THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT, EXPLAINED
The Israelis and Palestinians are at it again, after a few years of a much-welcomed intermission. Like a dormant volcano woken from slumber, a bloody conflict has once again erupted in Palestine and the region has relapsed into its perennial savage internecine warfare. In a never-ending cycle of violence, the Jews and Arabs are back on the battlefield.
Jewish neighborhoods are being inundated with rocks thrown by Arab youths and Jerusalem is under siege from rockets fired by Hamas’s militants from Gaza Strip. On street corners in Israeli cities, Jewish and Arab neighbors are trading violent attacks and posting the footage of the carnage on social media. The eerily dark night sky of Gaza Strip glows from bomb fire as Israeli fighter jets dump their payload of death and destruction. And hapless refugees on the dusty streets of Palestinian slums scramble for safe refuge, shaking and quaking in fear of the invasion of Israeli armored tanks.
But why? Why have these mortal enemies resumed their fight? Why, after a 4-year lull, are the Arabs and Jews having at it again? What is it that came upon these people that make them want to pick up their weapons of warfare and engage each other in battle? Why is this happening now?
This opinion piece is an attempt to understand why and answer these questions. There is no smoke without fire. As a keen – albeit distant – observer of the events in the Middle East in general, and in Palestine in particular, it is important to me that I find the fire that gave rise to this smoke. Absent such an understanding, any opinion expressed on the current conflict, either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, will be absolutely uninformed and embarrassingly ill-informed.
Before exploring the WHY, let’s examine the WHAT. What are the catalysts, or spark, for the current conflict?
There are those who like to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of religion, and many there are whose interpretation of events in the Middle East is based solely on prophetic utterances and eschatological underpinnings. Such a narrow perspective seems to ignore the fact that prophecies are fulfilled within the context of human existence, relationships among nations, and through interactions between people.
As a result of their restricted viewpoint, some of my fellow evangelical Christians would find nothing wrong in the actions taken by the Israeli government that are patently evil, and they’d defend Israel regardless of the atrocities of their leaders. What these good folks forget are the Biblical injunctions against oppression of strangers and the command to treat foreigners with dignity, respect, and compassion (Exodus 22:21, Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34). Unlike these my Christian friends, I tend to regard the events playing out in Palestine as human interactions driven by human nature knowing that the will of God is effected through the actions of human beings.
The road that leads to the current skirmish is paved with a constellation of events. First was the case of six Palestinian families who were evicted from their homes in Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem, in order to replace them with Jewish families. The plight of the six families from their homes infuriated many Palestinians and their supporters worldwide. The eviction was perceived as another example of the oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli aggressors.
The second catalyst for the current catastrophe started about 4 weeks prior to the firing of the first salvo in the current conflict.
April 13 was the first day of Ramadan, a Muslim holy month. It also happens to be Memorial Day in Israel, a day set aside to honor Israelis who died fighting for their country. On the night of April 13, the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, was going to deliver a speech at the Western Wall, a Jewish holy site located in close proximity to the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, which is one of Muslims’ holiest places. Concerned that the call to prayers from the Mosque would drown out the President’s speech, “…a squad of Israeli police officers entered the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, brushed the Palestinian attendants aside and strode across its vast limestone courtyard. Then they cut the cables to the loudspeakers that broadcast prayers to the faithful from four medieval minarets.” (Patrick Kingsley, writing in the New York Times).
Such a provocative act felt like a slap in the face of all Palestinian Moslems. That fully armed Jewish police officers would run roughshod over Islam’s sacred ground was considered an insult to the faith and a defilement of a sacred ground. The Palestinians concluded it was another one in a long line of deliberate attempts at Judaization of Jerusalem and an effort to drive Muslims out of the holy city.
The final incident that became the last straw that broke the camel’s back happened shortly after the Aqsa Mosque saga. It was the boneheaded move by the Israeli police to barricade a plaza adjacent to the Damascus gate – which is one of the main entrances to the Old city of Jerusalem. This plaza is a popular spot where young Palestinians hang out at night during the holy month of Ramadan.
While the Israeli police characterized the closure of the gate as a security measure, the Palestinians interpreted it as yet another act of aggression by the Jews against hapless Palestinians. The resulting aftermath were protests and clashes with the police at the gate on a nightly basis.
The questions any objective and reasonably minded person would want to ask are:
How in the world would the President of Israel dispatch Israeli police into the Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s most scared place, to go and cut the loudspeaker used by the Muezzin during Ramadan, Islam’s holy month, and not think it would lead to an uprising? Why would the Israeli government want to evict six Palestinians families from their homes in a Palestinian neighborhood, hand those homes over to Jewish families, and fail to envisage the blowback? And what would make the Israeli police cordon off a popular plaza where young Palestinians hang out during Ramadan and not understand such an action would provoke angry reaction? Why would any government, interested in maintaining peace and tranquility among its citizens, take any of these provocative actions?
The clue to these questions can be found in the WHY of the current conflict. None of the incidents described above occurred by happenstance. These were premeditated acts fomented with the intention that they would ultimately lead to the violence. They were deliberately done to incite a riot and provoke an uprising between Israel and the Palestinians. These were cold and calculated schemes of bad actors.
The primary instigators are Bibi Netanyahu and the extreme-right Jewish group, Lehava on one side, and Hamas, its leader, Yahya Sinwar, and their Iranian benefactor on the other side. For selfish reasons, these warmongers fanned into flame the underlying distrust that existed between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. They exploited the fault lines of divisions that have been in existence for centuries and they ripped the band-aid off generational wounds. They did it because they never wanted peace between Arabs and Jews.
Before the current Israeli-Arab imbroglio, the nation of Israel was on the cusps of achieving a monumental feat. The political stars were aligned, and everything was in place, towards a landmark achievement of a guaranteed longstanding peace deal between Jews and Arabs for the first time in generations.
This was how Thomas L. Friedman described it in a New York Times column:
“An unprecedented national unity coalition was taking shape in Israel – under the leadership of the secular-centrist Yair Lapid and the religious-rightist Naftali Bennett. They were on the verge of forging a cabinet that would include both Israeli Jews and, for the first time ever, an Israeli Arab Islamist party.”
While this was happening, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu was reeling and Bibi, embroiled in multiple scandals and buried in litigations, was fighting for his political survival.
On the personal front, Benjamin Netanyahu was on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges. The long and protracted high-profile case has consumed the whole of Israel and has spilled over to weaken Netanyahu politically. For months after the most recent election, Bibi could not form a government.
According to Patrick Kingsley of the New York Times:
“Mr. Netanyahu was in the middle of coalition negotiations after an election in March – the fourth in two years – that ended without a clear winner. To form a coalition, he needed to persuade several extreme-right lawmakers to join him. One was Itamar Ben Gvir, a former lawyer for Lehava who advocates expelling Arab citizens whom he considers disloyal to Israel, and who until recently hung a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish extremist who massacred 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994, in his living room.”
A successful coalition between secular-centrist Yair Lapid, religious-rightist Naftali Bennet, and United Arab List, also known as Raam, headed by Mansour Abbas would have dealt a death blow to the political ambitions of Benjamin Netanyahu. If these 3 ideologically diverse groups could have succeeded in negotiating an agreement, it would have brought an end to Netanyahu politically. A unity government constituted by these strange bedfellows in Israel was going to be the final nail on Bibi’s political coffin.
Then all of a sudden, a conflict between Arabs and Jews broke out on the eve of putting pen to paper to consummate the epoch-making national unity coalition. Just at the moment a deal of a lifetime that would have brought long-lasting peace to Israel was about to be struck – an agreement that would have ended the political career of Benjamin Netanyahu – there was an eruption of renewed murderous violence all across Israel and Palestine. As a result of the violence, consummation of the coalition was terminated, and the peace deal died a premature death.
The timing couldn’t have been more convenient. You don’t need to be a political genius to put two and two together. It’ll take a suspension of disbelief not to make a connection between the formation of national unity coalition, Bibi’s political peril, the current breakdown of law and order in Israel, and the resulting termination of the unity coalition.
While it is true that Benjamin Netanyahu is a master manipulator, and he’s an expert at deflecting responsibilities and distracting from his own moral failures, Netanyahu is not the sole bad actor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition to Bibi’s political machinations, we also have Hamas – who have a lot to lose if the peace deal had been successful – poisoning the well of goodwill in the region as well.
In Palestine, there is an ascendency of a cadre of restless youth. This new generation of Palestinians are disillusioned and dissatisfied with the status quo. With a keen sense of national pride and a desire for national autonomy, these young Palestinians are exasperated with the hopelessness and misery that exist in the ghettos of Gaza and West Bank. These young Palestinians consider the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas as toothless incompetent and they think Hamas militants, led by Yahya Sinwar, are senseless rabid dogs. So, they have neither faith in the ruling Palestinian government nor trust in the trigger-happy-ready-to-chop-off-the-head-of-infidels Hamas.
Over the years, the influence and prestige that Hamas used to enjoy among the Palestinians have waned significantly and the stranglehold these terrorists had on the people of Palestine had been greatly weakened. Having lost their dominance, Hamas continue to explore opportunities to regain leverage, and they exploit the slightest clash between Israeli authorities and the Palestinians to try and reassert and reposition themselves among the people. In order to gin up the Palestinians and get them all wound up for confrontation, Hamas is quick to make a mountain out of any tiny molehill and they persistently fan into flame any perceived slight by the Israeli government.
With the national government coalition taking shape in Israel and the likelihood of an alliance that would have diminished their influence further, Hamas set out to abort the embryonic coalition in-utero. Using as a pretext the incidents at the Aqsa Mosque, the locking of the Damascus gate, and the eviction of the six Palestinians families from their homes, Hamas reignited the conflict with Israel and they started firing rockets from Gaza Strip into Israeli neighborhoods.
While Benjamin Netanyahu and Yahya Sinwar may not be engaged in regular conclaves, periodic hobnobbing, or frequent Zoom calls, they are two sides of the same saber-rattling coin. On the surface they seem like archenemies, but they both share one thing in common, and that is the perpetuation of war between Arabs and Jews. They both profit in chaos. As long as Jews and Palestinians are fighting, they thrive and survive politically and can keep their hold on power. In a symbiotic relationship, Bibi Netanyahu and Yahya Sinwar benefit from each other’s intractable desire for war between Arabs and Jews. The two have signed on to a pact of mutually assured destruction.
As Patrick Kingsley described it:
“Netanyahu didn’t invent the tensions between Jews and Arabs,” said Anshel Pfeffer, a political commentator and biographer of the prime minister. “They’ve been here since before Israel was founded. But over his long years in power, he’s stoked and exploited these tensions for political gain time and again and has now miserably failed as a leader to put out the fires when it boiled over.”
For Hamas leader, Yahya Sinwar, a resumed conflict with the Jews is a win-win situation for his group of terrorist clowns. By firing rockets into Israel, he believes Hamas will be seen by his fellow Palestinians as their liberator and protector and thus upstage the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
Thomas L. Friedman alluded to this symbiotic relation between Netanyahu and Hamas in a New York Times opinion piece:
“For the last 12 years Bibi has had one mission – to keep Hamas and the Palestinian Authority weak and divided so that he could come to the U.S. Congress every year and say, “Oh, gosh, I’d love to make peace, but we have no partner on the other side. The Palestinians are weak and divided.”
“And for 12 years Hamas has had one mission: to keep Netanyahu in power so Hamas and its backers in Iran could tell their naïve supporters in Europe, on liberal college campuses, in the media and in the Democratic Party that the problem is not Hamas – an Islamo-fascist organization without a shred of democratic fiber that is dedicated to destroying the Jewish state and imposing a Tehran-like Islamic regime in Palestine – but rather that terrible pro-settler Netanyahu government in Israel.”
For peace to reign in Israel and Palestine, Benjamin Netanyahu must be rendered politically impotent, and the influence of Hamas must be completely neutered. Until these belligerents are isolated and sidelined, violence will never cease in Israel and carnage will never abate in Palestine.