November 11th, 2018. On the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War world leaders gathered in France to celebrate the end of one of the most violent conflicts in human history. Trump, Macron, Putin, Merkel, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netayanhu were all in attendance.
Benjamin Netanyahu had to cut his visit short. Supposedly, An operation to install surveillance equipment in the Gaza Strip had gone wrong. The Israeli special forces had been engaged by militants and air power had to be called in. By the end of the night, one Israeli Lieutenant Colonel and a militant commander lay dead.
Like the World War a century before, an unplanned conflict was set in motion. Israeli politicians and Palestinian militant groups alike could not accept the deaths of their soldiers lying down.
The following morning a massive barrage began with rockets and mortars striking Israeli towns throughout the day. Israeli retaliated by bombing symbols of Hamas’ power like the TV broadcasting station and an intelligence headquarters.
After a day of intense cross border fire, with Hamas sending 500 rockets into Israeli towns and Israel striking 160 targets in Gaza, a ceasefire was declared. By all reasonable accounts, Netanyahu rebuked his hawkish cabinet and agreed to the ceasefire. Hamas also quickly accepted.
But, maybe more important a question is how we got here. How did a country and an Islamist enclave who have held from escalation for months wind up on the brink of a major conflict?
Clearly, Netanyahu did not think that it was likely, he was engaged in diplomatic niceties in France on the night of the botched mission. Hamas had nothing to gain from another war either. The Gaza Strip was in no condition to sustain another major war. Living standards have already declined rapidly and some estimates predict it would uninhabitable in just a few years.
Yet, hundreds of rockets and missiles flew over the skies of Israel and Gaza.
The political nature of war, as well as it’s unpredictable nature goes a long way to explain this.
Wars are fought by politicians to achieve political ends in absence of a viable diplomatic alternative. In this case, Hamas was put in a position where it felt it needed to save face and firing a massive barrage of rockets at Israel. At the same time, Israel’s right-wing government would have been served by projecting strength through harsh military action.
Luckily, unlike a century before both sides agreed to stop before the conflict exploded again. While politically costly in the short term, Netanyahu held out against a full-blown military operation that could have spiraled into another ground war in Gaza.
The lesson here is that not all powder kegs have to explode at every spark. But this often takes sacrifice. Netanyahu took a political blow, and the incident led his Minister of Defense to resign in protest.
The causes of warfare and the instability of peace have changed little of the past hundred years, if at all. War is unpredictable; which tinderboxes turn into raging infernos is a matter of incalculable interactions between uncountable actors. Just as with a century before, the death of a single man can put two armies or even an entire region on the brink of war. Each crisis is like a Schroedinger’s cat. You can only know when there will be war you open the metaphorical box and find yourself engaged in a war.