Israel and Gaza are increasingly alternating between ceasefires and gunfire. This violent instability – the worst in four years – isn’t surprising, as each side inches closer to war while hoping their provocations will make the other side back down. It’s a classic form of brinkmanship – and understanding this strategy means understanding just how easy it is for the situation to unintentionally spin out of both sides’ control.
Relations between Israel and the Gaza Strip have become increasingly violent since the Palestinian “Great March of Return” protests began in March. Since then, Palestinian authorities say that 157 Gazans have been killed and thousands injured. The firepower employed by both parties has steadily escalated while purported truces have crumbled more quickly. The ceasefire announced May 30 perhaps seemed promising, but those of July 14 and July 21 seemed like aspirations rather than expectations. After the last one, a senior U.N. official said another war had appeared “just minutes away.”
This skirmishing basically represents bargaining moves by Israel and Gaza over the terms of their relationship. But their demands regarding military security, economic activity, and prisoner exchanges appear mutually incompatible. Each therefore is hoping brinkmanship will force the other to make concessions.
Brinkmanship is a powerful but risky strategy. The United States successfully used it against the Soviet Union during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. President John F. Kennedy avoided nuclear war by ordering a naval “quarantine” of Cuba and responding selectively to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s demands. They reached a deal for removing Soviet missiles from the island, but not before the Soviets shot down an American spy plane and US forces went to DEFCON 2 – a state of alert meaning war was imminent.
The strategy was less successful during America’s 1981 air traffic controller strike, when neither the controllers’ union nor President Ronald Reagan would back down. Over 11,000 controllers lost their jobs and flights were disrupted for months.
The Israel-Gaza situation, like those two earlier examples, displays three key features. First, if the two sides don’t eventually reach agreement, they’ll suffer a disaster both wish to avoid.
Neither the Netanyahu government nor Hamas want a replay of 2014’s Operation Protective Edge rocket war. While Israel’s Iron Dome interceptors and civil defenses would likely limit its casualties from Hamas’ estimated 12,000-plus rockets, another war could cost Israel billions of dollars in military expenses and lost economic activity, just as Protective Edge did. On the Gaza side, Israeli air and ground assaults could devastate Gaza’s already-weak infrastructure and topple its Hamas government.
Brinkmanship’s second feature is both sides deliberately (albeit perversely) inching toward the mutual disaster. Each proclaims its determination and willingness to approach the disaster’s edge. Each hopes the mutual threat will cause the other to back down first.
Israeli and Gazan firepower escalations demonstrate this progression. Gaza militants began using incendiary kites and balloons to burn Israeli crops and forests in April. In May, they fired 188 rockets and mortar shells, the first significant barrage since 2014. Explosives-laden balloons joined the fire-carrying ones in June. July saw an estimated 200 rockets being fired from the Gaza Strip in one day and sniper fire killing the first Israeli soldier there in four years.
Israel’s responses likewise intensified. Its military initially dealt with arson kites by intercepting them with drones. In June it began firing warning shots near groups launching the kites. It started targeting them directly in July, resulting first in injuries and then a death. Airstrikes, such as the nearly 50 tons of bombs dropped July 14, were initially used only after rocket attacks. But they’ve since become common retaliation for kites too.
Rhetoric from both sides has similarly escalated. Last week Hamas claimed its forces are on “highest alert.” An Israeli cabinet minister said the country is making “great strides” toward launching a military operation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the situation a “test of will.”
The third feature of brinkmanship, particularly relevant here, is a risk of losing control. Both sides may fully intend to stop short of disaster. But they know it’s increasing likely they’ll accidentally stumble into the abyss.
This may already be happening with Gaza. While Hamas runs the government, it has limited control over Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other militant groups. Islamic Jihad reportedly started the May rocket barrage, with Hamas only belatedly joining in. The July 21 ceasefire fell apart July 25 when another Israeli soldier was wounded by a sniper described as being affiliated with “rogue” militants. The next day Islamic Jihad unilaterally declared the ceasefire over and nine more rockets or shells were fired from Gaza toward Israel.
The Israelis could likewise misstep. Statements like the Minister of Education’s call for a military operation might begin as mere posturing. But they could become politically impossible to walk back later. Simple mistakes could also occur. An Israeli bomb falling short, for example, could flatten a crowded civilian residence instead of an empty Hamas workshop.
These risks are amplified by hair-trigger retaliations that make little allowance for misunderstandings. After the second soldier was shot, Israeli tanks and planes promptly attacked Hamas installations and killed three Palestinians. Gaza militants responded by firing nine rockets. That triggered seven more Israeli airstrikes. The entire escalation cycle took only a day.
Israel and Gaza may yet pull back from the brink. But absent some miracle, the violent instability seems likely to continue, leaving the two sides only one incident away from war.