Rockets, bullets and rocks are flying around Israel and the Palestinian territories with catastrophic intensity in the latest wave of violence that periodically marks the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Only this time, new elements have been thrown into the tragic mix. On one side, Israel is using drones to bombard Palestinian buildings in Gaza. On the other, Gaza is the source of scores of rockets whose range has put key Israeli cities in danger.
Another new element: communal violence has broken out within Israel between Arab citizens and Jews. Fires were lit, a synagogue burned, a Muslim cemetery trashed, police cars set aflame and an Arab-Israeli man killed. The mayor of Lod called it a “civil war.”
At least 36 Palestinians have died under an array of aerial bombardments of the Gaza Strip. Five Israelis were killed by Gaza in a barrage of more than 1,000 rockets fired into Israel that landed in several cities, including the coastal metropolis of Tel Aviv.
The ferocity of the fast-escalating conflict might be a surprise, but perhaps not its context. Two conditions that have triggered hostilities over the past twenty years have recently re-emerged.
One condition is the lack of any meaningful efforts to reach a peace deal. During most of that period, the Israelis tightened control of the West Bank, built settlements and isolated the West Bank and Gaza with walls to separate Israel proper and settlements from the Palestinian territories. Palestinians are frustrated.
The other is the centrality of Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa mosque, subject of a police raid last week that guaranteed intense violence.
Whether the current violence will continue depends on several unknown factors. A week ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed close to losing power, after the climax of four inconclusive elections. The outbreak of hostilities has allowed him the opportunity to make his latest appearance as tough guy and ended coalition talks by rival politicians.
It is uncertain how long Netanyahu’s belligerent glow will last if several Israeli civilians die and he leads Israel into an inconclusive struggle. In addition, Israel had made strides in breaking out of isolation in the Arab world.
With ex-president Donald Trump’s help, Israel has obtained diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. The appearance of what some will see as heroic Palestinian efforts defending Jerusalem and al-Aqsa could erase those gains.
The aging and chronically passive Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), is on the sidelines. He may not have a mandate to lead; he recently canceled elections that may have clarified Palestinian desires. It’s far from clear what role he could play to pacify Palestinians.
Belligerent Palestinian leadership has shifted to the Islamic Resistance Movement, the PLO rival known by its Arabic acronym Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip. In a Tuesday night speech, Hamas political chief Ismael Haniya threatened escalation if Israel bombarded Gaza residential buildings. After a tall apartment tower was hit and collapsed, his militias sent a barrage of rockets that slammed Tel Aviv and the towns of Ashkelon, Lod and Sderot.
For Palestinians, this is a reversal of wartime roles.
Twenty years ago, when a similar confrontation broke out, the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat called “on all Palestinians to defend the al-Aqsa mosque.” On Tuesday, Haniya proclaimed that “Gaza cannot remain passive, and…we sent a message to the Israeli occupation that it should stop messing with Jerusalem.”
In the 2000 war, Arafat launched terrorist attacks that featured suicide and car bombs targeting Israeli civilians. Hamas, which also used terror attacks, lacks those terrorist tools now. But the extended range of its rockets has Israelis scurrying for cover and forced the closure of the country’s international airport.
Among Hamas’ weaknesses is its dependence on outside Arab countries—Qatar which provides aid and Egypt which can open and close Gaza’s border to travelers at will (Israelis control the passage of goods through a checkpoint in Israel). Each may press Hamas to stop fighting.
Another wild card is the United States, traditionally the broker of peace talks. Both presidents George Bush and Barack Obama were largely passive in the face of Israeli expansion and Palestinian frustration.
Donald Trump favored Netanyahu, dramatically moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and offered the Palestinians economic help but only restrictive steps toward the formation of a Palestinian state.
So far, the new Joseph Biden administration has limited itself to platitudes about Israel’s right to defend itself while calling for de-escalation. US-backed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have only sporadically taken place since 2000, when president Bill Clinton held inconclusive talks in the US.
The other sure trigger for violence is confrontation at the al-Aqsa mosque.
The mosque sits within a complex called the Noble Sanctuary that includes the Dome of the Rock, where Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. Jews call it the Temple Mount, the site of a grand temple placed where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son as proof of his faith. The Temple was destroyed by Roman legions in 70 AD.
Now, the compound has come to symbolize Palestinian nationalism while Israeli religious nationalists regard its possession by the Muslims as an affront to Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land.
The Noble Sanctuary has been a flashpoint of competing nationalisms since the 1920s. In the 20’s, Palestinians, fearing Jewish immigration under rule by the British, engaged in pogroms against worshippers at the Western Wall.
A seemingly routine placement of a cloth divider separating men and women at the Western Wall set off protests in 1928. A year later, Arabs launched pogroms against Jews not only in Jerusalem but other communities, including Hebron and Safed, where they drove Jewish inhabitants out of the towns.
In the 1930s, al-Aqsa headquartered an Arab revolt against British rule. Some Zionist leaders began to treat the Temple Mount as a nationalist symbol.
Following the 1967 Six Day War, Israel took control of the West Bank from Jordan, including Jerusalem, where the al-al-Aqsa stands. In 1990, when Israeli ultra-nationalists expressed plans to march on the Temple Mount, Palestinians rioted and weeks of isolated knife attacks on Israelis ensued.
In 2000, future Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the al-Aqsa compound. Palestinian riots gave way to a prolonged battle that included Palestinian suicide and car bombings. Sharon eventually sent tanks and infantry to put down the revolt in West Bank cities.
The passions of warfare—and the need for someone to declare victory—point to a prolonged crisis. After it ends, will the political battle be resolved? The solution mostly on offer is the creation of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
Over decades, after each violent confrontation receded, the world routinely grew accustomed to a fake peace. Letting fundamental issues languish again is a likely outcome. Peace moves languish, but preparations for war progress apace.