Israel and Hamas Are at War Again. Here’s What U.S. Should Do About It.

COMMENTARY Middle East

Israel and Hamas Are at War Again. Here’s What U.S. Should Do About It.

May 20th, 2021 9 min read

Commentary By

Virginia Allen @Virginia_Allen5

News Producer, The Daily Signal

James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation

Rockets light up the night sky as they are fired towards Israel from Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on May 14, 2021. MOHAMMED ABED / Contributor / Getty Images

Israel and Hamas Palestinian militants are currently locked in their fourth mini-war since 2008. 

More than 3,400 rockets have been fired between Israel and the neighboring Gaza Strip, resulting in the deaths of at least 10 Israelis and about 200 Palestinians. 

“Hamas manipulated ongoing anti-Israeli riots and used that as a pretext to launch missiles at Jerusalem,” said Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation. 

“In Hamas’ world, in order to defend Jerusalem, it had to fire missiles at Jerusalem. But this is part of its long-term strategy not only to destroy Israel, but to undermine any chance of peace between Israel and the Palestinian [National] Authority,” he said.

Phillips joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss how the current conflict between Israel and Hamas began and how it likely will end. He also explains the action America should take and how Biden administration policies toward the Middle East differ from those of the Trump administration. 

We also cover these stories: 

  • House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., says he won’t support legislation to establish a commission to look into the unrest that occurred Jan. 6 at the Capitol.
  • McCarthy and 28 other House Republicans draft a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., asking her to end proxy voting.
  • North Carolina sheriff’s deputies were “justified” in the fatal shooting of Andrew Brown Jr., a North Carolina district attorney says.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript. 

Virginia Allen: I am joined by Jim Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation. Jim, thanks so much for coming on the show today.

Jim Phillips: Thank you for inviting me.

Allen: Hamas and Israel are in the middle of what is their fourth mini-war since 2008. Hamas is the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Jim, could you just explain how this conflict began?

Phillips: Hamas, which is opposed to peace and seeks Israel’s destruction, has orchestrated political violence inside Jerusalem, which essentially is Hamas staking a claim on that territory, which is a threat both to Israel and to the Palestinian [National] Authority that Hamas opposes. 

But Hamas manipulated ongoing anti-Israeli riots and used that as a pretext to launch missiles at Jerusalem. In Hamas’ world, in order to defend Jerusalem, it had to fire missiles at Jerusalem. But this is part of its long-term strategy not only to destroy Israel, but to undermine any chance of peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Allen: At this point, about how many rockets have we seen fired back and forth?

Phillips: I think at last count there was more than 3,400 rockets that have been indiscriminately fired at Israel. And really that is a double war crime because Hamas hides among Palestinian civilians to launch rockets at Israeli civilians.

Allen: Wow. As I mentioned, this is the fourth mini-war that Hamas has had with Israel just in the past 13 years. Would you explain what the similarities and differences are between this conflict and the previous three conflicts?

Phillips: There are many similarities, in part because Hamas basically has the same strategy, which is to force Israel into taking action that will kill Palestinian civilians. … According to [Hamas’] revolutionary logic, the worse, the better. That is, the worse the situation it is, the better for Palestinian Islamist revolutionaries such as Hamas and its allies in the Middle East. 

Each time Hamas has flung these rockets at the Israelis, it has suffered a military defeat, but Hamas considers that an ideological and political victory because it advances its narrative of Israeli aggression and it believes that that serves its long-term agenda.

Allen: Sadly, we have seen a really tragic loss of life. The New York Times reports that at least 197 Palestinians have been killed and at least 10 Israelis. What are your thoughts on how both sides are handling civilian casualties during this crisis?

Phillips: I think Israel cares more about Palestinian civilian casualties than Hamas does. And in fact, Hamas seeks to drive the death toll up because it feels that that plays into its propaganda narrative. And unfortunately, as long as Hamas has a chokehold on Gaza and can launch these type of rockets thoughtfully provided by Iran, then there can be no sustainable peace.

Allen: And ultimately, what is Hamas really trying to accomplish here?

Phillips: I think it seeks to prop up its unpopular rule in Gaza. It also seeks to displace the secular Palestinian Authority and turn the Israeli-Palestinian dispute from a political issue or a nationalist clash into a war of religions in which any compromise with Israel will be regarded as blasphemy. Hamas, in league with Iran and other Islamist extremists, seeks to make the Arab-Israeli conflict insoluble, essentially.

Allen: And what about Israel? What does Israel want?

Phillips: I think Israel is concerned about its security and preserving its future against this kind of brutal Islamist terrorism. And Israel doesn’t want to just end this most recent mini-war. As you mentioned, there were three previous ones since 2008. And Israel wants to make sure that when this mini-war ends, Hamas will be deterred from considering future rocket launches. For that reason, it’s continuing to go after Hamas leaders, weapons sites, and launching platforms inside Gaza.

Allen: Then because of that, because Israel doesn’t want to see another conflict, do you think we’re going to actually see this drag out for quite some time?

Phillips: I think it is likely that it will take many more days, perhaps weeks, to nail down a cease-fire that would be acceptable to both sides. And here, I think it’s important that the U.S. works with Egypt on a cease-fire and not with other powers that have presented themselves as possible intermediaries. Here I’m thinking of Turkey and Qatar, both of which support Hamas and would work for a cease-fire that strengthened Hamas rather than weakened it.

Allen: Yeah, I want to get into a little bit more discussion on that cease-fire in just a moment, but I do want to mention you wrote in a recent Daily Signal piece that Iran and Palestinian extremists are the only winners in this current crisis. What do you mean by that?

Phillips: I think the Palestinian people are the big losers. It’s not generally known, but about 20% of Hamas rockets fall within Gaza, and they have killed, the Israelis say, at least 17 Palestinian civilians. But that doesn’t factor into Hamas’ cost-benefit calculus because, in its propagandistic view, it just blames those deaths on Israel. I think this will be going on for a few more days at least.

Allen: And what are your thoughts on how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is handling the conflict?

Phillips: I think he’s taken a strong stance in defense of Israeli security, and he’s correct to keep an eye on the implications of this round of fighting for the next round of fighting because as long as Hamas rule is preserved in some kind of cease-fire, then there will be another round of fighting.

Allen: President [Joe] Biden and other Democrat leaders are calling for a cease-fire. But on Monday, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida and 18 other Senate Republicans issued a resolution supporting Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorist attacks. Jim, what are your thoughts on this? Should America be calling for a cease-fire or defending Israel’s right to protect itself? Or is it possible to do both?

Phillips: I think it’s possible to do both. And I think the administration is trying to walk that tight rope, which has angered many of the progressives within the Democratic coalition. But Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken essentially has said we support a cease-fire when the parties doing the fighting have indicated they’re willing to accept a cease-fire. And so far, we haven’t seen that from either side.

Allen: If you could sit down with President Biden and offer some wisdom, some advice on how he should move forward, what would you say to him?

Phillips: I would say, realize that as long as Hamas has a stranglehold on Gaza, there is no chance of a sustainable peace. 

Also, that this crisis has illuminated the basic irrelevance of the Palestinian Authority, which many have called for Israel to negotiate with. It’s very weak and distrusted by the Palestinian people. Part of the reason for the outbreak of violence was Palestinian frustration over the President Mahmoud Abbas’ cancellation of Palestinian elections. 

I would say that, don’t expect to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in one comprehensive agreement. That’s impossible. Hamas must first be defeated and discredited, and the U.S. should be working with its Arab allies to do just that because they also are threatened by Islamist extremism posed by the Muslim Brotherhood, just like Hamas threatens Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Allen: Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who’s a Democrat, said, “We can’t stand idly by when the United States government sends $3.8 billion of military aid to Israel that is used to demolish Palestinian homes, imprison Palestinian children, and displace Palestinian families. Our government should not fund state violence in any form, anywhere.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar have also raised questions about the U.S. approach to the conflict. Are we seeing a shift on the left’s approach to Israel and Palestine?

Phillips: I don’t think we’ve really seen a shift because leftist hostility to Israel has been there since the very beginning. But I think it’s more noticeable now, particularly inside the Democratic Party, because of the rise of so-called progressives who really are living in a dream palace when it comes to looking at the Middle East. 

I think that hostility has always been there among leftists, but we’re hearing a lot more about it now because there’s a lot more leftists in the Democratic Party.

Allen: What are maybe some of the key differences that you’re seeing between the Trump administration’s approach to the Middle East and now the Biden administration’s approach?

Phillips: I think President [Donald] Trump was very clear about who U.S. allies were, and they included Israel and Arab states that were willing to work with us to tamp down Islamist terrorism and violence. And this served to prevent Hamas and other extremists from hijacking Palestinian nationalism because there were counterpressures from other Arab states. 

But now I think the Biden administration is trying to preserve its neutrality in some respects on this issue, and I think that will only serve to embolden Palestinian extremists.

Allen: What about on an international scale? Are we seeing any big policy changes toward Israel right now that we should pay attention to, just the approach that other nations are taking toward Israel?

Phillips: I think many of our adversaries are weighing in with propaganda to pose as defenders of Palestinians in order to not so much focus on the Palestinian audience but other Arab and Muslim audiences. 

But I think the key arena to watch is going to be the U.N. Security Council, where China, Russia, and others are going to push for a resolution that will, once again, state the U.N.’s moral equivalence toward actions by Israel, a state and a U.N. member defending itself against terrorism, and Hamas, a recognized terrorist group that threatens not only Israelis but Palestinians.

Allen: Jim, I know you can’t predict the future, but how do you think that this conflict might end, and is it possible that it could end semi-peacefully?

Phillips: I think there could be a negotiated solution if Hamas and others of its ilk are defeated and discredited. But as long as it sits on top of the Palestinian hostages, the 2 million hostages that it has taken in Gaza, or many hundreds of thousands of those at least that don’t support Hamas, as long as Hamas is there, there is no chance of peace, so those who support a future Israeli-Palestinian peace should oppose Hamas.

Allen: Jim, we really appreciate your time today. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Phillips: Thank you.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal