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The latest chapter in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict seems to be following a depressingly familiar script. The nightly news is filled with pictures of Israelis fleeing to shelters to escape the thousands of rockets fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, Palestinians endure the full weight of Israeli airstrikes and artillery barrages in a cycle of escalation where both sides have little to gain, and much to lose.
The spark was the impending publication of verdicts on the legal status of several Palestinian families living in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, an area that religious Israeli settlers have coveted for years. Disputes over Sheikh Jarrah have triggered protests and flashes of localised violence in East Jerusalem since the mid-2000s, but the tensions have never led to mass civil unrest and conflict before.
There are many reasons as to why the situation has spiralled rapidly out of control. Political stagnation and governmental dysfunction in both Israel and the Palestinian territories have been a source of growing frustration for all sides, meaning that important questions about solving the conflict have largely been ignored in favour of internal politicking.
This along with the severity of the coronavirus pandemic has meant that fewer people have been paying attention – both internally and externally – and therefore the tell-tale signs that tensions were rising have gone unnoticed. It has also not helped that tensions began during the holy month of Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr holiday period, which have emphasised the importance of the holy places perhaps more than is usual.
All of these factors have combined to produce a toxic mix which has led to Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces exchanging fire. More worryingly, it has been the cause of mass outbreaks of violence across towns and cities in Israel, as gangs of Arabs and Jews attack each other with clubs, knives and even automatic weapons. The surfacing of multiple videos showing civilians being pulled out of cars or randomly set upon by mobs has shocked the wider Israeli body politic.
Deep Wounds, Deeper Questions
The indiscriminate targeting of civilians inside Israel by Hamas rockets has fuelled a sense of defiance and indignation among Jewish Israelis, who largely support their government’s forceful response against Hamas. But the usual emotional response mechanism which allows Israelis to cope with living in a country under fire has failed to help many process the scenes of civil disorder and internal strife. Moreover, it is especially painful that many of the perpetrators have not been Palestinians, but Jews.
In a bid to restore calm, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu uploaded a video promising firm action against rioters, stating ‘this is anarchy… this is not who we are’. That may be so, but serious questions need to be asked about the health of Israeli civil society after this latest round of violence. In the endless cycle of elections that Israel has experienced in the past three years, a number of senior politicians have tried to one-up each other with nationalist bombast and dismissive statements about Israel’s Arab minority. Israel’s continued political instability was always going to cost the country at some point, and it appears that cost is finally beginning to be felt.
Quite how the country can patch up its differences is unclear, but it has been heartening to see Israelis of all stripes engaging in public displays of reconciliation, and holding vigils to promote coexistence in the face of provocations from more extreme factions. Israel’s population will hopefully move on from what has been a shocking moment, but the scars will be long-lasting.
The Fight for the Palestinians’ Allegiance
And what of the Palestinians? At the time of writing it is hard to know how the cycle of violence in Gaza will pan out. The Israel Defense Forces have feigned troop deployments into Gaza, but have so far held back from launching a major ground assault, preferring to target the Strip from the air and with artillery barrages. Every hour that passes, casualties rise and the possibility of a ceasefire appears to diminish. This is despite intense diplomatic efforts from Egypt, Qatar and a number of Western countries. Whether the conflict escalates or a ceasefire is agreed, either way, Hamas will try to paint itself as the victor. In truth, simply surviving as a political entity in the face of a far stronger opponent can be considered by Hamas to be a victory.
But Israel aside, neither Hamas nor the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank have full control over the situation any longer. The rioting and violence inside Israel might initially have worked to Hamas’s benefit, but they portend wider shifts within the Palestinian population. It has been common in recent times to hear talk of Palestinian factionalism: that Gazans struggle to identify with Palestinians in the West Bank, who in turn understand little of the lives of their cousins living in Israeli cites like Haifa and Nazareth.
While the Israelis have had far too many elections, the Palestinians have had far too few, and in place of this stagnation, young Palestinians have shown that their ability to organise outside of traditional political lines is growing. There seems to be a renewed sense of solidarity among the disparate parts of the Palestinian population living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, and the escalation that started in Sheikh Jarrah has revealed that younger Palestinians do not need Hamas or Fatah in order to express themselves as Palestinians and engage in acts of ‘resistance’.
And so, while the scenes may be familiar, there is no doubt that this current round of escalation is providing evidence of a socio-political shift, both inside Israel and among the Palestinians.
Doubtless, both Israelis and Palestinians want to see a resolution to the political quagmire that both sides find themselves in, and once the violence has eventually calmed, this might be the moment in which the failed politics of both peoples begins to change.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Israel's Iron Dome defence system was used to intercept rockets launched from Gaza. Pictured is the view of the night sky from the Israeli city of Ashkelon, 10 May 2021. Courtesy of Reuters/Amir Cohen/Alamy