Like so many of you, I have been closely following the bad news that exploded from Israel this week. I was loath to react immediately to the initial events because, as always in the Middle East, the situation is far more complicated than it appears to be at first glance.
Our hearts go out to the Israelis who have died in Palestinian and Israeli-Arab attacks, to their families, and to the Jewish nation that has seen its life shockingly and frighteningly disrupted by air raid sirens, neighborhood explosions and trips to the bomb shelter. Israelis now fully expect a war in Gaza, the first since 2014, and are preparing for it. Tragically, there will be further casualties to come. And we are deeply saddened that many innocent Palestinians will die, too, led into disaster by leaders who value their lives only when Israelis take them.
I am also deeply disturbed that Israeli-Arabs are not the only ones gathering in mobs to attack Jewish neighbors, but that Jewish Israelis have also formed mobs and attacked Arab neighbors. Lynching is horribly morally wrong on either side, and it must be stopped immediately.
But what are the issues here, and why has this all happened right now? There are reasons and explanations, and I’ll look closely at the four problem areas in which serious trouble erupted, explain the background of each, examine the challenges Israel is currently facing and explore its options. First, the Temple Mount (and the Sheikh Jarrah “issue”); second, the Hamas attacks from Gaza; third, the mobs and Israeli-Arab and Jewish rioting in Lod, Akko, Bat Yam and elsewhere; and fourth, the peripheral events, such as the West Bank violence and rockets from Hezbollah in Lebanon.
1. The Temple Mount: the initial violence was, frankly, predictable. After 14 months of Covid-19 lockdowns, Israelis and Palestinians have been experiencing a return to public life eagerly. The lid that Coronavirus placed on human movement and association ironically contributed to a mandatory pacification in the area. When that lid was lifted, the seething pot underneath was bound to boil over. When you compound that situation with the Ramadan fasting month and huge crowds of Palestinian Arabs entering the El-Aqsa Mosque while hungry and primed for action, you are going to get some trouble.
I have been at the entrance to the Noble Sanctuary of the Temple Mount during Ramadan on an ordinary Friday, long before COVID-19. The tensions between the huge numbers of Arab Palestinian worshippers and Israeli police simply maintaining order—and keeping Jews, including me, from mixing into the mob scene—were obvious. A few stones were tossed even on that relatively calm day. Hungry, cranky Arab men in the immediate aftermath of Coronavirus lockdowns who feel oppressed by an Israeli government that officially doesn’t represent their needs (Jerusalem Arabs can’t vote for Knesset) are going to be particularly dangerous in a large group. Some might even storm a government building, for example, if given the opportunity to do so. These men chose to resort to throwing stones at Jews, an old habit.
Add in the Jerusalem Day festivities, which happened to fall around the same day and celebrate the Israeli capture of the Holy City in the 6-Day War, and you have a recipe for disaster, or at least nasty, violent rioting with Palestinian and Jewish casualties—mostly Palestinian when police and troops put down the riots.
As for the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood “issue”—well, that has just about nothing to do with this. The 4 year-old legal case has gone to the very liberal Israeli Supreme Court, and it involves—I kid you not—4 houses that have been contested in courts for about fifty years, based on a land purchase that goes back to the 19th century. That anyone knows the name of this neighborhood is actually astonishing, but that’s how it goes in Jerusalem. The smallest, most insignificant place, rock or tree can become a focal point for channeled aggression. This Temple Mount violence is about the overall frustration of living life as an East Jerusalem Palestinian, not about Sheikh Jarrah.
2. Hamas Aggression: There is one central point that every news story and most commentaries seem to miss about the explosions at the end of last week: there were supposed to be Palestinian elections for a representative assembly on May 22, 2021, next week. These would have been the first elections held in the West Bank since the elections of Mahmoud Abbas as President and of the entire Palestinian Legislative Council way back in January 2006, 15 years ago. There have not been any elections either for president or for the legislature since then. Palestinians were excited about these elections and looking forward to them. But on April 29th Mahmoud Abbas indefinitely postponed Palestinian elections.
There was much speculation as to why he did this, but most people believe he thought that his party’s great rival and enemy, the Islamist terrorists of Hamas, would win the election. Rather than risk losing the election for representatives in the West Bank and losing power, Abbas did what he has done before: he postponed the elections indefinitely, perhaps forever.
Israel has too many elections for Knesset, its national assembly, four in the past two years. But the Palestinians have no elections.
When trouble broke out from the Temple Mount, men and youths throwing stones at police and at everyone else, Hamas leaders saw it as the perfect time to claim the leadership role among Palestinians they have always asserted. If they can’t win elections in East Jerusalem and the West Bank at the nonexistent ballot box, they can win by proving they are able to successfully attack Israel. The Hamas plan is to cause shock and damage to Israel’s psyche, kill some innocent Israelis, have Israel’s Defense Forces create new Palestinian martyrs in the expected huge IDF response while possibly killing a few Israeli soldiers, and then have the international community step in and stop the Israelis before the punishment is intolerable.
To date, Hamas (and other Palestinian terrorist groups) has fired 1500 rockets at Israel from Gaza, some of which have reached Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. 7 Israelis have been killed, and over 200 wounded in this unprovoked violent war made on civilians. By the time you read this the numbers will be worse. It must be said that firing unaimed rockets at civilian populations is quite specifically a war crime. It must also be noted that many of the rockets Hamas is firing land on Gaza itself—they are unaimed, crude and inaccurate, and perhaps 20% of them are falling on Gaza and killing Palestinians.
Israel’s Iron Dome defensive missile system has intercepted many, but not all, of the rockets; it’s typically successful at stopping 85% of rockets it attempts to intercepts. Asymmetrical warfare is always a challenging situation. I’ve seen the rockets that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad fire. They are inexpensive, unguided tubes filled with explosives, and they cost in the hundreds of dollars at most. Each time Iron Dome fires every one of the multiple missiles used costs about $50,000. The missile batteries themselves cost about $100 million. That is, to shoot down a $100 rocket aimed at a non-military target Israel spends hundreds of thousands of dollars protecting its civilians. Hamas spends $100 trying to get Israel to kill its civilians.
There is one difference this time. The longer-range rockets being used now by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza have come from Iran and can reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They were smuggled in, possibly with the acceptance of Egypt, during the quiet periods during the pandemic. Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Be’ersheva are used to having rockets strike their region. That’s not so true in Tel Aviv, Rishon LeTzion and Jerusalem.
Israel’s military response to Hamas’ terror war has been in the news more than Hamas’ incitement, as we have come to expect. In a broad series of air strikes, plus some artillery shelling, Israel has destroyed much of Hamas’ military capability, blowing up the apartment buildings and homes that the terrorist group uses to direct attacks, both missile and drone, on Israeli civilians. Israeli strikes have killed a series of high-ranking Hamas operatives and many of their soldiers as well.
It looks like there will be a land war in Gaza again, the fifth since Hamas brutally expelled the Palestinian Authority and Fatah in 2007. There were wars of various intensity in 2008 and 2012 and 2014. Frankly, most informed observers believed that there would be another Gaza war long before this, 2021.
No one in their right mind wants war. But by the same token, no sovereign nation can allow its citizens to be attacked with rockets indiscriminately without stopping the perpetrators from committing their war crimes.
3. Mob violence – Again, this is unconscionable, and it threatens the occasionally frayed but durable tolerance that has existed between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. There is no question that Israeli Arabs, who vote and have elected representatives in Knesset—a lot more than can be said of their brothers and sisters in the Palestinian Authority, Gaza, Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere around the Middle East—are still second-class citizens in Israel. Their schools are funded at a lower level, the hospitals and roads in their areas are of lesser quality, they routinely experience discrimination of a variety of kinds, some of it quite humiliating and offensive. Still, they are generally in better economic shape than Palestinians living anywhere else and have more political, religious and personal freedom than they would have in the West Bank or Gaza or Jordan or Lebanon or Syria or Egypt or the Gulf States. That uneasy balance means that most of Israel’s one million Arab residents, the vast majority of whom consider themselves Palestinians, are not so unhappy as to engage in violence or terrorism. In fact, just before the outbreak of this latest round of violence, Israel was on the verge of forming its first government in history that would have included one of the Arab parties and its leader, Mansour Abbas. The current violence now makes that academic, I’m afraid.
There have been incidents in the past when Israeli Arabs participated in Intifada-style violence, but these have been few and far between, thank God. The violence this past week in Lod, Akko, Bat Yam and elsewhere was shocking. Arab gangs attacked Jews. Jewish gangs attacked Arabs. Autos and buildings were burned down. People were beaten and killed. Responsible religious and political leaders Muslim and Jewish, Arab and Israeli condemned the violence and urged peace and a return to cooperation. The central city of Lod, near Ben Gurion Airport, saw a synagogue burned down by an Arab mob and was basically under martial law for a while this week.
This is the most distressing aspect of the situation, and the only actually new part of all of it. The hope is that this is a temporary problem, born in part out of the post-Coronavirus reaction, but we will watch it carefully. Israel is a nation of about 7 million Jews and almost 2 million Arabs. It can ill afford the kind of fraternal violence this past week provided.
4. Finally, there are the troubling peripheral problems. A few rockets were fired towards Israel last week from Lebanon, possibly by Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy terrorist group that has troubled Israel greatly over recent years. However, the likelihood right now is that this was actually done by Palestinian factions in southern Lebanon, who are pretty powerless, not Hezbollah, which actively despises the Palestinians. The rockets missed, going into the Mediterranean, and the Lebanese government supposedly arrested the people responsible.
Of greater concern, at least currently, is the situation in the West Bank, where conditions are always on the edge of trouble. There have been scattered reports of flare-ups in the West Bank, where Fatah and the Palestinian Authority remain in control. Six Palestinians have been killed in Israeli raids and during riots there. As of now, the West Bank is fairly quiet, but we will see what transpires when Israel moves towards full war in Gaza.
The conclusion of this story is easy to see ahead, although it is not exactly a happy ending. We are likely to see another full Gaza War, with Gaza mostly destroyed again, people dying on both sides, but mostly Palestinians. Israel will “win” the military aspect of the war and stop the rockets from falling on its people. Hamas will be branded among Palestinians as the brave defender of Palestinian rights and hallucinatory dreams, and the even more violent Palestinian Islamic Jihad will drop a bit in power in Gaza.
Most of the international community will rail against Israel for defending her own people, and try to force a cease-fire as soon as possible, whether or not Hamas stops shooting off rockets. Anti-Semites right and left will accuse Israel of war crimes and attacking civilians, and vicious people may even choose to physically attack Jews around the world to compensate for their own cowardice. There will be demonstrations protesting for and against Israel.
And after it’s all over, what then? Tragically, people will be dead. The Palestinians in Gaza will be much worse off. The Israeli Arabs will have lost a good chance to advance their people’s second class citizenship. Israel will have lost some of its post-COVID complacency. For better and worse, nothing much will improve or really change.
Unless somewhere in all of this there is finally some recognition that continuing forever down this road simply means never getting off the path of permanent low-grade hostility mixed with intermittent bursts of warfare.
Hatikvah means “The Hope.” We held onto it for close to two thousand years, until we had our own country again. We must continue to hope for a better, more humane approach to emerge, and for God to help everyone see that peace is more attractive than eternal tension and hatred.
L’Shalom, for peace--may it return speedily and soon.