Holy days in the holy land marred by violence
It is most disheartening that on the occasion of three holy festivals of the three monotheistic religions overlapping, as they do this year, instead of this being a catalyst for advancing interfaith dialogue and together searching for peace in the holy land, it becomes a source of tension and violence. What should have been a time of reflection on how religion could become a vehicle for breaking the impasse in bringing peace to this more than century-long conflict, it has instead become a driver for the same old negative dynamic whereby those who harbor the most extreme views and who see the worst in each other are imposing their outlook on everyone else. Only a year ago similar developments led to a prolonged episode of bloodshed across the holy land.
This year the holy days of Ramadan, Passover and Easter are all being celebrated at the same time, and in the weeks leading up to these religious festivals, terror has returned to the streets of Israel, not seen in this severity or frequency since 2015. In four separate incidents, that varied in the background of the attackers and the methods used, 14 Israelis and 5 Palestinian militants were killed. Moreover, last Friday some worshippers in the Al-Aqsa Mosque clashed with Israeli security forces, following a deliberate provocation by a group of Jewish extremists who encouraged activists to come to the Temple Mount to offer the ancient ritual of Passover sacrifice, knowing that any such attempt to change the status quo could only provoke Muslim worshippers. These events left many wondering if Israelis and Palestinians are on the verge of a confrontation that might see a repeat of last year’s hostilities.
Looking closely at the violent events of the past few weeks might leave any observer perplexed by trying to discover what links the Palestinian assailants who killed random Israelis, including Palestinians living in Israel, in these separate attacks. One killer was a Bedouin from the Negev, in the south of the country; in another attack two gunmen came from the northern Israeli city of Umm Al-Fahm, and in the two other incidents, the militants came from the Jenin area in the occupied West Bank. Some of the terrorists claimed allegiance to Daesh, while other were associated with Hamas and Fatah. Despite this diversity of backgrounds, they all point to the deteriorating relations between Israel and the Palestinians, both inside Israel proper and the Occupied Territories, relations show little prospect of improvement while both Israeli and Palestinian political systems remain weak and fragmented and the international community has lost interest.
When one writes about terrorist attacks, there is usually an expected disclaimer condemning the murder of innocent people, before engaging in examining the attackers’ allegiances and objectives. It goes without saying that randomly shooting and stabbing people in streets or bars on behalf of some misguided ideology, distorted version of religion, out of a delusion that it could lead to political change in favor of those on whose behalf they claim to act, or out of despair or an urge to avenge wrongdoings, can never be condoned. Although the recent acts of violence were not carried out by suicide bombers, there was little doubt that none of the perpetrators believed that they could emerge alive after committing these killings, which indicates desperation. However, condemning and rejecting their acts is one thing; understanding their root causes and the conditions that breed militancy is another.
The Israeli government, the security establishment and the general public among the Jewish majority in the country are constantly deluding themselves that they are playing no part in the despair and hopelessness among so many Palestinians that drives some of them into the hands of radical and militant Islamists and causes a tiny minority of them to turn to violence. In a recent opinion poll among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, despite nearly half of the respondents still supporting a two-state solution, it is worrying that due to the complete deadlock in any engagement toward this solution, there is also an increase in support for a return to armed struggle to advance their national aspirations.
What is seen as the status quo in Israeli-Palestinian relations is anything but. As a matter of fact, we are seeing a constant erosion of the political status and well-being of most Palestinians who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. They not only see their hope of one day living in an independent Palestine fast disappearing, but also their human, political and civil rights being relentlessly curtailed.
Yes, terrorism is wrong, but this should also hold when it comes to the lives of Palestinians who are killed by Israeli security forces.
At the same time that Israel’s economy is booming, most Palestinian citizens of Israel are being left behind, and those who live in the West Bank are experiencing worsening living conditions, unless they are Jewish settlers. The discriminatory legislation passed against Israeli Palestinians in recent years that has made them second-class citizens is outrageous in a democracy, and is a contradiction of the country’s ethos.
On the other side of the Green Line, the expansion of the settlements, and the benefits that settlers enjoy, not to mention the violence that some of them inflict on Palestinians, is bound to create profound resentment and outrage. Above all, the very occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza is a form of daily and cruel violence, with some even uglier manifestations by certain elements in the security forces that are carried out against innocent Palestinians with complete impunity.
Inside Israel, including in Umm Al-Fahm and the Bedouin communities, the neglect of Palestinians living in Israel by successive governments ever since the country’s inception has been appalling. Public services are much inferior to those that Jewish communities enjoy. For years it was no secret that criminal elements in the Israeli-Palestinian community were amassing firearms and ammunition, but the police have done almost nothing to stop the rising number of killings, as long as these weapons were turned against others within the Arab communities. This attitude only changed when in last year’s riots, they were also used against Jews.
Yes, terrorism is wrong, as is any killing of innocent people, but this should also hold when it comes to the lives of Palestinians who are killed carelessly by Israeli security forces and by settlers. Without readiness to negotiate de-escalation between Israel and the Palestinians, including halting the expansion of settlements and improving the lives of Palestinians, the scars of violent confrontation will inevitably mark the political landscape.
- 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