportunity to assert itself as the guardian of Palestinian and Arab rights in Jerusalem.
In this Crown Conversation, we spoke with Shai Feldman—president of Sapir Academic College in Sha'ar Hanegev (near Sderot), Israel; founding director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies; and professor of politics at Brandeis—about how the May conflict impacted both Hamas and Israel domestically and internationally, as well as the prospects for change in their relationship.
What made this episode different from previous rounds of major violence between Hamas and Israel in 2008–9, 2012, and 2014, and what are likely to be its ramifications in the months and years ahead?
This time the exchange led to riots in Arab-Jewish mixed cities inside Israel. Also significant was that Hamas’s ordinance reached deeper into Israel and in greater numbers, placing the population of relatively large Israeli metropolitan areas—notably Ashkelon and Ashdod—under greater and more frequent threat of rocket fire.
Some six months after these dramatic events, it is tempting to ask who gained and who lost in this latest round. Before attempting to respond to this question, some caution is noteworthy: While six months may be considered a period allowing some hindsight, in the pages of human history this is equivalent to a nanosecond. Hence, there is great potential peril in drawing conclusions after such a short period: Six months after the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, that conflict seemed to most Israelis as one of the worst disasters in their country’s short history. And yet, it soon led to a series of negotiations that culminated in a peace treaty that by now has held for more than 42 years. Similarly, in the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon War, most Israeli commentary bemoaned the shortcomings of the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) conduct and assessed that the conflict eroded Israel’s deterrence of Hezbollah. And yet, the ceasefire concluded at the end of the fighting has held for the past 15 years. We should bear these examples in mind when attempting to assess the possible ramifications of May 2021.
With that caution in mind, how did Hamas fare in the conflict?
As was the case in previous rounds of major Hamas-Israel violence, Hamas’s greatest achievement was that it survived. Indeed, its fighters continued to deliver impressive volumes of fire during all 12 days and until the agreed upon ceasefire took effect. This cannot and should not be considered as self-evident. For a non-state actor—essentially a political movement with a military arm—to remain intact following a violent confrontation with a regional power is a significant achievement.
Second, in reacting to the developments in Jerusalem and by launching rockets in the direction of Israel’s capital, Hamas scored significantly at the PA’s expense: It established itself as the more trusted guardian of Arab and Muslim interests in the Holy Basin. This contributed to the further tilting of the internal balance of political power in the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Fatah to Hamas—a process that has been well on its way for a number of years as the legitimacy of PA President Mahmoud Abbas continues to erode.
These Hamas gains were reflected clearly in a poll conducted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from June 9–12 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR). An overwhelming majority of the respondents (77%) said that Hamas came out as the winner in the confrontation, and 65% opined that Hamas achieved its declared goals behind its firing of rockets at Israel, namely forcing Israel to stop the expulsion of families in Sheikh Jarrah and ending Israeli restrictions on Muslims’ access to al-Aqsa. A majority (53%) said that Hamas is most deserving of representing and leading the Palestinian people; in sharp contrast, only 14% of the respondents said that Fatah under President Abbas is the most deserving of representing and leading the Palestinians. Some 75% of the respondents rated Hamas’s performance in the confrontation as “excellent” while only 13% gave the same grade to Fatah, 11% to the PA government, and only 8% to Abbas.
Third, Hamas seemed to have estimated correctly that numerous Israeli threats notwithstanding, Israel would be self-deterred from taking steps that would truly threaten Hamas: a major ground operation followed by sustained reoccupation of Gaza and a weeding-out of Hamas operatives, similar to the de-Ba‘thification campaign that the U.S. oversaw in Iraq following the 2003 invasion. Hamas knows well that Israelis have neither the appetite for reconquering Gaza nor the will to try to manage the chaos that would ensue there should Hamas no longer control this very densely populated area.
What has been the impact of the conflict for Israel?
Israel seems to have sustained a number of losses as a result of the May 2021 violence. First, it failed to defeat Hamas strategically, let alone suppress its rocket fire operationally. Such a result could not have enhanced its deterrence. Thus, there appears to be a wide gap between the announcements made by some Israeli leaders to the effect that their objective in the fighting was “to change the deterrence equation” vis-à-vis Hamas and the realities on the ground. There is no evidence that Hamas was impressed by the IDF’s post-fighting public relations campaign that attempted to convince it that the IDF was the clear winner of the “round.” Quite the contrary: By appearing in public and above ground immediately after the intense fighting ended, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, took special pains to demonstrate that Hamas was not intimidated.
Another relevant constituency that does not seem convinced that any fundamental difference in the equation was achieved were Israelis residing in proximity to the most intense fire—that is, in the western Negev or the so-called “Gaza envelope” region. Many of them seemed persuaded that either Hamas was not deterred or that whatever deterrence may have been gained was tactical—and hence temporary—and therefore that another major military confrontation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is only a matter of time.
More than any other constituency, Israelis residing in the south—and thus paying attention to detail—have also observed over the years that when it came to the actual implementation of policy vis-à-vis Hamas, Israel has contributed significantly to the erosion of its deterrence. It has done so by assisting the transfer of Qatari money to Hamas while continuing to insist that it was fighting the terror organization relentlessly; negotiating with Hamas while stating that it is not engaged in such talks; and concluding very generous deals with Hamas—notably the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange agreement, in the framework of which Israel released 1,027 Palestinians (far more generous than anything it has ever granted the PA).
The dramatic asymmetry in the balance of power between Israel and Hamas—manifested in the three previous significant violent confrontations between the two sides since late 2008—was also apparent in May 2021, thus continuing to reverse the “David versus Goliath” narrative that favored Israel as representing the numerically “few” standing up to the “many” Arabs between 1947 and 1967. This asymmetry was expressed in the level of destruction that occurred, and the wide dissemination of numerous images of such destruction (documented by anyone who held a cellphone in Gaza) further eroded sympathy for Israel in progressive circles in Europe and the U.S., especially among Democrats and American Jews. In a University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll conducted June 22–July 21, among Americans between the ages of 18–34, 30% blamed Israel for the confrontation while only 20% blamed the Palestinians. Also noteworthy is that of all Democrats responding, 35% blamed Israel for the confrontation while only 8% pinned the blame on the Palestinians, with 53% blaming both sides equally. The extent to which this issue has become highly partisan is reflected in the contrasting views held by Republicans, among whom 59% blamed the Palestinians and only 4% blamed Israel, with 31% blaming both sides.
What was the impact of the May conflict in the wider region? Did it slow Israel’s ongoing rapprochement with Arab states, and can Palestinians expect renewed support from within the region?
While in the context of the bilateral relations between Hamas and Israel wherein the former made some gains and the latter sustained some losses in the May 2021 violence, regional realities framing the broader context of the Arab-Israeli conflict turned dramatically in Israel’s favor and against the Palestinians during this period. At the same time, domestic realities in Israel and among the Palestinians also contributed to preventing the results of May 2021 from translating into any significant positive change for the Palestinians.
The regional environment of the May 2021 confrontation was in fact even less sympathetic to the Palestinians than was the case during the three previous Hamas-Israel rounds of violence. Less than a year earlier, four Arab states—the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan—signed various normalization agreements with Israel, thus solidifying the tendency to accommodate the Jewish state that begun with the 1978 Egypt-Israel Camp David Accords and their 1979 peace treaty, the 1993 Israel-PLO Oslo Accords, and the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace treaty. There was also a wide consensus in the region that while Saudi Arabia did not formally join the Abraham Accords, its encouragement and tacit support was pivotal to the decisions of the UAE and Bahrain.
It was also noticeable that in taking that dramatic step the four Arab signatories violated not only the substance of, but, more importantly, the logic of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative by dropping the conditionality of that plan. Aside from refraining from annexing additional parts of the West Bank, Israel was not required to take any other steps in the Palestinian-Israeli context to gain the benefits of the Abraham Accords—a strategic gain of monumental significance in comparison to whatever meager gains Hamas may have made on the Palestinians’ behalf in May 2021.
Moreover, the Arab states favoring accommodation with Israel made it very clear that they were not going to allow the May 2021 violence to divert them from the course they chose. While repeating their general sympathy for the Palestinians and their discomfort with the images of destruction in Gaza, the signatories to the Abraham Accords continued to implement their commitments to the agreed process during this period, ranging from the first ambassador of Bahrain presenting his credentials to the president of Israel to Morocco following the UAE in agreeing to begin direct daily flights from Israel.
In addition, the pioneers of Arab accommodation with Israel, Egypt (under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi) and Jordan (led by King Abdullah II), now took the opportunity of the change in government in Israel in June to invite its new prime minister to visit them. In Egypt’s case, Naftali Bennett’s state visit in September was the first by an Israeli prime minister in almost 11 years. In turn, the visit was accompanied by a decision to officially inaugurate direct flights to Israel by Egypt Air (replacing the inconspicuous flights that Air Sinai conducted for some four decades), the first of which took place on October 3. Less significant but quite salient, especially in social media, was a meeting held by some 314 Iraqi personalities on September 24–25 in Irbil, urging their government to make peace with Israel.
All of these developments were driven by what for the Palestinians is a very inconvenient regional truth: Beginning in 2011, the Arab Spring has caused Arab governments and Arab politics to turn inward, focusing on their country’s domestic ills. As a result, the relative importance that they attached to the Palestinian cause has diminished dramatically. With the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein and in 2011 of Muamar Qadhafi, as well as the post-2011 civil war in Syria, the Palestinians also lost significant external backers. Their own civil strife, manifested sharply by Hamas’s violent takeover of Gaza in 2007 and the failure of all Arab efforts to gain true cooperation from Hamas or Fatah for implementing internal reconciliation, contributed to a further loss of broader Arab sympathy (as many in the region wondered whether the Palestinians’ internal quarrel was more important to them than their conflict with Israel). In turn, this loss of broader sympathy and support made it nearly impossible for Hamas to translate its limited gains to any meaningful change on the ground.
What about beyond the region: Did the May 2021 episode result in any significant gains for the Palestinians internationally? And what are the odds that the events will change Israel-Hamas relations?
In the global realm as well, Palestinians failed to extract any significant gains from the May fighting. Despite some criticism of Israel in progressive circles in the U.S., the U.S. House of Representatives allocated $1 billion to Israel in late September for the purpose of replenishing its stock of Iron Dome air defense interceptors. With 420 members of Congress supporting the decision and only 9 voting no, the vote established that Congressional support of Israel remains robust and bipartisan.
One factor limiting the odds of any significant positive transformation of Israel-Hamas relations involves the two sides’ domestic scenes. Dominated by right-wing parties for the past 12 years, it was highly improbable that the Israeli government could meet the minimal requirements of stabilizing its relations with Hamas—an entity ruled by a movement that continues to be dedicated to Israel’s destruction. Israel’s current government, comprised of a weird array of right-wing and left-wing parties, leads to similar paralysis. To survive, such a government must avoid any bold decisions.
Hamas has a different domestic impediment. Its ideology does not prevent it from entering into many pragmatic understandings and agreements with Israel regarding ad hoc practical issues. However, a deeper, broader, and more enduring agreement with Israel would require that Hamas abandon its ideological rejection of the Jewish state. Whether because Hamas leaders are ideologically committed to their position or because they fear that the change required would paint them as following in Fatah’s footsteps, all domestic roads seem to lead to continued paralysis in Israel-Hamas relations.
So six months after the May 2021 eruption of violence, how would you summarize the combined impact of the various developments that you noted on future Israel-Hamas relations?
It seems that while Hamas made some gains in the internal Palestinian front vis-à-vis Fatah, the two weeks of violence and the heavy toll that the population of Gaza paid failed to change anything in Hamas’s relations with Israel, nor did it in any way reduce the miseries experienced daily by Gaza’s population. Sadly, without anything in the international, regional, and domestic environments that could drive a significant change, and given that living conditions in Gaza continue to be intolerable, it is only a matter of time before another explosion will erupt.
The opinions and findings expressed in this Conversation belong to the author exclusively and do not reflect those of the Crown Center or Brandeis University.