A flare-up that has been simmering for decades
Dissect each and every action by both sides that have led to the current flare-up of hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians, and you will find a known and tragic pattern of behavior. However, this is one of the rare occasions when a series of triggers took place almost simultaneously, impacting each other and igniting an already explosive situation that has been simmering beneath the surface for decades.
At the root of the fast-deteriorating situation in both Jerusalem and Gaza lies the impasse in the peace process and the illusionary status quo, which is affected by, but is also affecting, the instability of the three political systems engaged in this conflict — the Israelis, the Palestinian Authority in charge of the West Bank, and the Hamas government in Gaza. In the absence of properly functioning political systems, in addition to leaderships that are suffering from various degrees of legitimacy deficit, the situation is on the verge of imploding at any moment.
There is a tendency when violence breaks out between Israel and the Palestinians to concentrate on the events that sparked them, and when the situation calms down to ignore the persistent underlying conditions that made it likely to spiral out of control. What has happened over the past month has dismantled the myth of stability in relations between Israel and the Palestinians. This myth has been extremely useful for Israel, but it is a dangerous one that has led to the misperception that entrenchment of the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the harsh blockade of Gaza, and lowering the status of Palestinian-Israelis to that of second class citizens, are all cost-free and can be maintained in perpetuity.
Tragically, it is the Gazan people, who at the best of times are trapped between a cruel Israeli blockade and an oppressive Hamas government, who must now endure a massive bombardment that has sown death and destruction and left little hope that the situation will ever improve.
A combination of arbitrary policies and measures by the Israeli authorities and the judicial system have turned a volatile situation into a fireball engulfing all points of friction between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land. The chain of violent events that started in Jerusalem has escalated and spread to Gaza and to elsewhere in Israel, reaching an intensity not seen since 2014, but one that underlines the magnitude of the challenge to bring peace and calm to this part of the world.
Attention has turned in the past few days to the war between Israel and Hamas, but it is incomprehensible that Israeli decision makers and security forces should fail to understand that if anything could give Hamas the ammunition to initiate a new round of violence, it would be tensions and clashes in Jerusalem, and especially police and soldiers entering the Al-Aqsa compound. If there is any issue that unites all Palestinians and evokes strong emotions, it is Jerusalem. And when this Pandora’s box is opened, all other divisive and contentious issues between Jews and Arabs are bound to surface in their full ferocity. Evidently Hamas was looking for an opportunity to assert itself in relation to both Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, even if this meant inflicting calamity on the Gazan people. Nevertheless, in doing so it exposed the complete perceptual, intelligence and operational failures of Israeli strategists. It has managed to create within a matter of days a new equation linking the Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza fronts which, for Israel, is an intolerable scenario. It explains, although far from justifies, Israel’s massive and disproportionate retaliation, especially when another front of violent clashes between Jews and Arabs inside Israel is added to the equation.
Hamas is not going to win the military battle, and neither is Israel, but the former can be said to have won the psychological one. Israel has underestimated both the capabilities and the intentions of this militant Islamist group. For Hamas, together with Islamic Jihad, to be handed the opportunity to be seen as the defenders of Jerusalem, and to be the last ones left to continue the armed struggle against Israel in defiance of its far superior military force, is more than they could ever have wished for. Tragically, it is the Gazan people, who at the best of times are trapped between a cruel Israeli blockade and an oppressive Hamas government, who must now endure a massive bombardment that has sown death and destruction and left little hope that the situation will ever improve. On the Israeli side, the rocket attacks it has suffered might harden its position and even strengthen the political right, both in the current negotiations to form a coalition and in a general election that may take place soon should those talks fail.
At this point, while Israel continues to pound Gaza and mass its troops on the border, and hundreds of rockets are still being fired at Israel, a ceasefire is desperately needed. But thus far the international community has failed to assert its influence to bring a halt to the hostilities. It is mind boggling that the UN Security Council could not reach a common resolution which would send a message to all concerned, and in no uncertain terms, that the violence must end, and end immediately. No side has a genuine interest in prolonging this endless cycle of death and destruction, but the two sides need external assistance to stop it. As in the past, it may fall to a regional power to broker a ceasefire. Egypt, with the active support of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, has managed to do this in the past, and there is no reason to believe it cannot do it again. Most importantly, when this happens is the time for immediate steps to be taken on all the issues of contention, to prevent any further hostilities.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg