Political Opportunism in Israel-Palestine
The Israel-Palestinian Conflict escalates like clockwork - and there's a reason for that.
As throngs of Palestinians rushed the Israeli border, Israeli soldiers opened fire. With rockets peppering southern Israel, Israeli planes carpeted Gaza City in bombs. This might describe the news in the past week; it also describes the news roughly a year prior. Whether you’re an outside observer or right in the thick of it, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict seems to flare up like clockwork. It’s no coincidence. The cyclic nature of violence in Israel-Palestine speaks to one of the most fundamental aspects of politics – how individuals try to exploit groups, and how groups try to exploit individuals.
As attacks on Israel have proliferated, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has increased the rumblings of potential intervention. Israel often undertakes “mowing the grass” operations designed to cut down on the Hamas government’s infrastructure, often entailing high collateral damage.
What makes this potential operation particularly striking, however, is the timing. Netanyahu’s Likud party faces reelection in only a matter of weeks. They have faced significant challenges from the ascendant Blue and White Party, a centrist endeavor that could, potentially, unseat Likud, or demote them to junior coalition partners.
This, of course, has happened before; in 2008, the Kadima Party’s Ehud Olmert launched a massive ground offensive in Gaza less than two months prior to an election. The operation led to over 1,100 Palestinian deaths. It also did little to salvage Kadima’s political aspirations; the party won a plurality of votes, but failed to form a coalition and so surrendered to Likud. The February 2009 elections ushered in Netanyahu’s tenure that has continued ever since.
Political Scientists have often discussed the notion of “diversionary war,” the notion that democratic leaders have an incentive to go to war in order to drum up support for political campaigns. In times of war, people tend to mobilize in support of the incumbent. But why?
Michael A. Hogg has authored a litany of studies in the field of Social Identity Theory. A group identity, he writes, forms around a “prototype” – a vague set of attributes describing an ideal member. Collective action problems, of course, abound, and people may leave or shirk their duties. When under threat, however, people tend to close ranks. Citing surveys of Israelis and Palestinians, Hogg shows that people will become extremists if their group feels threatened.
So, leaders exert pressure on the public; the public, however, exerts pressure on the leaders as well. Ehud Olmert had faced scrutiny over his bungled invasion of Lebanon in 2006, which left the Israeli public concerned at its military’s readiness. Netanyahu’s political opponents have accused him of failing to quell Hamas’ continued attacks in Israel. In effect, the Israeli public wants assurances of strength and security.
The Palestinian leadership also engages in this exploitation. Recent reports have highlighted human rights abuses by the government in the Gaza Strip, and residents have increasingly voiced their dissatisfaction with the Hamas government. Hamas needs to invoke the Israeli “threat” in order to ensure that its own coalition can stay cohesive.
As such, it has become a common tactic for the Hamas government to provide financial incentives for Palestinians to charge Israeli positions on the border fence, knowing that the Israelis will open fire. Such incentives resonate because the ongoing siege of the Gaza Strip, maintained by both Israel and Egypt, has collapsed Palestinian social capital, including employment rates, marriage, and public health. For some Palestinians, Hamas’ offers make them feel worth more dead than alive.
At the same time, many Palestinians also blame Hamas for their situation. Hamas has escalated conflicts with Israel despite Israel’s overwhelming military superiority. Its disputes with other Palestinian groups has also repeatedly disrupted electricity in Gaza. In the past, the government’s appropriation of aid has led Israel to clamp down on imports that would bolster Gaza’s economy, and Israel often limits the flow of goods in response to provocations . Palestinian demonstrations have taken place against both Hamas and Israel, so Hamas relies on the perception of Israeli aggression to shift the balance.
Essentially, a feedback loop exists between the public and government in order to reinforce a cohesive group identity. Each one puts pressure on the other to work for the group’s greater good. Because government perceives a threat from its own citizens, they invoke threats from the outside to placate those citizens. The outside groups, in turn, put pressure on the public, which puts pressure again on government.
It’s situational – a threat has to exist in order for this tactic to work. For Israel, it’s the tenuous nature of their reality. Israel has no defined borders, and its only objective is to survive as a Jewish state, despite being vastly outnumbered in the region. For Palestine, it’s the loss of social capital. With the two groups in conflict, each of them continuously pressure their members, both from above or below. It happens not by coincidence, but by design - Human design.